In a country where the bloodthirsty rhetoric of ‘hang them, shoot them’, an ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘their heads for our heads’ is heard so regularly, and so loudly on prime time television, we were greeted by an odd and chilling silence in the course of this week. It wasn’t for a lack of noise, vendetta laced sound-bytes, storms in tea-cups, or of talking heads.
While every channel debated (at inordinate length) the consequences of the banal inevitability of a sportsman retiring from his game while the going was good, or continued to compare ‘Pappu’ and ‘Feku, a striking piece of news virtually failed to ‘break’ into our televised ‘national’ consciousness.
We heard from fasting politicians, approaching cyclones, (once more) about the mortal remains of Captain Saurabh Kalia, the shenanigans of Asaram Bapu’s son, about whether or not Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had set up a trap for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and most importantly, again and again, about the impending retirement of Sachin Tendulkar, who was also declared to be ‘God’.
On the 9th of October, two days before the day that Sachin Tendulkar retired from test Cricket (since that is how this country chooses to remember history, we might as well call days before October 11, 2013 as BGR – or ‘Before God Retired’) the honorable Patna High Court acquitted twenty six men belonging to the Ranveer Sena, an upper caste militia accused of butchering fifty eight dalit men, women and children in the course of what came to be known as the ‘Laxmanpur-Bathe‘ massacre in Bihar’s Arwal district in 1997. The youngest of those killed had been a one year old child.
Central Bihar has a long history of caste violence, and the brunt of this violence has largely been borne by lower castes, and groups allied to them. A chronology of caste motivated massacres in Bihar from 1976-2001 lists more than eighty massacres where the victims have been people of the lower castes, or members of political groups seen as being their partisans. Massacres of upper caste villagers hover around fifteen. In the case of the Bara Massacre, when MCC (Maoist Communist Centre) cadres killed several upper caste villagers known to have links with the Savarna Sena (a precursor to the Ranveer Sena) in February 1992, it led to the invocation of TADA by the then Lalu Prasad Yadav government in Bihar. In 2001, the special TADA court and the District and Sessions Court in Gaya awarded death sentences to several of the accused. Some of which were read down to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court in 2002. The very different destiny of the accused in the Bara Carnage case (where upper caste villagers were killed) and in all the significant carnages in Bihar where the victims belong to lower castes tell their own tale. In Bihar, if you are a lower caste villager who participates in the killing of upper caste militia men – you get a death sentence, or life imprisonment. If you are a upper caste militia man who participates in the killing of lower caste men, you walk free.
The Hindu in its report mentions that the then president of India, K.R. Narayanan, had called the Laxmanpur Bathe Massacre a ‘national shame’ in 1997. But ever since the 9th of October this year, the verdict itself seems to have rattled no significant nation wide television consciences. What Patliputra thinks today, Lutyens’ Delhi think tomorrow.
Newspaper correspondents and some news blog writers have been somewhat more alert, and at least one major television channel – NDTV, to my knowledge, has carried an ‘objective’ report of the acquittal.
However, although there were demonstrations in Patna, and even in Delhi – outside BIhar Bhavan in Chanakyapuri people stood in protest, signifying, yet again, that young people in Delhi do come out on to the streets when people in remote corners of the countryside feel that they have been denied justice, not a single television channel, thought it fit to report them.
(Some newspapers, such as the Times of India, did report the Patna demonstration, and the Hindu carried a photograph of a demonstration in Delhi nested within a report of the Aam Admi Party’s criticism of the Patna High Court Verdict)
Only three political parties – CPI(ML-Liberation), CPI(M) and Aam Aadmi Party have formally expressed criticism of the Patna High Court verdict. The news reportage of their criticism has been muted at best. Sharad Yadav, president of the JD(U), the party which rules Bihar, has been reported in the Business Standard as saying (characteristically) that the verdict called for higher reservations for lower castes in the Judiciary. He thought the verdict was ‘painful’. Which is somewhat surprising, since the government led by his party, under Nitish Kumar, did not choose to pursue the course that a robust prosecution would have. The Bihar Government has reportedly stated that it will contest the Patna High Court’s verdict. But given the way it has handled the prosecution so far, this contest is not likely to be more than a half-hearted formality.
It may be relevant to recall that Nitish Kumar ‘s government in Bihar (JD-U, at that time in coalition with the BJP) disbanded (in April 2006) the Justice Amir Das Commission of Enquiry set up to look into the links and the patronage that the Ranveer Sena militia had within the political parties in Bihar within six months of taking power in November 2005. This is perhaps one executive order that Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav would have been in agreement on, because the parties they led would both stand to lose were the Amir Das Commission’s findings on the links between the Ranveer Sena and political parties in Bihar to ever be made formally public. The Lalu Yadav-Rabri Devi regime, though it set up the Amir Das Commission under intense public pressure, was not averse to its findings being consigned to oblivion.
The links between Ranveer Sena thugs and politicians that the Amir Das Commission investigated cut across party lines, and included patronage networks deep within the BJP, the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress. It is unlikely, given the JD(U)’s known links to the Ranveer Sena, that it will pursue the Laxmanpur Bathe case with any seriousness.
Piyush Pushpak and Prabhakar Kumar, in their story on CNN IBN (see link above) had listed the politicians that were to be named by the Justice Amir Das Committee Report. This list is a veritable ‘who’s-who’ of Bihar politics, and even includes influential outsiders like Murli Manohar Joshi, the national level BJP leader from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. This story, based on the access that CNN-IBN had to the unpublished Amir Das Commission Report is worth quoting in some detail to get a sense of the Ranveer Sena’s reach in Bihar politics.
“…There’s Sushil Modi , Kanti Singh, Akhileshwar Singh, Murli Manohar Joshi, and CP Thakur, among others,” Lala Ramchandra Prasad Verma, Personal Assistant to Chairman of Aamir Das Commission says.
(Sushil) Modi ((Bihar state BJP chief and erstwhile coalition partner of Nitish Kumar) has been charged with having a nexus with the Ranvir Sena and seeking help from the outfit during elections. Murli Manohar Joshi, has been charged with threatening the officer-in-charge of Paliganj Police station against taking action in the Haibaspur massacre.
Another BJP bigwig, C P Thakur, has been named for attending meetings of the outfit in 1997 ahead of the Haibaspur massacre and being a close aide of Ranveer Sena’s supremo Brahmeshwar Mukhia.
Akhilesh Singh; Union Minister of State, RJD has been charged with seeking help from the banned outfit during elections and funding Sena’s activities; Kanti Singh, Minister of State, and a close associate of former Bihar CM Lalu Prasad Yadav has been charged with seeking help from Sunil Pandey, a prominent Sena leader, during 1996 Parliamentary elections.
Others named in the report are senior RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari, former president of the Bihar Congress Committee Ram Jatan Sinha, Nand Kishore Yadav, a minister with the Nitish government, Arun Kumar, Ex MP, JD(U) Mundrika Singh Yadav, Former RJD minister Raghunath Jha, Former president of Samta Party, Narendra Pandey alias Sunil Pandey, Nitish Kumar loyalist and JD(U) MLA [‘Sunil/Narendra Pande’ is the sitting MLA from Tarari – a constituency under which the village of Baithani Tola – the site of another massacre perpetrated by the Ranveer Sena falls – writer, thanks to Kavita Krishnan for this information.], Krishna Sardar, former MLA Akhlaque Ahmed, former MLA Jagdish Sharma, former MPs, late Chandradev Prasad Verma and late Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav…”
‘Caste Army Has Politician Friends’ by Piyush Pushpak and Prabhakar Kumar, CNN-IBN, April 29, 2006
Apart from the token noises made by Sharad Yadav, Bihar’s mainstream politicians (RJD, BJP, Congress, JD-U) have maintained a studied silence, No one seems to have thought it fit to ask these otherwise voluble gentlemen why they have suddenly lost the ability to speak on Laxmanpur Bathe.
Incidentally, Brahmeshwar Singh Mukhiya the head of the Ranveer Sena, was never tried for his role in the Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre. The case against him was closed as he was said to be ‘absconding’ and ‘untraceable’. The fact that he was ‘absconding’ and ‘untraceable’ through all these years in the secure environs of Ara Central Prison (where he was then undergoing detention in connection with another case since 2002), as reported by the Hindu, as far back as in 2010, seems to have been overlooked by the criminal justice system in Bihar.
Governments came and went in Bihar, coalitions formed and dissolved, but the prosecution of Laxmanpur Bathe, once it reached the High Court, stayed exactly where it was – nowhere. Eventually, Brahmeshwar Singh Mukhiya was released on bail, acquitted and went on to form an organization called Akhil Bharatiya Rashtravadi Kisan Sangathan (All India Nationalist Farmers Organization). He was murdered on the 1st of June, 2012 by six unknown assailants in a ‘drive-by’ killing from a motorcycle. Brahmeshwar Singh Mukhiya was never properly investigated for Laxmanpur Bathe (or for any other massacre) that he had been allegedly involved in.
The carnage at Laxmanpur Bathe did not lack eyewitnesses. Rahi Gaikwad, a reporter for the Hindu, has done excellent reporting on how the witnesses and survivors feel in the wake of the verdict. Here is an extract from her report.
Laxman Rajvanshi is a survivor and eyewitness who testified in court. “Give us justice or drown us,” he said.Asked about the High Court’s observation that witnesses were unreliable, he said: “How could I not have recognised them? We stay in the same village and I see them about 10 times a day! We worked on their fields. We had no inkling of this attack, otherwise we would have been alert. The Nitish Kumar government is hand in glove with the feudal elements. He slotted us into the Mahadalit category, collected our votes and then cut our throats.”
‘After Acquittals, Fear Haunts Dalit Hamlet‘ by Rahi Gaikwad, Hindu, October 11, 2013
Deepu Sebastian Edmond, writes in from Arwal in the Indian Express –
…”I remember everything,” declared Munni Rajbansi, who was witness number 12. Munni watched as his wife, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and grandson, the infant Chhotelal, were murdered. “I saw them all clearly – they were carrying five-cell torches. I remember every detail,” he said.
The high court thought his evidence was “quite improbable” as it was unlikely he would have left his hiding place and also because there was no light. The court also junked the testimony of Binod Paswan, on whose complaint the whole case is based. Binod, the only witness to identify all 26 acquitted, lost seven of his family…
‘Acquittals Kindle New Fear in Bihar’s Caste Battleground’ by Deepu Sebastian Edmond, Indian Express, October 11, 2013
…The villagers waiting for justice for more than a generation are in a shock after the verdict. “There is no law to protect us because we are poor,” said 67-year-old Laxman Rajvanshi who lost three members of his family in the brutal attack, allegedly by the Ranvir Sena, the militia of the upper castes. “We have been denied justice,” rues another villager Baudh Paswan, 70, saying, “Sarkar, judge, collector aur thana ne bata diya ki garib ki aukat bakari ki hoti hai (Everyone in the system has made us believe we are rubbish)”.The villagers are not wholly wrong. This is the fourth time in quick succession that all the accused in massacre cases have been acquitted by the court for “lack of evidence”. Earlier in July this year, nine of the 10 persons convicted for killing 34 Dalit villagers at Miyanpur village in Aurangabad district were acquitted by the Patna High Court, six years after they were convicted by a special district court. The massacre was carried out on June 16, 2000 by Ranvir Sena men in retaliation to the killing of upper caste people at Senari village in neighbouring Jehanabad district earlier that year.Again in March this year, all the 11 accused convicted by a lower court for the massacre of 10 CPI-ML sympathisers at Nagari village in Bhojpur district in November 1998 were acquitted by the high court. It was a similar verdict in case of the infamous Bathani Tola massacre in which all the 23 convicts declared guilty by a lower court for the cold-blooded killing of 21 dalit villagers were acquitted by the high court last year. The Bathani Tola massacre had taken place in Bhojpur district in July 1996. In all the incidents, Ranvir Sena men were allegedly involved but all walked free ultimately….
‘Laxmanpur Bathe Massacre: no one killed 58 Dalits’ by Manoj Kumar, First Post, October 11, 2013
Four massacres, Miyanpur, Nagari, Baithani Tola, Laxmanpur Bathe – 113 people killed, 48 accused acquitted, by the same high court in a very short span of time. Perhaps we should be looking for a pattern here.
The Court also directed the State to pay compensation to the next of kin of the 58 deceased and 4 injured of Laxmanpur Bathe from its fund. The Court ordered the trial court to calculate the amount of compensation after taking into account the age, income of the deceased and the injured in the light of the provisions of Section 163-A and II Schedule of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. [State of Bihar v. Girja Singh, Death Reference No.5 of 2010, Decided on 9/10/2013] -SCC
Given the care with which it has read the relevant provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, as opposed to attending to the statements of the witnesses and the circumstances of the case, perhaps, the learned judges of the Patna High Court had come to the conclusion that the Laxmanpur Bathe Massacre was something in the nature of a rather unfortunate automobile accident.
I do not, now, or ever will, support the awarding of the death penalty, not even to those guilty of the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre, or for that matter to those accused of murderous rape or acts of terror. Not because I am indifferent to these crimes and to their consequences, but because I believe that the death penalty institutionalizes and sanitizes the violence of state power in society in a way that I find unacceptable. But being opposed, in principle, to the death penalty does not mean, and cannot under any circumstances be read to mean, tacit complicity or agreement with a blatantly unjust acquittal. Had Justices V.N. Sinha and A.K. Lal of division bench of the Patna High Court chosen to apply their minds adequately to the matter before them they could have found many choices other than the simple awarding of death penalties available to them. These possibilities included the option of awarding sentences of rigorous life imprisonment and other penalties that would have fit the gravity of the crime, and at the same time could have effectively raised the bar of judicial sentencing in Indian courts by refusing to automatically go the ‘death penalty’ route in such circumstances. That they refused to do so, means that the justice system in Bihar, and by extension in India has undergone a serious setback.
The people of Laxmanpur Bathe will live in the knowledge that the men who butchered their kin and neighbors will now walk in the halo of impunity. Ordinarily, this would have concerned us all.
But then, we live in extraordinary times. Sachin Tendulkar has retired, and on Friday evening, as the week closed in TV land, Arnab Goswami, and the ‘nation’ simply did not want to know about much else. The nation certainly did not want to have its grip over geography challenged. It neither knew, nor wanted to know, where Laxmanpur Bathe was.
The next time this hyperventilating, televised, smug ‘nation’ wants to know ‘why X, Y, or Z is not being hanged’ for something that they did or did not commit, or why we are not slitting throats at the border in retaliation (as if we don’t), anyone with a single ethical bone in their body should simply refuse to heed its call.