Guest post by MONOBINA GUPTA
I remember a chill running down my spine that early afternoon in 1998. I was standing at Laxmanpur Bathe – the site of a cold-blooded massacre a year ago. Then a reporter with The Telegraph, I was touring Bihar, reporting on the 1998 general elections, less than two years after the United Front government came to power. Bihar was then firmly under the thumb of the redoubtable Lalu Prasad. Tensions between the Maoist Coordination Committee (MCC) and the Ranvir Sena, a private army of upper caste landlords, were running high. Every reporter visiting the area had been advised by the district magistrates concerned not to travel after sundown. Newspapers in Delhi were full of stories about Bihar’s lawlessness, extortions and abductions even in broad daylight.
I had read details of that deadly night in the newspapers; and then of the sudden trips made by VIP cavalcades to the village in the aftermath of the bloodbath. The massacre had pitched the forgotten hamlet of Dalits into the glaring spotlight. Crowds of politicians and media descended on the spot, even as the grief stricken survivors were struggling with the shock of the attack and the terrible loss of their loved ones.
At the time that I visited the site, the dust-spewing VIP cars had disappeared. A resigned stillness hung over the area. My taxi waiting on the main road, I walked along a dirt track and reached the spot where the sleeping women, men and children had been put to death.
Visiting sites of massacre is always a mind–numbing experience. It’s even more so if you happen to visit the site a considerable period after the event. By the time I reached, the noisy OB vans (there weren’t too many in 1998) had moved away, as had the reporters. Noisy chatter had dissipated into silence. In the midst of this sepulchral silence you could experience the depths of fear the victims might have felt; you could visualise in your mind the brutality of the attack, and hear their screams and the shouts of the perpetrators. Try and imagine the events playing out on that winter night. But nothing quite matches up to the sense of desolation and desperation that engulfs you in that moment.
That feeling caught up with me again and again as I travelled through central Bihar, then a hot-bed of activity for both the MCC and retaliatory armies sponsored by landlords. The villagers were wedged into a narrow space between upper-caste gangs and MCC cadres, like they are now, caught between the state and the Maoists. I remember travelling to a village overlooking the hills, the quietness of that place, the women narrating how the men had died in the bloody revenge killing. And the silence.
Standing before the memorial for the slain at Laxmanpur Bathe with the names of all of the 58 victims – the youngest a year-old– engraved on it, I was once again engulfed by that unnerving eerie silence. A few people loitering around the site recounted the events of that night. The armed men of the Ranvir Sena stealthily had crossed the Sone river and crept upon the sleeping village on the river bank that cold December night. I looked ahead and saw the Sone – a dry bed of sand – stretching before me. The searing sun above beat down on our heads. Time seemed to have passed through several layers, and the memory of that night seemed lodged only in that solitary brick-red memorial, the sole testimony to that night’s horrific events.
It’s just a coincidence that when the recent court verdict onLaxmanpur Bathe came I was in the midst of reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland. The plot, set around the Naxalite insurrection in West Bengal, centres on two brothers in Tollygunge, the part of Calcutta that was in the grip of the movement. The title of the novel refers to a marshy patch of land between two ponds, the site of a police crime. It’s at this spot that Udayan, one of the brothers, a Naxalite, was hiding, holding his breath under the marshy water, as the police surrounded his house. It’s here that the police forced him to come out of the water and threatened his family, later killing him right in front of them after asking him to walk away. Udayan’s mother would return to the site of the crime every morning with flower, keeping his memory alive. Sometimes minor memorials are all that remain.
Fifteen years after the event, when the court acquitted the 26 men accused of the crime at Laxmanpur Bathe, Baudh Ram, a villager told a reporter “Go look at the memorial. That is all that is left now” (Indian Express, ‘Acquittals in massacre case kindle new fear in Bihar’s caste battleground’, October 12). I had had the same feeling looking at the names inscribed on the memorial. I felt the tomb would endure the test of time even if nothing else does. Save for the tyranny of the powerful.