Massacre in Shankarbigha

Print edition : February 13, 1999

The Republic Day-eve massacre of 23 Dalits by the Ranbir Sena has further intensified the strife between upper-caste landlords and naxalites in central Bihar and strengthened the political mobilisation against the Rabri Devi Government.

TWENTY-THREE residents of Shankarbigha village in Bihar's Jehanabad district, all from families of landless agricultural workers belonging to the backward communities of Paswan, Chamar, Dushads and Rajwar, were murdered in cold blood on January 25. The killers were members of the outlawed Ranbir Sena, a private army of upper-caste Bhumihar landlords. Five women and seven children, including a 10-month-old, were among those killed.

The incident is but part of a series of massacres that mark the recent history of the central Bihar districts. Killings have occurred with frightful regularity - in Arwal and Kansara in 1986, Golakpur (1987), Malibigha (1988), Lakhawar (1990), Sawanbigha (1992), Aiara (1994), Khadasin (1997), Lakshmanpur-Bathe (1997) and Chouram and Rampur (1998).

Shankarbigha is located near Lakshmanpur-Bathe where the Ranbir Sena killed 61 agricultural workers belonging to backward communities in December 1997. To the east of Shankarbigha is Dhobibigha, a village dominated by upper-caste Bhumihars. To its north is Chouram, another Bhumihar village, where a landlord was killed by naxalites in retaliation for the Lakshmanpur-Bathe massacre. Consi-dering the intense caste and class struggles that go on in central Bihar, Shankarbigha's 68 households were clearly vulnerable. It was more so after the Ranbir Sena's self-styled chief, Brahmeshwar Singh, told a local Hindi daily that his army had planned a genocide much larger in scale than the one it carried out in Lakshmanpur-Bathe, to avenge the killing of seven persons belonging to an upper caste by naxalites at Rampur in November 1998. He stated that the site of the massacre had been chosen and the targets identified. Preparations for the operation were under way, he said.

On the eve of Republic Day, about 100 Ranbir Sena activists carrying firearms descended on Shankarbigha, 126 km from Patna, around 10-30 p.m. They broke into huts and opened fire on people who were asleep. The objectives of the killers were, first, to terrorise the residents, who were getting attracted to the ideology of two prominent naxalite groups - the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Party Unity - and, second, to seek to establish the supremacy of landlords.

According to reports, the killers entered Shankarbigha, which is not accessible by road, by crossing a canal branching off from the Sone river. Ramnath, whose sister and her three children were killed, said: "The toll would have been higher had people from neighbouring villages such as Dhebai, Rupsagarbigha and Karamchebigha not opened fire. Before fleeing the village, the killers shouted 'Ranbir Baba ki jai' (Long live Ranbir Baba) and 'Ranbir Sena jinda rahenge' (Ranbir Sena will remain alive)." Brahmeshwar Singh had declared in the wake of the Rampur killings: "Hum saat ka badla shatak se lenge" (we will avenge the murder of seven of our men by killing 100 people).

Eyewitnesses said the assailants came from the villages of Dhobibigha and Shahbajpur and escaped towards Dhobibigha. They took just 20 minutes for the operation. The survivors were too numb to react. Six-year-old Tarania said she crept under bundles of hay with her one-year-old brother while her mother was shot in the chest. Sonadhari lost her only son and a daughter. The six-member family of Mohali Paswan was wiped out. Jagmohan Sah, his wife and one of their two sons were killed. Bindheswar is among the 14 persons who were seriously injured and are being treated at the Patna Medical College Hospital. He scaled a mud wall and hid himself in a mustard field.

Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi and Laloo Prasad Yadav at the site of the carnage in Shankarbigha village on January 26.-RANJEET KUMAR

At the break of dawn, people from nearby villages made a beeline for Shankarbigha. The bodies were strewn around, and the villagers did not allow the police to remove them until Chief Minister Rabri Devi visited the village. "Give us guns, not compensation. We do not want your money. We want to fight with those who have been killing us and moving around freely," Ramwatia Devi told Rabri Devi when she visited the village along with her husband and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad Yadav the following day.

Rabri Devi promised to bring the guilty to book. But the villagers pointed out that the perpetrators of the Lakshmanpur-Bathe carnage were yet to be arrested. The Chief Minister announced a compensation of Rs.1.4 lakhs, free rations for six months, a government job and pucca houses for the victims' kin. She also announced that a special court would be set up to try the accused: 24 of them have been identified and six arrested from Dhobibigha village. The administration imposed a collective fine on Dhobibigha village.

Describing the attack as a mindless massacre, police officials of Magadh range said that they had no information about Shankarbigha's residents having links with naxalite groups. Some of them might be supporters of the CPI(M-L) Liberation and the CPI(M-L) Party Unity, but they are poor landless people earning their livelihood by toiling in the fields of the Bhumihars. There were no reports of any land dispute either. Ramjatan Sharma, secretary of the Bihar unit of the CPI(M-L), which claims a marginal following in the village, said: "The villagers are not actively involved in naxalite politics, and we are not leading a movement at Shankarbigha."

THE killings at Shankarbigha and Lakshmanpur-Bathe have focussed attention on the Ranbir Sena and Brahmeshwar Singh. The Ranbir Sena was formed in August 1994 by the landlords of Bhojpur district with the objective of wiping out the naxalite movement in the State by killing their supporters and sympathisers. No important member of the Sena has been arrested till date. Brahmeshwar Singh - a farmer who owns 97 bighas of land - was arrested on two occasions earlier but was released.

Brahmeshwar Singh, a graduate from the Jain College in Arra, along with Dharicharan Chowdhury, a prosperous landlord of Belaur village in Bhojpur district, organised the Ranbir Sena and started the mass killing of Dalits and the landless in order to terrorise them into staying away from naxalites. The Ranbir Sena has 300 well-trained Bhumihar youths as its members and has sophisticated arms in its possession. The Sena has insured the lives of its activists and provides them monthly allowances and other benefits. It depends on the Bhumihar community for financial support. That political patronage, cutting across party and caste lines, is available to the Sena is evident from the fact that despite an official ban no major crackdown has been launched against it.

The situation in central Bihar has become grim with the outlawed naxalite group, the CPI(M-L) People's War, retaliating against the Shankarbigha killings. The People's War is a new, ultra-Left outfit formed with the merger of the People's War Group of Andhra Pradesh and the CPI(M-L) Party Unity of Bihar. An eye for an eye being the guiding principle of politics in Bihar, the CPI(M-L) PW killed two suspected associates of the Ranbir Sena - Bageswar Sharma, a leader of the Jehanabad district unit of the Communist Party of India, and his son Lalan - at Usri Kharia village on January 27, barely 8 km from Shankarbigha.

The retaliatory action is likely to worsen the Ranbir Sena-naxalite strife. Issuing a press statement over telephone, Ranbir Sena's spokesman Shamsher Bahadur Singh claimed responsibility for the Shankarbigha massacre and said that it was a warning to the naxalites. He said that blood would continue to flow unless naxalites restrained themselves.

The CPI(M-L) PW has, meanwhile, come out with a hit list; it has vowed to eliminate the Ranbir Sena and its chief. It said that it had chosen 119 Ranbir Sena targets, which included 35 hideouts and 32 villages. "We will impose capital punishment on the killers and their sympathisers in a ruthless manner," the State secretary of the CPI(M-L) PW, who calls himself Shravana, told journalists.

A child who survived the massacre, amid some bodies.-RANJEET KUMAR

Shravana said his party would continue a sustained campaign against the Sena. As part of this, the CPI(M-L) PW has urged agricultural workers to widen and deepen their economic blockade against rich landlords. Land disputes are at the core of the strife between the Ranbir Sena and the naxalites. "We are going to take drastic steps. We will deliver death to people who carried out the massacres," he said.

THE Shankarbigha massacre drew a chorus of condemnation from various quarters. President K.R. Narayanan virtually ticked off the Bihar Government for laxity and called for "stringent and urgent action" against persons responsible for the slaughter. "Law-enforcing agencies have a responsibility, by timely and decisive intervention, to prevent recurrence of such acts and obvious reprisal action," President Narayanan said in a statement.

On January 30, the Janata Dal and the Left parties, including the CPI(M-L) Liberation, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI observed a bandh in Bihar.

Using the Shankarbigha massacre as another piece of evidence of lawlessness in Bihar, Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari has presented to Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, a fresh case for the dismissal of the Rabri Devi Government. Nearly five months ago Bhandari had made out a case for dismissing the State Government on the grounds of constitutional breakdown in the State, but the President returned for reconsideration a recommendation to this effect by the Union Cabinet.

The massacre has made the detractors of Laloo Prasad renew their demand for President's Rule in Bihar. The Bharatiya Janata Party-Samata Party alliance, which has consistently demanded the imposition of President's Rule, has been joined by the Janata Dal's sole Member of Parliament from Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan. A Janata Dal delegation met the President and submitted a memorandum seeking the dismissal of the RJD Government.

However, the BJP's efforts to gain political mileage from the carnage and put the Rabri Devi Government on the mat have been undermined by the intense power struggle in the party's State unit. While the pro-Mandal and pro-Other Backward Classes (OBC) sections in the Bihar BJP, led by Sushil Modi, Sarju Rai and Nand Kishore Yadav, are believed to be keen to use the Shankarbigha killings to win over the OBCs, the Central leader in charge of the State BJP, Kailashpati Mishra, does not want to antagonise Bhumihars and Thakurs. Besides, the Bihar BJP is a weaker force incapable of planning an effective campaign against the RJD Government. The party suffers from groupism and rivalry following the recent expulsion of three of its leaders - Tarakant Jha, former State president, Yashodanand Singh, former State vice-president, and Kameshwar Paswan, former MP.

THE Left parties' fresh campaign against the growing lawlessness in Bihar under Rabri Devi seems to be an uncomfortable development for Laloo Prasad as it stands in the way of his efforts to make an entry into the proposed Third Front. The CPI and the CPI(M) are not inclined to share a platform with the RJD chief against whom the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is preparing fresh charge-sheets in the fodder scam cases. Laloo Prasad's joy on being released on interim bail on January 8 appears to be short-lived as the CBI has completed the field work for filing charge-sheets in at least three cases - RC-5A/98, RC-42A/96 and RC-38A/96. The first case deals with possession of assets disproportionate to his known sources of income and the second and third pertain to the conspiracy aspect of the Rs.950-crore fodder scam.

A police picket at the village.-DEEPAK KUMAR

Laloo Prasad may be remanded to judicial custody again once the CBI charge-sheets him in RC-5A/98 and the designated court takes cognizance of it. Laloo Prasad has secured bail in RC-20A/96 and RC-64A/96. U.N. Biswas, Joint Director of the CBI, has submitted a progress report on the investigations into the various cases to the Patna High Court Bench which monitors the case.

The RJD chief, who is lying low for now, is not politically comfortable. He has virtually lost an ally: the Congress(I) is on the verge of withdrawing support to the Rabri Devi Government.

Assembly elections in Bihar are due by March 2000. With several fodder scam cases pending against him, Laloo Prasad is not too sure if he would be able to campaign for his party then.

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