AN independent team consisting of Dr.K. Gopal Iyer (Retired Prof. of Sociology, Punjab University) and R. Vidyasagar (Research consultant on social issues, New Delhi) undertook a quick study about the conducive atmosphere for a free and fair polling in Bagaha and Bettiah constituencies in West Champaran. The study was conducted between 16 th and 18 th April 2004. The team spoke to a number of people in the Bagha and Bettiah parliamentary constituencies falling within West Champaran district. The team also visited eight villages in Bagha constituency where excesses have been reported.
West Champaran is the district where the freedom struggle was launched in 1917 and ironically this district still is yearning for freedom and development. There are a number of research studies and reports showing the control of big landed estates and criminal gangs over the weaker sections of the population in this district. In 2003, Dr. Gopal Iyer and his research team had made a detailed investigation of various issues in the district such as the failure in the implementation of land ceiling, distribution of government land, atrocities of the landlords against the scheduled castes and Tharu tribal women and the acute prevalence of bondage. On receipt of this report the National Human Rights Commission sent its rapporteur to the district. On their intervention the government of Bihar freed more than 200 bonded labourers from the clutches of the landlords in the district. NHRC also directed the Bihar Government to implement the land reforms laws effectively. The present investigation is a continuation of the earlier effort.
During Lok Sabha elections, we visited areas of tension particularly the blocks of Narkatiagunj and Gaunaha. The villages visited by us are: Shrirampur, Charihani, Ekderva, Basantpur, Ramoli, Mandiha, Barnihar and Pahkaul, where we found several instances of atrocities and brutalities by criminal gangs and feudal goons. Rather than protecting the landless poor who were victims of these assaults, the police had assisted the criminals and tried to dissuade people from supporting the CPI(ML) which had raised the issue of land and wages.
Our visit to these villages and discussion with the people revealed that the main bone of contention between the land owners and the landless has been to wrest physical control over the cultivable lands that were distributed to the landless poor almost a decade ago. They had legal right over the land through the parchas given to them, but the poor were prevented from entering the land by the sheer power of the landowners in collusion with the criminals. CPI (ML), locally known as Maa-ley, has been organising the landless people in these villages since 1996 to forcibly take over possession of land allotted to them. The question of minimum wages to agricultural labourers was also taken up and as a result in many villages the landowners were forced to increase the wages from 2kgs to 4 or 5 kgs of paddy per day. Landlords resisted these moves with the support of criminals and police. This resulted in severe violent clashes between the two sections and in most cases the weaker sections are the worst affected.
We found several patently false cases lodged against local ML activists, for example murder cases registered against a blind person Krishnadev Mahto of Mandiha village. He is still wanted by police. This is obviously a false case, since a blind man cannot run and participate in rioting and killing. The CPI(ML) candidate of Bettiah constituency Mr.Veerendra Prasad Gupta is contesting from the prison. Murder cases are implicated against him and he was arrested when he was having a meeting in a village. The ML candidate from Bagha constituency Mr. Nandji Ram was not able to campaign openly for his candidature as he has warrants against him. Though the ML has filed a case in the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court on 26 th March, 2004 pointing out the names of the prominent landlords and criminals who were involved in the clashes against the weaker sections, no case has been registered them.
District Magistrate of Bettiah district Mr. Vinay Kumar acknowledged that there is extreme inequality in land distribution in the district and this contributed to the tension in the district. He also admitted that the situation has become more complicated due to the High Court’s order to either stay or reverse the distribution of parchas that has already been given to the landless poor. According to him those who have already been given land are to be evicted to restore the land back to the landlords as per the court order. This situation has accentuated the agrarian tension. He said the law, unfortunately, is heavily tilted against the poor. In the light of this admission by the DM, and the facts about blatant police complicity in repression, ‘free and fair polls’ as promised by the SP when we met him, seem a far cry.
-- K. Gopal Iyer and
Excerpts from Report Of PUHR Fact Finding team to investigate attacks on rural poor in the Bagha Sabha constituency of West Champaran in Bihar.
Between 8-10 April 2004, a PUHR (People’s Union for Human Rights) fact finding team led by PUHR President Dr. Krishnavatar Pandey (Allahabad High Court) visited several places in Narkatiaganj, Gaunaha, Mainatand, and other blocks in the Bagha Parliamentary constituency.
Badnihar : CPI(ML) District Committee member told us that Sheikh Musannif along with 100 members of his criminal gang called the Kisan Sangh attacked the Badnihar village on 13 February 2004. Villagers and ML leaders resisted them, and forced them to return. On the same day, they returned at 2 pm along with the Narkatiaganj DSP and the Shikarpur Thana incharge and launched a new attack. Police and criminals entered home after home, beat up women and children, injuring 33 people and arrested 17. They were badly thrashed in the Thana, and, based on an FIR lodged by the criminal Tabrej Alam, 12 were sent to jail. Police also looted money, cycles, vessels, goats and rice.
Repeated attacks, alternately by the criminals and the police followed on February 25 and 26.
On the way to Badnihar to investigate these claims, the PUHR team passed Lakhankhor village, where we met a 20 year- old woman Dhrupati Devi who had fled from Badnihar. She described how on Feb 24, a huge police force forcibly entered the houses in Badnihar, and began asking where weapons and ML leaders were hidden. Receiving no answer, one policeman dragged her outside, and kicked her with his boot onto the ground. She was pregnant, and this incident caused her to give birth to a dead foetus. Sahodari Devi also delivered a dead foetus following the police beating, while Lalan Choudhry’s wife lost her foetus during the police beating and herself died soon after.
Other villagers of Badnihar said the Musannif gang threatened them to leave CPI(ML).
Ekharva- Charihani : Having chased poor villagers from Charihani to Ekharva, criminals then attacked Ekharva as well. When our team reached Charihani, we found the entire village barring a few homes, had been burnt to a heap of ashes. However, when we spread out a mat under a few burnt trees, people soon gathered. Saraswati Devi began to tell us that before the arson and looting that took place on 26 March, police had conducted raids on the village thrice, beating people up when asking them to reveal the whereabouts of ML Block Secretary Ganesh Mahto and District Secretary Shambhu Yadav. 87 people lost their homes in the arson. 2 days before the arson, criminals had looted all the possessions in the village, including all the handpumps – they only spared the private handpump of an opponent of CPI(ML). On 26 March, when the criminals were burning Charihani and looting Ekharva, police were camped in the next door tola of Khekharia. After the village was reduced to ashes, the DSP came to visit; but instead of acting against the criminals, he ‘advised’ the villagers that they would continue to suffer unless they left ML. The DSP told them to either leave ML or get ML to rebuild the houses. Musannif’s goons would similarly threaten and coerce villagers into taking Kisan Sangh membership on stamp paper.
In Basantpur, Badgo, Chiutanha in Mainatand Block, Bahuarva, and Matiariya, the stories were the same – raids by the police demanding the whereabouts of ML leaders and weapons, arrests and false cases, followed by attacks by criminals and feudal forces, and wholesale loot of the belongings of the villagers, as well as beatings and rapes. The pattern seemed intended to snatch away every inch of self-respect and dignity of the poor people.
In Mainatand, the police had surrounded Chiutanha village, arrested Daud Kureshi, the CPI(ML) Block Secretary. They looted money, Gobari Paswan’s watch, a tape recorder, 3 pants and 4 shirts. The DSP and Mainatand Thana Incharge themelves presided over the loot. They also looted, among other things, Nisha Khatoon’s false silver anklets, an inchtape, and her pair of earrings. They even dug the ground to take savings buried there.
When we arrived in Matiyaria, there was silence and desolation – no one to be seen but a few dogs. But when a local ML activist got down from the jeep and called to people, they emerged from hiding behind bushes and rooms, laughing with relief. Such was the terror of police in the village.
After their investigation, the team visited Betia Jail, where CPI(ML) leader Virendra Gupta, also the ML candidate from Betia, is imprisoned. He informed us that at that time, there were nearly 150 ML activists in the jail, all booked under false cases by feudal-criminal forces. Whereas in all these years there has never been a single case lodged against any of the feudal landowners. There are 4000 innocent agrarian labourers who are wanted under various warrants. While the murders, kidnapping, loot and brutal repression by feudal forces goes unpunished.
When we met the SP, he acknowledged that the land situation where most people were landless and a few estates had cornered all the land, was the cause of conflict. But he said he could only preserve the law, the High Court stay on ceilings had tied his hands. We asked him whether the terror unleashed by the police in cohorts with landed criminals was ‘preserving the law’, to which he retorted that he had no knowledge of such atrocities, and if such had indeed occurred, ML should fight in legal ways rather than ‘taking law into their own hands’.