Bathani Tola Massacre and Media Cover-up

[This abridged version of a write-up written for the September 7, 1996 issue of Mainstream, was published in Liberation, October 1996.]

(...) The massacre hit the headlines of national newspapers the very next day and several editorials and analyses followed in the leading dailies. Doordarshan played down the incident and took special care to add that in the war of attrition between the Ranvir Sena and the CPI-ML so far over 250 people had been killed. Newspapers that draw their ideological inspiration from the Sangh Parivar, in their editorials, cried themselves hoarse over the general state of lawlessness in Bihar and then went on to narrate the fascinating story of so-called parallel governments being run by left extremists in 23 districts of Bihar and clamoured for special para-military operations to curb them. An ex-Director of the CBI wrote on the same lines in The Asian Age. Several other newspapers wrote sensational stories about the vicious circle of violence and counter-violence where the basic difference between the massacres of women and children, of the old and innocent, as a weapon of mass terror employed by heavily armed feudals and the mass resistance of the rural poor for their self-defence and for their just rights was blurred. In a strange travesty of logic the victims themselves stood condemned.

It is well known that the CPI-ML (Liberation), different from some of the anarchist groups, is a mass political party which has six members in Bihar Assembly including two from the very areas where the massacre took place. In 1989 it won the Ara parliamentary seat and in the 1996 parliamentary election it polled 1 lakh 46 thousand votes there. The Party has led powerful mass movements of the poor peasantry and has organised some of the biggest political demonstrations of the Left in the capital cities of Patna and Delhi. The Party does not believe in senseless violence and takes recourse to any retaliatory actions only when they become absolutely indispensable. None dare accuse the CPI-ML of killing women and children or innocent people. Despite strong provocations it has always worked for defusing any caste backlash, and Bathani Tola was no exception.

Kanshi Ram as well as Ram Vilas Paswan, the two self-appointed spokesmen of the dalits, didn’t feel it necessary to even condemn the incident. VP Singh, the foremost votary of dalit empowerment, who found enough time and energy to visit Ramesh Kini’s family in Mumbai, maintained mysterious silence over the entire episode. No Muslim leader worth the name cared to visit the spot despite the fact that the Ranvir Sena is a frontal organisation of the BJP, that a considerable section of the victims belong to the Muslim community, that the immediate issue was the liberation of the Kabristan and Karbala lands and that the massacre had a strong communal overtone.

Indrajit Gupta, the Communist Union Home Minister, did fly to the spot and parroted the hackneyed phrase of lack of land reforms as the root cause of the problem and hence as the Home Minister he can hardly do anything. This liberty of theorisation when one doesn’t intend to do anything concrete is, perhaps, the prerogative of a Communist Home Minister. Gupta flew back to Delhi promising Central funds for the modernisation of the police force in Bihar and for raising new units of para-military forces as demanded by the Chief Minister and the police top brass. One wonders whether it was really lack of arms which was the cause behind the police inaction! In Parliament, the Union Home Minister announced the formation of a task force comprising retired senior police officials to probe into the causes of the rise of extremism in Bihar. There was no word or action against the district administration for their criminal neglect of duty and even the earlier norm of setting up a judicial enquiry to probe such grave incidents was given a go-by under the cover of generalisations.

Gupta’s reference to lack of land reforms as the root cause was much acclaimed by the liberal media as touching the crux of the problem. However, a close scrutiny will reveal that it was the most ridiculous of statements in the concrete context and with regard to its particular timing. One often reads editorials and social analyses that point to the lack of land reforms as the root cause behind the growth of Naxalism. Gupta was obsessed with the same ‘concern’ and hence handed out the usual recipe. In his misplaced zeal of scholarly adventure he failed to grasp that Bathani Tola was the reverse case of growing feudal backlash.

In Bhojpur in general, and the main village of Barki Kharaon near Bathani Tola in particular, people relying on their organised strength and increasing political might had already snatched reforms over wages and land. The feudal backlash, emboldened by the ascendancy of the BJP in the last parliamentary elections in Bihar, was precisely meant to snatch these gains and re-establish the savarna hegemony. Incidentally, Ranvir was a Bhumihar hero of yesteryear who fought against Rajput domination and, therefore, Rajputs were generally wary of joining the Ranvir Sena. At Barki Kharaon, the unity between the two castes was effected by the BJP elements using the convenient communal pretext as the current struggle there was over Kabristan and Karbala lands which have been forcibly occupied by savarna landlords; the confrontation has its genesis in 1978 itself when Yunus Mian defeated Kesho Singh in the panchayat elections for the post of mukhiya, and then the subsequent razing to the ground of the Imambara.

Bathani Tola is a typical case of open class war which, though rising at grassroots, is defined by the parameters of political struggle at the top, a typical case where caste as well as communal antagonisms — the two major social parameters of contemporary Indian society — are blended within the framework of class struggle. It is no accident that the revolutionary Left and the communal fascist forces of the extreme Right stand face-to-face in a headlong battle in this class war which has engulfed the entire district of Bhojpur and is fast spreading to other parts of Bihar. Neither is it incidental that with the outbreak of open class war the centrist and social-democratic forces have turned impotent often adopting a neutral position that only goes to benefit the predators.

This class war, which subsumes within itself the issues of caste and communal discriminations, is at the same time the negation of the post-modernist agenda for which the priority is the other way round.

The media cover-up as well as the silence of all the proponents of dalit and minority empowerment has to be seen against this backdrop. Yet the protest movement is on. Centring around the fast-unto-death of Rameshwar Prasad, the first member of the CPI(ML)-stream to have penetrated the Indian Parliament and presently an MLA from Bhojpur, on the demands of punishing the district administration and disarming the feudals in Bhojpur, growing numbers of progressive and democratic intelligentsia are raising their voice against the medieval barbarism perpetrated in Bathani Tola and the state’s inaction.

If the 25 years of the history of Bhojpur is any guide, the struggle has never stopped half-way here. The rural poor, compared to their position 25 years ago, have snatched socio-economic gains and have advanced politically to a considerable extent. No Bathani Tola is going to make them surrender even a small bit of their gains. The battle, therefore, goes on and shall continue till the last vestige of feudalism is ultimately razed to the ground.