Print edition : November 15, 2013

Sikandar Chaudhary, who lost nine members of his family in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre, with his family on October 21. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

At Shankarbigha village, where 23 people were killed in January 1999. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Sendani village, in Gaya district, where 12 people were killed in April 1999. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Parvati Devi, who lost nine members of her family in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Laxman Rajvanshi, who lost three members of his family in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Boudh Paswan, who lost seven members of his family in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Reshami Devi, who lost four members of her family in the Shankarbigha massacre. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Baliram Singh. His death sentence by a lower court in the Laxmanpur Bathe case was overturned by the Patna High Court. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Dipankar Bhattachraya, CPI (ML- Liberation) general secretary, addressing a rally after the verdict by the Patna High Court in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre case. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

The acquittal of all the 26 accused in the 1997 massacre of Dalits in Laxmanpur Bathe village deepens the pessimism among agricultural workers in central Bihar. Such massacres do not happen any more, but the feudal relations that made them possible continue to destroy lives.

THIS October, death came knocking at Sikandar Chaudhary’s door again. A resident of Laxmanpur Bathe village in Bihar’s Arwal district, Sikandar had witnessed nine members of his family being shot dead on December 1, 1997. In just two hours on that fateful night, he and many others were left orphaned as the Ranveer Sena, a militia of upper-caste landlords, went on a killing spree in his village. The massacre, perhaps the worst ever of Dalits in India, earned international notoriety for Laxmanpur Bathe. Sixty-one people were killed, including 27 women and 16 children. The then President, K.R. Narayanan, called it “a national shame”. The official toll was 58.

On October 9 this year, the Patna High Court acquitted all the 26 accused in the case, setting aside their conviction by a lower court in 2010. Now it is fear, more than gloom, that grips Bathe. “They will kill me,” says Sikandar, who was an eyewitness to the crime and sees the verdict as his death knell. The judgment produced celebrations, with gunshots being fired and crackers being burst, in the neighbouring upper-caste tola (colony), to which most of the accused belong.

Sikandar’s fears may not be misplaced. In the weeks since the verdict came, members of the Bhumihar tola regularly pass with their motorcycle caravans through Bathe and threaten to kill the witnesses in the case. “We ruled and we will rule. You couldn’t do anything, could you? So better stay in your place.” This, according to Sikandar, is the kind of thing they say. He does not know what to do except to leave the village. The massacre that took place 15 years ago continues to shape his life.

The mood was upbeat in the upper-caste tola. “At last we got justice. We had lost all faith in the government that was hell-bent on putting us behind bars to cash in on the ‘backward’ votes. We had faith in the judiciary and we feel redeemed. We are farmers and were falsely implicated,” said Baliram Singh, whose death sentence was overturned. Anjani Singh, who had also been an accused, said: The government is against the forward castes. Only the Bharatiya Janata Party speaks in our favour.”

Bathe is an archetypal village in central Bihar. The upper-caste tola (in this case, a mix of Bhumihars and Rajputs) is visibly affluent with pucca streets and spacious houses. The residents are from the landed class. Agriculture is their main occupation. The other tola in the village is about 100 metres away and is home to Dalits and other backward classes (OBCs). Except for agricultural work, there is absolutely no interaction between the two tolas. Surrounded by agricultural fields on three sides and with the Sone river on the fourth, Bathe presents itself as an idyllic village, far from the noise and pollution of the city. Beneath the surface, however, tensions simmer between the upper castes and the backward castes.

The Dalits are mostly agricultural workers. Until a few years ago, they were not allowed to sit in a khatiya (cot) even in their own homes and were forced to follow a feudal code of conduct. They could not wear new clothes, smoke cigarettes, ride bicycles or dare to talk with their heads held high. The landlords determined the wages and generally doled out minuscule sums. They seized Gairmazarua land (panchayat land in a village for development activities and Dalit and OBC welfare), illegally, to prevent Dalits and OBCs from using it. Whenever Dalits protested, their women got raped and men got beaten or killed. A landlord who put his labourers under “house arrest” and withheld their wages but refrained from killing them was considered benevolent. The landlords, in effect, had a complete grip over the village economy.

This was the kind of backdrop that in the late 1970s saw the emergence of naxalite outfits in central Bihar—mainly the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), the Party Unity (PU) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist-Liberation). These organisations took up the issues of wage and dignity of the Dalits and OBCs. Agricultural labourers rallied behind these parties and gathered strength from their ideologies. For the first time, a few parties organised Dalits and OBCs against the age-old and violent feudal structure perpetuated by the upper castes. The MCC and the PU were underground outfits, while CPI (ML- Liberation) contested elections for “tactical reasons”. When the massacre took place, Laxmanpur Bathe was a stronghold of the PU, which operated through its front organisation, the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti (MKSS). Under the MKSS’ leadership, agricultural labourers of Bathe were fighting for a decent minimum wage, a dignified life, and their right to Gairmazarua land. Similar struggles were led by the CPI (ML- Liberation) in Bhojpur and the MCC in Gaya. In 2004, the MCC and the PU merged into the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and at present this outfit operates mostly from Jharkhand. It has lost much of its cadre base in central Bihar.

In response to the naxalite challenge, many private militias of the landed and dominant castes mushroomed in Bihar through the 1980s. A series of massacres happened in central Bihar, in which these armies specifically targeted Dalit tolas and killed hundreds of people. Many private armies consolidated themselves in the early 1990s and a bigger, well-structured militia emerged. It was called the Ranveer Sena and was led by members of the Bhumihar caste. It started its operations in Bhojpur in direct response to the activities of the CPI (ML- Liberation).

Many political observers believe that the Ranveer Sena was not merely a caste militia but a political front of feudal forces. It was formed in 1995, the year after the CPI (ML- Liberation) decided to contest elections in central Bihar, which witnessed a series of conflicts during this period. From 1995 to 2000, the Ranveer Sena perpetrated 29 massacres, in which 287 people were killed, according to official records. With time, it expanded its operations beyond Bhojpur to other parts of central Bihar. In many cases, the police allegedly helped the Ranveer Sena to kill communist cadre. The naxalite parties retaliated forcefully in eight instances, but most of these were targeted killings unlike the indiscriminate massacres perpetrated by the Ranveer Sena. The only exception was the 1999 Senari massacre, in which the MCC killed 34 people from the Bhumihar caste.

The Ranveer Sena particularly targeted women and children. Its leaders chopped off women’s breasts, targeted pregnant women, and killed infants. In Bathe, 10 of the women killed were pregnant. In Bathani Tola, children were flung in the air and had swords piercing their bodies. A table of the officially recorded massacres can be found in satp org

As the conflict escalated, both the agricultural labourers and the landlords of Bihar became militant. But the Ranveer Sena enjoyed political patronage even from governments that came to power on OBC support and continued to kill and wreak havoc with impunity. In the 1998 parliamentary elections, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad declared that he was ready to shake hands with even the powers of hell (referring to the Ranveer Sena) to wipe out the red flag (naxalites) from Bihar. He was also one of the many leaders of Bihar to express grief when Ranveer Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh was killed last year. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar also expressed his condolences.

Senior Communist Party of India leader A.B. Bardhan accused Nitish Kumar of being complicit in the crimes that the Ranveer Sena perpetrated. “It is an open secret that Kumar had taken the help of feudal forces like the Ranveer Sena and other such elements to defeat the RJD and wrest political power in Bihar,” Bardhan was quoted as saying to reporters. It is noteworthy that the first decision the Nitish Kumar government took after coming to power in 2005 was to disband the Amir Das Commission that had been constituted to investigate the massacres perpetrated by the Ranveer Sena and inquire into its political linkages. In July 2012, Justice Amir Das told Frontline that he was very close to submitting his report when the commission was wound up. His investigations had detected the Ranveer Sena’s links with powerful politicians of Bihar.

The Ranveer Sena died a natural death because of internal leadership conflicts. But the upper castes continue to enjoy the same political patronage and impunity.

The Bathe judgment is the third in a series of acquittals by the Patna High Court. In April 2012, the court set aside a lower court judgment and acquitted all the 23 accused in the Bathani Tola massacre case. Three had been sentenced to death and 20 to life imprisonment by the lower court. In July 2012, 19 of the 20 accused were released by the High Court in the Miyapur massacre case. On March 1, 2013, all the 11 accused were acquitted by the court after they appealed against the lower court decision that sentenced three to death and eight to life imprisonment in the Nagari Bazaar massacre. In two other cases, the Narayanpur and Sendani massacres, the lower court acquitted all the accused in the last two years. In the Senari massacre case, in which the MCC was involved, all the accused were pronounced guilty by the High Court.

In all the cases against the Ranveer Sena, the High Court found the prosecution witnesses “unreliable” and gave a lot of credence to the argument put forward by the defence lawyer that the first information reports (FIRs) were lodged a few hours after the massacre. It interpreted the “delay” as an indication that it was possibly politically motivated. Critics say that the judgments point to the dual nature of the judiciary: it chose to acquit the accused in all the cases where landlords were implicated and punished the accused in cases where agricultural workers were the accused. The recent judgments in the Bhadasi case—where the police and workers clashed—and in the Bodhan Soda case—in which some Dalits were allegedly falsely implicated in an internal conflict of the dominant caste—are examples. In both the cases, critics say, the court accepted the prosecution witnesses’ accounts on weak grounds.

“The enormity of the massacre was simply ignored. If the evidence accepted by the lower court does not mean anything to the High Court, it only reflects bias and hatred against the poor,” said Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of CPI (ML- Liberation), about the Laxmanpur Bathe verdict.

“To now give them the ‘benefit of the doubt’ when there is no doubt that 58 Dalits were massacred raises questions about the verdict. Is it just a coincidence that in other such cases also where Dalits were killed by upper-caste private armies, the accused have been acquitted?” the CPI(M) Polit Bureau said in a statement after the verdict on the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre. Interestingly, judgments in the Bathe, Nagari and Senari cases were pronounced by the same two-member Bench comprising Justice V.N. Sinha and Justice A.K. Lal.

The caste massacres ruined many lives for ever, not only because so many people died but also for what they did to the survivors. The massacres may have stopped now, but feudal rule continues unabated. This correspondent visited two other massacre sites, at Shankarbigha and Sendani. Like Bathe, these two villages live under constant threats from the landlords.

“Just 15 days ago, boys from the Bhumihar tola raped a Dalit girl from our village. Her only fault was that she asked for her wage. The police refused to file an FIR. It was only after we protested that they consented to lodge our complaint,” said Meena Devi of Sendani. She confirmed that continuous struggles by agricultural workers had forced landlords to increase wages to Rs.150 from nothing in the 1990s for cutting mud in the fields.

“We get three kilograms of rice as wage in the harvesting season,” said Meena, “But there is no dignity. Being landless is no sin. Had we not been there, these landlords would have died. The Nitish Kumar government had promised three decimals of land, but they have gone back on their word. We had seized the Gairmazarua zameen in the village after the government did not pay any heed to our demands. But after the acquittal of these people, we fear they will kill us if we try to cultivate it.”

In all the three villages, the upper-caste colonies are clearly much more developed. They have pucca streets and are electrified. Villagers allege that the landlords have forced the government not to electrify the Dalit tolas. The schools and anganwadi centres are in the upper-caste colonies, making them inaccessible for Dalits. The lack of employment opportunities and the poor implementation of government schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the public distribution system force the poor in the villages of central Bihar to work in the agricultural fields of upper-caste families. “If I find a chance, I will go away,” says Rashmi Devi of Shankarbigha.

The constant abuses and threats are taking their toll. Dalits, OBCs, and Muslims often move out of their old homes and build separate tolas at a distance in the same village. In the last two decades, such new tolas have mushroomed all over Bihar.

A new system of internal displacement seems to be taking place where people leave their homes in search of security. Verdicts such as the one in the Laxmanpur Bathe case add to the fear that Dalits and OBCs live in. In the new tolas, the level of interaction between agricultural workers and the landlords is minimal. Consequently, a system of intermediaries seems to have come into being.

In Shankarbigha and Sendani, agricultural workers do not deal with the landlords directly. Instead, contractors, who have surfaced in the last few years, hire them to work the same fields where they worked in the past. The contractors earn a commission from the landlords. Sometimes, the contractors take land on lease and employ these workers.

Bihar traditionally had a “bataidari” system under which landless tenants cultivated the lands of upper-caste households for a fixed share of the crop. A similar system prevails at present, but the poor tenants are gradually being replaced by contractors. The erstwhile upper-caste landlords are slowly moving into other businesses owing to a deepening agrarian crisis. Their political links and wealth help them land big government contracts. Many of them also use their political links to get into the construction business.

The feudal structure in Bihar is in a state of churning. But even in the new system, the poor occupy the lowest position in the hierarchy. They live in constant fear, knowing fully well that the government agencies are not on their side. Therefore, the Bathe verdict and other such verdicts are not merely legal issues. They are seen as complementing an exploitative economy where inequality is deliberately sustained. The story of massacres in central Bihar is rooted in the feudal structure of the region. It would be naïve to think of such massacres merely as political rivalry between private militias and naxalites, as the Bihar government has been projecting. Instead, the massacres that claimed so many lives are more about denying the poor their right to life.