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The long shadow of dalit massacres

By Subhash Gatade

The Patna High Court’s acquittal of the 23 Ranvir Sena members accused of the massacre of dalits and Muslims in Bathani Tola in 1996 underscores the continuing atrocities against dalits and other oppressed communities. How much has changed since the Keezhvenmani massacre in 1969?

caste violence

Survivors of the Bathani Tola massacre

Kishun Chaudhary and Marwari Chaudhary still remember every detail of the bloody afternoon when marauders of the Ranvir Sena, a private militia of upper-caste landlords, had attacked their small village Bathani Tola with swords, guns and other weapons. It was July 11, 1996 when the village in Bhojpur's Sahar block in Bihar was targeted by the Sena to teach the dalits and other oppressed groups a lesson for becoming more assertive under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).The small village lost 21 of its members in the mayhem – dalits and Muslims, including women, teenage girls and babies less than 10 months old.

The death of his three-month-old daughter -- not even named then -- who was tossed in the air and 'thrust down the blade of a sword' by the marauders is still etched in the mind of Naimuddin, who lost six of his family members. He still feels guilt at not being able to save his seven-year-old son Saddam, whose spinal cord had literally broken in the attack.

The recent judgment of the Patna High Court, which has acquitted all the 23 accused of perpetrating the massacre, has rekindled those sad memories. A Division Bench of Judges Navneeti Prasad Singh and Ashwani Kumar Singh cited “defective evidence” to acquit all of them. Only two years ago, in May 2010,  the sessions court in Ara district had convicted and sentenced them: three persons were awarded capital punishment, the remaining 20 were handed life imprisonment. All that seems passe now.

Interacting with the media, a 'visibly shocked' Anand Vatsyayan, counsel for the witnesses in the Bathani Tola case, states that the evidence at hand was more than “sufficient to uphold the judgment passed by the Ara sessions court”. He adds, “The Supreme Court guidelines in the event of a massacre are quite clear. The eyewitnesses need not remember all the names. And of the six prime witnesses questioned in this case, all had conclusively pointed fingers at the persons convicted by the lower court.” As far as the Sena is concerned, till today there is no feeling of remorse. Talking to a correspondent, a Sena member justified the “reactionary mobilisation” of the upper castes against “those Naxals”. “The land is ours. The crops belong to us. They [the labourers] did not want to work, and moreover, hampered our efforts by burning our machines and imposing economic blockades. So, they had it coming.”

The reluctance of the state to reopen/revisit the case was evident. It was a sign of the mindset of the Nitish Kumar-led state government that a few days ago one of the ministers of his government said that the “Bathani Tola massacre case should be nipped in the bud. The issue should not be discussed any more as it could vitiate the atmosphere”. Following the growing momentum of protests over the acquittal of the accused the state government has finally promised to challenge the decision of the high court in the Supreme Court. If the overall approach of the state government in all such cases is any indication, the chances of the dalits and other oppressed getting justice seem remote.

People have not forgotten that when Nitish Kumar look charge in 2005, one of the first things he did was  disband the Justice Amir Das Commission when it was nearly ready with its report. This commission was appointed in the immediate aftermath of the massacre and had gone into great detail about the political patronage which the Ranvir Sena enjoyed from different mainstream political formations. There were unconfirmed reports that the commission report contained explosive details which could have put the political life of many amongst them in jeopardy.

The reluctance of the state government to take action was also evident in the way it handled the massacre case when it came up for hearing in the sessions court. Brahmeshwar Singh, leader of the the Ranveer Sena, who was lodged in the Ara jail itself at the time, remained a non-FIR accused. Although he was lodged in the Ara jail, he was declared an 'absconder'. It was not for nothing that when the Ara court declared its decision, the special public prosecutor had no qualms about expressing his disapproval of the way in which Singh continued to remain a non-FIR accused. He had told the reporter then: "This clearly shows that both the police and the government are not interested in ensuring that justice is meted out." (The Hindu, May 7, 2010). The only explanation offered by the superintendent of police about this strange situation was that Brahmeshwar Singh did not stand trial as "certain court proceedings initiated against him were yet to be completed". Only last year was Brahmeshwar Singh released on bail and hundreds of his supporters had gathered there to welcome their 'hero'.

There is no doubt that Bathani Tola was not the first in a series of atrocities committed through the 1980s and 1990s by the Sena. It will not be the last. Not surprisingly, there is panic in Bathani over the release of the Sena men.

As the world discusses the denial of justice to the victims of Bathani Tola, a conference of home ministers and ministers of social justice of all states and union territories reached similar conclusions (‘Dismal rate of conviction in SC/ST atrocities cases: Wasnik’, PTI | April 17, 2012) Addressing the meet, Union Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Mukul Wasnik said the conviction rate in cases of atrocities against SCs and STs in India was between 3 and 8% while the pendency of such cases in court was 80 to 90%. He exhorted the gathering "to take joint action to prevent such crimes".

The denial of justice to the dalits of Bathani Tola reminds one of the first massacre of dalits in independent India. It was 1969 when the dalits of Keezhvenmani, Tamil Nadu, had organised a strike against the local landlords, demanding revision of wages and end to social humiliation. It was a struggle which was led by the communists of the area. Here also the landlords attacked the dalit basti and killed around 40 innocents -- most of them women. Despite sufficient evidence in the case, all the accused were acquitted by the courts under the specious argument that it is “impossible to believe that the upper-caste men would have gone walking to the dalit hamlet”.

How long is the shadow of Keezhvenmani going to cloud the aspirations of dalits and other oppressed for a just and humane world?

(Subhash Gatade is a social activist, translator and writer whose writings appear regularly in Hindi and English publications and occasionally in Urdu publications. He edits a Hindi journal Sandhan 

Infochange News & Features, April 2012