Print edition : June 29, 2012

The Patna High Court acquits all the 23 Ranvir Sena raiders of the Bhojpur village for want of evidence.

in Bathani Tola and Patna

Kishun Choudhary and Nayeemuddin (left) survived the carnage in July 1996.-RANJEET KUMAR

Bathani Tola and Barki Kharaon are separated only by 100 metres of land but are distanced from each other by a thousand years of conflict. The two villages in Bhojpur district of Bihar are remembered for one of the most brutal feudal-communal massacres in India's contemporary history. On July 11, 1996, the Ranvir Sena, the dreaded private army of upper-caste Bhumihar and Rajput landlords, marched from Barki Kharaon towards Bathani Tola armed with swords and guns and killed eight children, 12 women and one man. Most of the victims belonged to families of Dalit and Muslim landless agricultural labourers ( Frontline, August 9, 1996).

On April 16, almost 16 years later, Bathani Tola attracted national attention once again when the Patna High Court overturned the Ara district court order and acquitted all the 23 persons accused of perpetrating the massacre.

Organised communal massacres by upper-caste landlords were a routine affair in the 1990s. They were understood to be vindictive assertions by the upper castes to retain their honour in the face of rising backward-caste movements against the conventional feudal order. It is for this reason that Barki Kharaon, home to politically powerful Bhumihar and Rajput landlords who tried to crush the Dalit-Muslim movement of Bathani Tola, signifies a larger regressive political order, something which still persists in the State. There is a clear link between this kind of upper-caste violence and the June 1 murder of Brahmeshwar Nath Singh, the erstwhile chief of the Ranvir Sena, by unknown assailants in Ara, the district headquarters. South Bihar was paralysed as Brahmeshwar Singh's followers vented their anger on public property despite the presence of paramilitary forces.

Such an order of things came to the fore again when the Division Bench of the High Court acquitted all the 23 accused in the Bathani Tola carnage on the basis of insufficient evidence and untrustworthy eyewitnesses. In 2010, the district court had handed death sentences to three persons and life imprisonment to the rest. While maintaining that the massacre was unfortunate, the High Court hardly mentioned anything about the exploitative land relations in Bhojpur, which was the basic premise for the attack.

The enormity of the caste massacre had horrified the nation and the international community. The killings went on for more than two hours from 2 p.m. on that day. There were three police pickets within a range of one kilometre, including one in the village itself, but no action was taken to prevent the crime.

An 18-year-old woman was gang-raped. The breasts of a 25-year-old woman were chopped off before she was killed. A nine-month-old child was tossed in the air and chopped into two as she fell to the ground. A pregnant woman's womb was slashed open and the foetus impaled on a sword.

The massacre also marked the time when political mobilisation in defence of the Ranvir Sena was at its peak. As the support for it from upper-caste landlords grew, the Ranvir Sena continued its unfettered violence in many villages even though the outfit had been banned by the State government in 1995. Bathani Tola, in a way, became the template for other feudal massacres that occurred in Bihar subsequently and also for communal pogroms elsewhere, such as the one in Gujarat.

The High Court judgment sparked severe criticism from society, for throughout the hearing, the court questioned the accounts of eyewitnesses, most of whom had lost their family members in the massacre. Ignoring the plight of the victims, the verdict repeatedly states that the witnesses (survivors) are lying and spinning tales and are untrustworthy and totally unreliable. Many persons in political circles blamed the state, the police and the political system for the shoddy investigation in the case.

The court acquitted the accused mainly on two grounds. First, it said that the first information report (FIR) was filed only 12 hours after the carnage, implying that it may not have been the right account. Second, it did not rely on the survivors' accounts. The court observed that the eyewitnesses could not have survived the massacre if its perpetrators had come into the village with the aim of killing everyone present there.

In its judgment, the court noted: In the present case, we find it quite conflicting that the allegation and the act are such that the miscreants had come to eliminate everyone in the village. After killing, they set fire to the houses. How could they not bother to look for people hiding in close vicinity of the village itself? The witnesses and the accused are neighbours and of neighbouring Tola [colony]. They would not be exposing their identity in broad daylight giving people opportunity to identify them.

It further said that the eyewitnesses who claimed they were hiding in the ditches around the village could not be found by the investigating officer. Ahar [irrigation channel] is a conspicuous place but surprisingly the witnesses hid there and, from time to time, were able to peep out unconcerned of their safety, which is quite unnatural. Some witnesses are said to have hidden in bushes but on objective finding of the IO [investigating officer], there was no such place. People, who were intent to liquidate everybody, naturally would have seen that there were no male members.... This is unnatural for the prosecution witnesses. Because of these reasons, we have found the identifications made by the prosecution witnesses not worthy of reliance for the purposes of this extreme punishment of either death or life imprisonment, the judgment noted.

Marwari Choudhary, another survivor, shows a bullet that is still lodged in the door of his house which was set afire by Ranvir Sena activists.-RANJEET KUMAR

Kishun Choudhary, a survivor who lost three members of his family and who filed the FIR, told Frontline: We were so scared that we did not walk out of the village. We had lost our family members. When the police came after four hours, they ill-treated us and abused the dead bodies. We protested. We did not even believe in the police. The massacre happened when there were three police pickets in the range of one kilometre. Only after we came out of the shock did we manage to go to the police station and file an FIR. How can the court question this?

Kishun Choudhary was given a grade IV job as compensation. He shifted to Ara. However, he quit his job eight years ago when Bhumihar landlords of Barki Kharaon threatened him to withdraw his case. Since he felt insecure in the city, he decided to move back to Bathani Tola to be among his community members.

Nayeemuddin, one of the survivors who lost four of his family members, including his infant daughter, asks: Who killed 21 people that afternoon, if it wasn't those we named in the FIR? Who will take responsibility for my life, now that all those I gave evidence against are free? I have gone through much turmoil. I was one of the survivors, but the court did not believe in my accounts. Can I ask who will the court believe if it does not believe one of the survivors?

In order to understand the Bathani Tola massacre, a brief account of the history of southern Bihar is necessary. Land has been the central issue in the politics of Bihar. Because of the fertile land irrigated by the Ganga, the districts of Bhojpur, Gaya, Patna and Arwal have historically been a hub of political movements. During the colonial era, Bihar was the heart of the zamindari system, which drove deep wedges between Dalits, the backward classes and the upper castes, who had a major share of the zamindari. Even after its abolition in 1950 and the introduction of the Land Ceiling Act in 1961, the landlords worked their way up in politics to retain most of their land, to the extent that Bihar has the worst record in the implementation of land reforms. According to a 2009 report, among the landowners in the State, 96.5 per cent are marginal or small farmers. They own about 66 per cent of the total land. Medium and large farmers comprise just 3.5 per cent of the landowning community, but they own roughly 33 per cent of the total land.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) gathered strength and its activists started to concentrate on landless agricultural labourers, who were Dalits or members of the backward castes. It was successful in building a base among the poor.

In order to counter the communist movement, the upper-caste landlords started organising private armies with the declared aim of fighting to restore lost honour. Northern Bihar has bigger landlords, but the value of their land is much lower than that in southern Bihar because northern Bihar is a flood plain. It is because of this that the landlords of southern Bihar are much more aggressive about possessing land. Most of the upper-caste leaders come from southern Bihar. In 1971, Bihar witnessed its first feudal massacre when 16 Santhals were killed in Rupaspur in Purnea district. In the years to come, private armies such as the Kunwar Sena of Rajputs, the Brahmarshi Sena, the Savarna Liberation Front, the Pandav Gang and the Sunlight Sena emerged to fight for upper-caste landlords. Encouraged by this, a few backward-caste landlords also formed private armies such as the Bhumi Sena, the Kisan Kranti Sena and the Lorik Sena, run by either Yadavs or Kurmis.

In 1995, the politically powerful Bhumihar landlords brought all the upper-caste armies under the Ranvir Sena. They declared that the Ranvir Sena was formed to wipe out communists from Bihar so that the tradition of feudalism, given to them by their ancestors, was maintained. The Ranvir Sena started organising young people, including minors, and took violence to a new level, the first major manifestation of which was the Bathani Tola massacre.

When the upper-caste-organised violence increased, naxalites retaliated. According to police records, naxalites killed 93 upper-caste landlords between 1994 and 2000. The biggest attack was in 1996 when the CPI(ML) allegedly killed eight Ranvir Sena members at Nadhi village in Bhojpur district. In 1997 and 1999, the CPI(ML) conducted two big raids in Jehanabad district and killed 16 landlords. The CPI (ML-Liberation) is still a strong force in Bhojpur and Jehanabad, where it has elected representatives.

The biggest naxalite attack was carried out by the Maoist Coordination Centre (MCC), which, along with other naxalite outfits, merged into the CPI (Maoist). In 1999, the MCC killed 35 Ranvir Sena members in Senari village in Jehanabad district as a show of strength. The MCC was a strong force in 1987 when it killed around 50 Rajput landlords in Aurangabad district. But after that, its strength diminished. The Senari massacre in 1999 was an indication that the party was back in the reckoning. But it could not gather much political strength after that. Today, the CPI (Maoist) has a presence only in Jharkhand.

The people of Bhojpur have elected communist leaders to the Assembly and to gram panchayats. The movement for minimum wages and dignity reached its peak in Bhojpur. But with the formation of the Ranvir Sena, CPI(ML) activists began to come under frequent attack. The Rajputs and Bhumihars of Barki Kharaon beat up Dalit and Muslim residents of the village as they protested against the illegal encroachment of gair mazarua zameen (panchayati lands) in the region. The local imam bara (place of worship for Muslims) was occupied illegally in 1995 and then destroyed. Three graveyards of the Muslim community were occupied by the landlords. On an appeal, the Patna High Court gave an order in favour of the Muslims, but the administration did not act.

The aggrieved Dalits and Muslims participated in the Karbala Mukti Morcha, a rally to ensure that the court decision was implemented. Soon after, tensions between the landlords and labourers intensified. The landlords allegedly killed Mohammed Sultan, a resident of Barki Kharaon who had participated in the rally. The Dalit and Muslim residents of the village were forced to shift to the nearby Bathani Tola, which was then a sparsely populated village. After six unsuccessful attacks on Dalits and Muslims in Bathani Tola, the Ranvir Sena finally carried out the infamous massacre of July 11, 1996.

Brahmeshwar Singh had said that the Ranvir Sena killed women and children to prevent the proliferation of naxalites. Subsequent to the Bathani Tola massacre, the militia went on the rampage, killing people in Laxmanpur Bathe, Shankarbigha and Miyapur and many other villages. The massacres ended with Brahmeshwar Singh's arrest in 2002, but minor incidents of violence against Dalits and Muslims still continue in Bihar.

The Bihar government plans to appeal against the High Court decision in the Supreme Court. The accused residents of Barki Kharaon are protesting against the move. We are all falsely implicated. I was a minor when this incident happened. How could I have killed people? I was not a part of the Ranvir Sena which perpetrated the crime, Munna Singh, a Rajput landlord who was sentenced to life by the district court, told Frontline.

A memorial in Bathani Tola for the 21 people who were killed.-RANJEET KUMAR

Brahmeshwar Singh was implicated in 30 cases, of which he was acquitted in 20. He headed a Patna-based farmers' organisation called Akhil Bharatiya Rashtriya Kisan Sangathan, which declares that it is a nationalist organisation as opposed to socialist or communist.

The Bihar government is going to the Supreme Court only when it involves upper-caste people. Sudama Prasad, a communist leader accused of killing an upper-caste landlord, was acquitted. Why did the State government not go to the Supreme Court then? The court has clearly written in Paragraph 54 of the judgment that all the witnesses have lied and the accused have been falsely victimised, Brahmeshwar Singh had told Frontline a few days after the verdict was pronounced.

Bathani Tola's investigation points to the complicit role of the state and the dominant class in fudging evidence. It also shows how the investigating agencies dilute evidence if the case involves a politically powerful community.

Anand Chakravarty, a retired teacher of the Delhi School of Economics, spoke about the deep chasm between the rule of law and justice, at a convention held against the Bathani Tola judgment. He said that justice should be understood not just in a judicial sense but in the wider sense of economic, social and political justice.

Citing instances of judicial bias against Dalit and Adivasi agrarian labourers, he quoted the Tamil Nadu High Court verdict in the Keezhavanmani massacre of 1969, which had found it astonishing and difficult to believe that rich men, owning vast extents of land, one of whom even possessed a car, could be guilty of burning alive 42 Dalits. In the context of the Rupaspur (Purnea) massacre of 14 Adivasi sharecroppers in 1971, he quoted the words of a well-known advocate who had justified the massacre: It is because of me [that is, the landlord] that he had the land, it is because of me that he had a livelihood.... Now he is violating that relationship by refusing to share the crop; this is a breach of trust which cannot be tolerated. Chakravarty spoke of the principal social contradictions of Bihar that resulted in the massacres by the Ranvir Sena in the 1990s.

The apparent reason for the massacres lay in contestations over land, wages and social dignity, he said, and the mobilisation of the radical Left groups on the latter issues, he stressed, was largely to demand the rights within the constitutional framework. The real reason for the massacres, he felt, was that the assertion of the underclass was viewed as an act of defiance against the hierarchical class and caste order. He held that the Bihar government today, for all its rhetoric, was actually deeply inimical to the economic, social and political entitlements of the oppressed classes and that, therefore, the prospects of justice for the latter were quite bleak.

Bathani Tola, in present times, vindicates this argument. Even today, at least 90 bighas of panchayati land is still under the illegal occupation of the landlords. The labourers get Rs.70 a day as wages, whereas the official minimum wage is Rs.144. Any assertion on the part of Dalits leads to violence and social boycott of the whole community. Even today, a Dalit is not allowed to wear new clothes in front of a Bhumihar landlord.

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