A district and sessions court in Patna has finally pronounced a verdict in the infamous Laxmanpur- Bathe carnage almost thirteen years after 58 Dalits (including 27 women and 10 children) were brutally killed by the Ranvir Sena (the now-almost-defunct caste army belonging to Bhumihar landlords) on December 1, 1997. While giving death sentence for 16 convicts and life imprisonment and Rs. 50,000 fine for 10 others, the court also noted that the massacre was a ‘stigma on civil society and rarest of rare cases of brutality’. Also, 19 other accused were acquitted for lack of evidence produced by the prosecution. Nevertheless, as we discuss below, justice still eludes the victims (mostly landless Dalits) of the long series of caste and land-related violence in Central Bihar.
The village of Laxmanpur-Bathe is located in Arwal (formerly a part of Jehanabad) district of Bihar. On the night of December 1, 1997, armed members of Ranvir Sena crossed over to Laxmanpur-Bathe located on the southern bank of Sone and killed Dalit families, ostensibly over the control of 50 bighas of gair-mazarua (non-private) land. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, then Chief Minister of Bihar, Rabri Devi had appointed Justice Amir Das commission to investigate the political links and patronage received by the Ranvir Sena in March 1998. The Patna high court later transferred the case from Jehanabad to district and sessions court in Patna in October 1999. The trial had been going on for a decade with instances of a large number of witnesses turning hostile and police failing to produce many accused in the court. It was only in December 2008 that chargesheets were filed against 46 accused in the case. Ironically, the self-proclaimed chief of Ranvir Sena, Barmeshwar Mukhiya, who is currently in Ara jail, not too far from Patna, could not be produced in the court during the hearing of this case, hence escaping trial.
It must be noted that Laxmanpur-Bathe is one of the series of caste massacres witnessed in Bihar during the 1990s. Ironically again, however, it seems that the district and sessions court has explicitly maintained that Laxmanpur-Bathe was carried out as a revenge of Bara killings where 37 upper caste men were killed by armed members of MCC in February 1992. This line of reciprocal reasoning while seriously compromises neutral application of the rule of law in a context like Bihar, it also trivializes the long history of agrarian conflict and role of barbaric-feudal landlordism in central Bihar and the endless violence perpetrated on Dalits by the Ranvir Sena. It is unfortunate that the court did not even make a mention of the burning land question in Bihar and the need for comprehensive agrarian reforms in the state to bring justice to the victims of Laxmanpur-Bathe and establish a long term end to the physical and extra-physical violence of caste and landlordism in Bihar. And what happened to the Bandopadhyay Committee report which could have been drastically relevant not only in this judgment but also to hold the Nitish government responsible for the glaring gap in its high-end rhetoric and low action for the oppressed and poor of the state.
However, it is also the kind of Maoist politics prevalent in central Bihar and many other parts of the country which must be blamed for gradually reducing the urgent issues of radical and exhaustive land reforms and inhuman caste oppression to one of ‘law and order’ and ‘reciprocal’ caste massacres. In Arwal-Jehanabad, the centre of this conflict between Ranvir Sena and agricultural labourers, mostly Dalits, just a year after Laxmanpur-Bathe, 23 Dalits were killed at Shankarbigaha in January 1999 whereas 11 Dalits were killed at Narayanpur in February 1999 by Ranvir Sena. In a retaliatory action, in March 1999, 34 upper caste persons were killed at Senari in Arwal by MCC. It is said that Senari was avenged by the Ranvir Sena at Mianpur in Aurangabad and Rajebigaha in Nawada by killing 40 backward caste persons, mostly Yadavs in June 2000. As expected, by the latter half of the 1990s, this ‘violent’ agrarian battle based in land and caste had become an all-out ‘casteist’ war from both sides-Ranvir Sena and MCC-other Naxalite groups including CPI (ML). In later cases, indiscriminate killings of people belonging to particular castes, mostly Dalits, Yadavs and Bhumihars were carried out based solely on their caste identities. The political class in the state, from the very beginning, was fully complicit in the implications of this caste-war for electoral purposes, and hence kept playing partisan blame-game resulting into the complete deterioration of not only the ‘normal law and order situation’ but also contributed to further decline of the already shrinking space for progressive leftist politics in these flaming regions of Bihar. The central Bihar of the 1990s presents an illustrative account of what becomes of the ‘Maoist politics’ in particular and ‘leftist political space’ in general, when ‘mass-murders’ are employed as strategic tools to achieve social change. It has not helped in its ‘individual annihilation’ avatar and turned out to be completely against the progressive political agenda in its casteist war mode.
The Laxamnpur-Bathe case definitely sets a precedent since it constitutes the first ever verdict against the Ranvir Sena in numerous cases of caste atrocities and massacres in the state. However, it is also to be remembered that while the accused in Bara case were tried under TADA and were given summary death sentences, no such law was invoked for the accused belonging to the Ranvir Sena in Laxmanpur-Bathe case, so much so for the ‘equivalence’ of retaliatory massacres from both sides, as maintained by the Patna court. Further, Justice Amir Das commission which was set up during the high-point of the conflict to assuage the feelings of the backward castes and Dalits in the immediate fallout of continuous killings by Ranvir Sena was never allowed to complete its report and was later dissolved in the year 2006. We must also understand that though a far-reaching legal pronouncement is definitely a pre-requisite to repose the faith of the historically oppressed victims into state institutions, the long-term justice to the victims of Laxmanpur-Bathe and other sites of these inhuman massacres can only come through a political movement in Bihar which marks a radical departure from the existing extremes (Maoists and Nitish Kumar) and fights a protracted and mass-democratic battle for a comprehensive agrarian reforms agenda with a genuine demand for social justice and freedom for Dalits and other oppressed sections of the society. A day after the 7th April judgment by Patna court, few local newspapers chose to report from ‘ground zero’ about the lives of these victims and it is clear that such a long-drawn annihilation war has neither helped their material lives nor improved their social status. On the other hand, they have not even been touched a bit by the ‘Bihar Shining’ project led by Nitish Kumar. As we have maintained elsewhere, the urgent need, hence, is to reinstate the issues of land and radical social change into the political discourse of the state to bring any real change into the lives of the people.