Ranveer Sena Revisited:
Feudal-Kulak Power and Lalu-Nitish Continuum
Two recent incidents – first, the shocking acquittal by the Patna High Court of 23 Ranveer Sena men convicted by a lower court for the barbaric Bathani Tola massacre (11 July, 1996) and then the assassination of Brahmeshwar Singh, the man who founded and led the Sena for nearly two decades – have attracted renewed media, academic and of course political attention to the Ranveer Sena that haunted Bihar from the late 1990s until the early years of the 21st century. Singh, who had been a key accused in as many as 22 massacre cases had been out on bail for the last one year and had warned the Bihar government against appealing to the Supreme Court against the High Court acquittal.
Following Singh’s assassination his supporters went berserk in the state, indulging in indiscriminate acts of vandalism and renewed assaults on dalit hamlets and dalit student hostels. Taking a leaf out of the Modi school of ‘raj dharm’ or ‘governance’, the Bihar government gave a free hand to the rampaging Sena. Meanwhile, cutting across the government-opposition divide, prominent political leaders of Bihar have been busy paying homage to Singh with one senior BJP minister of Bihar going as far as describing Singh as a true Gandhian! The funeral and the shradh ceremony of the slain Ranveer Sena chief were held with what can virtually be called ‘state honours’ with several ministers of the Nitish Kumar cabinet, senior BJP leaders and MPs and MLAs from the BJP, JD(U), RJD and Congress in attendance.
Interestingly, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan were quick to demand a CBI probe into Singh’s assassination and for once, the Nitish Kumar government, which usually takes immense pleasure in rejecting and ridiculing the demand for CBI probes as a ‘fashionable fetish’ of an agenda-less opposition has been prompt in conceding this demand. It should be noted that there have been at least five occasions in the recent past when large sections of Bihari society and political opinion demanded CBI probes and yet was ignored by the government. There have been two instances of massive financial and procedural irregularity, one indicating a huge treasury fraud and the other involving glaring nepotism in allotment of BIADA (Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority) land, quite akin to the Adarsh society land scam and the 2G spectrum scam. Then there has been the Forbesganj police-firing incident on 3 June 2011, one of the most barbaric cases of police atrocity which the state has seen, in which the Bihar police gunned down four innocent Muslims at point-blank range. And in March this year, Bihar witnessed two widely condemned political murders – Bhaiyaram Yadav, Rohtas District Secretary of CPI(ML) and a popular leader of people’s struggles was killed on 14 March and Devendra Singh alias Chhotu Kushwaha, a pro-RJD Mukhia of Sonhattu panchayat in Aurangabad district was shot to death on 29 March – that triggered a series of powerful social and political protests. Contrast Nitish Kumar’s stubborn refusal to recommend a CBI probe in any of these cases to the alacrity with which his government referred the Brahmeswar Singh murder case to the CBI, and the enormous clout the Ranveer Sena continues to enjoy in the corridors of power in Bihar becomes crystal clear.
Indeed, the Ranveer Sena has never been a typical private army, from its inception it has rather functioned on the PPP model, an example of a state-backed private army. This is of crucial significance in understanding the Ranveer Sena and also the state and the dominant political economy in modern-day Bihar.
Congress-ruled Bihar had seen several Senas in the 1970s and 1980s. These Senas were however mostly local phenomena affecting a district or two – the Bhoomi Sena in Patna and Jahanabad, the Sunlight Sena in Palamau, the Lorik Sena in Nalanda and so on and so forth – and faded away after a few years of fierce confrontation with the growing assertion of the rural poor in their respective areas. The Ranveer Sena emerged in post-Congress Bihar when Lalu Prasad was on the political ascendance with his charming rhetoric of social justice and dignity of the poor.
One would have expected the government identified with the political assertion of the social coalition of backward castes, dalits and the minority community to try and nip a private army backed by an upper caste in the bud. Yet the Ranveer Sena was allowed to gather strength and carry out massacres with impunity. While Lalu Prasad openly shared stages with known Ranveer Sena elements, announcing his readiness to join hands with the devil to combat the CPI(ML), Chandra Deo Varma, his party’s MP and a minister with the UF government at the Centre, called for lifting the ban on the Sena.
The political backing for Ranveer Sena became more explicit with the ascent of the BJP-JD(U) coalition to power. Nitish Kumar made his position abundantly clear at the very outset of his first term in power when his government disbanded the Justice Amir Das commission to bury the probe into the political links of the Ranveer Sena that had been ordered in the wake of the infamous Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre in December 1997. Before the Assembly elections in 2010, Brahmeshwar Singh’s name was delinked from the Bathani Tola and Bathe massacre trials which were underway in the Ara Sessions Court, on the preposterous claim that Singh was an ‘absconder’ even as he was lodged in jail at Ara town itself! The elections gave Nitish Kumar a renewed mandate and his government saw to it that Brahmeshwar Singh was let out on bail. And now we are witnessing the shocking spectacle of systematic acquittal of massacre convicts by the High Court.
The rise of the Ranveer Sena phenomenon in post-Congress Bihar is thus a story of a curious alliance between the feudal camp and the political elite that rose from the social churning accelerated by the Mandal wave. The Sena originated in Bhojpur in 1994 with the avowed aim of wiping out the communist movement led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). An early Sena leaflet arrogantly claimed, “We will not allow Bhojpur to be turned into Russia or China; with our guns we will remove all signs of red flag not only from Bhojpur but from the entire country, we will re-establish the social system of our ancestors and revive the old customs and laws.” Ranveer Chaudhary or Baba Ranveer was an iconic local hero of the Bhumihar caste fighting the social domination of the Rajput gentry, but the Ranveer Sena was formed with the express purpose of crushing the growing social and political assertion of the rural poor made up predominantly of dalits and extremely backward castes and the Muslim community.
In a political situation where upper-caste landed groups felt ousted from state power and pushed back locally by an advancing CPI(ML), the Ranveer Sena managed to strike a chord with a larger audience transcending its own narrow local base. Very soon its operational base spread over almost the whole of erstwhile central Bihar on both sides of River Sone comprising both Shahabad as well as Magadh zones. Curiously enough, even as the Sena drew on the upper-caste frustration with the post-Mandal political order in Bihar, the new rulers were only too happy to make common cause with the Sena to check the growing assertion of the rural poor and the political rise of the CPI(ML). The competitive appeasement of the BJP-backed Ranveer Sena by the RJD and the JD(U) gave this murderous private army the kind of unprecedented leeway and licence it enjoyed all along notwithstanding a legal ban. This political convergence of course also indicates an unmistakable coalescence of class interests on the ground between the decaying feudal forces and the emerging kulak sections from both upper caste-led camps as well as dominant backward castes.
Quite predictably, apologists of the Ranveer Sena refuse to acknowledge the essential feudal character of the Sena. Many well-meaning observers of Bihar also show a high degree of confusion on this score. The root of this confusion lies in the presumed equivalence between feudalism and large land-holdings. It is true that one does not see in today’s Bhojpur the kind of concentration of land-holdings that is still seen in districts like Champaran or Purnea in Bihar or in several other parts of India. Decades of powerful land movement and the dynamic of socio-economic development experienced historically in the region have considerably broken down that kind of feudal land concentration. But we must not lose sight of the overall picture, because feudal power is not exercised only through control over land, rather it is exercised and reproduced primarily through extra-economic coercion. We must never forget that social oppression (combining almost invariably aspects of caste, class and gender), various kinds and degrees of bondage, and political exclusion have historically been the hallmarks of feudal domination the world over.
Indeed, alongside the questions of land, wages and social dignity, the right to vote has been one of the most keenly contested issues in the history of the rise of the CPI(ML) in Bihar. In fact, behind the very emergence of the CPI(ML) in Bhojpur was the Assembly election in 1967 in which Comrade Ramnaresh Ram contested as a CPI(M) candidate and he and all his close comrades were badly beaten up and harassed by the feudal lobby which could not stomach this ‘political audacity’ of the oppressed and the downtrodden.
Years later, in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, when large numbers of dalits for the first time succeeded in exercising their franchise and electing Comrade Rameshwar Prasad as the first ‘Naxalite’ member of Parliament from Ara, a bloodbath ensued in Danwar-Bihta village just after the polling and as many as twenty-two people had to pay with their lives for the right to vote.
The Bathani Tola massacre in July 1996 had a very similar backdrop. In the panchayat elections in 1978, Mohammad Yunus had become the ‘mukhiya’ (chief) of Kharaon panchayat in Sahar block much to the chagrin of the feudal-communal forces in the area. Under the leadership of this popular mukhiya, poor Muslims in and around Kharaon joined the CPI(ML) in large numbers. In 1995, the Sahar (SC) Assembly seat as well as the adjacent seat of Sandesh were won for the first time by the CPI(ML) and the victorious MLAs were none other than Comrades Ramnaresh Ram – the 1967 CPI(M) candidate was now a towering leader of the CPI(ML) in Bihar – and Rameshwar Prasad, the former Indian People’s Front MP from Ara.
The feudal lobby of Bhojpur became jittery and desperate. The Ranveer Sena was formed with the declared objective of wiping out the CPI(ML) from the soil of Bihar. A communal mobilisation began in Kharaon to deny the Muslim people their customary right to the Imambada and Karbala land. It was in the course of the struggle to defend their land and right that several Muslim families got evicted and had to relocate themselves in the predominantly dalit settlement of Bathani Tola in Kharaon panchayat. It was this united settlement of dalit and Muslim rural poor households that witnessed the macabre dance of death on July 11, 1996.
While no mainstream commentator would dare to go as far as to support the Sena-led massacres, there has been no dearth of attempts to find some justification for the Sena and rationalise it as some sort of a ‘reaction’ of last resort by an aggrieved ‘peasantry’ pushed to a corner by some ‘excessive’ or ‘extreme’ actions of the CPI(ML). It has never been the CPI(ML)’s policy to treat ordinary Bhumihar peasants as feudal lords. In the wake of the first signs of the anti-poor and counter-revolutionary feudal-kulak mobilisation under the banner of the Ranveer Sena, the CPI(ML) reached out to the broader masses of peasantry, appealing to all concerned to enable peace to prevail. A folder issued by the CPI(ML) Central Committee in 1996 gave a pointed account of the peace efforts made by the party in the days preceding the Bathani Tola massacre. It is instructive to reproduce that account, which appeared in the September 1996 issue of Liberation:
“On the occasion of the anniversary function of Swami Sahjanand Sarawsati organised by Kisan Mahasabha in Bihta (Patna), we began our peace talks. Smt. Tarkeshwari Sinha and Shri Laliteshwar Shahi participated in the talks along with some respected personalities of the Bhumihar caste. From our side Central Committee Member and ex-State Secretary Com. Pawan Sharma was present. The talks were quite positive. Exactly two days after these talks the party General Secretary issued an appeal for peace in a press conference at Arrah. This appeal was well highlighted by the press. All peace-loving people welcomed it. We had also hoped for a positive answer from the Ranveer Sena. Next, we sent a message through a friend, who was mediating, that the Ranveer Sena should issue some statement so that we can proceed to the next step. The friend conveyed our message but the response was disappointing. Our peace effort had failed.
In order that we could take up developmental work in the area it was urgently needed that peace be established, so we did not give up our peace effort. This time we started again in a different way. We thought that we should create public pressure by mobilizing public opinion. We also hoped that the administration would help us. In June ‘96, we began peace campaign by organizing dozens of mass meetings in the main market as well as village chawls and told the people to come forward in this peace effort. In the meantime, contradictions between kisans of Ranveer Sena and our people in five villages were resolved. Through this campaign our issue of development gained seriousness and in Tarari block we started our Ghera dalo dera dalo movement. The movement was a big success.
In Arrah, we organised a seminar centering the issue of peace, in which many respectable intellectuals and peace-loving persons as well as common people participated. It is unfortunate that the Ranveer Sena showed little respect for the aspirations of the peace-loving people and retaliated with violence which continued all through our peace campaign. In this way our second effort also became unsuccessful. In a leaflet the Ranveer Sena appealed to the people to forsake this peace campaign and join the ongoing war. This may be the reason why the peace effort was rewarded through ‘Bathani Tola’.”
It is the Ranveer Sena’s hatred for the rural poor and the consequent campaign of extermination of CPI(ML) and its supporters which unmistakably exhibited its feudal reactionary character and that is the crucial point. Yet attempts to peasantise the Ranveer Sena continue with the most bizarre kind of arguments. Thus Shaibal Gupta, prominent economist and ardent admirer of Nitish Kumar’s paradigm of ‘development’ and ‘good governance’ describes the Ranveer Sena as “essentially an unwarranted extension of Sahajanand Saraswati’s movement” (The Indian Express, June 4, 2012) even as he decries it as a lumpen social construct and likens it to the notorious Ku Klux Klan, the far-right white supremacist outfit from modern American history.
For students of history, Sahajanand Saraswati and Brahmeshwar Singh are clearly worlds apart, the only tenuous thread shared by the two being their common caste marker. Sahajanand’s stream of peasant radicalism stood out for its bold Left orientation and powerful advocacy of unity of peasants with agricultural labourers. Sahajanand had opposed a spurious Congress-backed attempt at forming a separate agricultural labour organisation not because he thought agricultural labourers did not exist as a separate class or did not deserve to be organised but precisely because he wanted the peasant organisation to give prominence to the interests and demands of agricultural labourers as part of its own integral agenda and forge a close organic peasant-worker unity in complete demarcation with and sharp opposition to the feudal interests and their colonial masters.
In sharp contrast, Brahmeshwar Singh’s line can only be described as the polar opposite of the legacy of Sahajanand. If the gory violence unleashed by the Sena matched the worst cases of ethnic cleansing and human genocide, the arguments offered by it to justify the massacres of women and children – that women needed to be killed because they would give birth to Naxalites and children had to be wiped out so they did not grow into Naxalites – exposed its macabre mind-set to the whole world. Many of the Sena’s declarations were also strikingly pro-Hindutva. Shrill anti-communism apart, its ardent cries for abolition of Article 370 and ban on cow-slaughter all read like typical RSS literature. In a recent interview, not long before his death, Brahmeswar Singh freely admitted to have been an RSS cadre since childhood, and declared his wish to see Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.
Indeed, the emergence of the CPI(ML) and the militant assertion of the rural poor in central Bihar under the CPI(ML)/IPF/Kisan Sabha banner and the victories they won in terms of land, wages, dignity and political representation prompted academics and writers like Walter Hauser and Arvind N Das to see the CPI(ML) as an inheritor of Sahajanand’s legacy of peasant radicalism. The CPI(ML)’s own understanding of the revolutionary peasant movement in the 1970s and 1980s also highlighted this historical continuum. The only difference was that while Sahajanand was calling for reaching out to the rural poor from the point of view of the peasantry, the CPI(ML) was calling for reaching out to the peasantry from the position of the rural poor. From Sahajanand to CPI(ML), there was naturally a decisive transition in caste-class terms. If one looks at the development of history through the lens of the dynamic of class struggle and not through the prism of caste, one can surely recognise in Comrade Ramnaresh Ram the spirit of Sahajanand in late 20th Century Bihar instead of vainly looking for a caste-based resurrection of one great phase of social awakening in a later period and in a different context.
Shaibal Gupta (henceforth SG), of course, is well aware that in ideological-political terms the Ranveer Sena can by no means be bracketed with Sahajanand’s movement. So he chooses to invoke some abstract economic context to buttress his thesis of the Ranveer Sena being an “unwarranted extension” of Sahajanand’s movement. He argues, “The Ranbir Sena was the product of the political marginalisation of the landlords and the falling rates of return from agriculture. While the landlords had no control over burgeoning input costs, they could only deal with the declining rates of return from agriculture by reducing the legitimate share of agricultural labourers in the revenues generated. This could be operationalised by
forming militia from amongst former Bhumihar tenants, by employing extreme right-wing and racist rhetoric.”
Forming a murderous militia to deal with burgeoning input costs and declining rates of return from agriculture? One wonders why then the Ranveer Sena never did anything else than targeting CPI(ML) and butchering the rural poor if it was actually trying to tackle an incipient agrarian crisis. All over the country, peasants have fought valiantly against burgeoning input costs, for securing remunerative prices for crops or to protest against the deep-seated neglect of agriculture. From around the same time when the Ranveer Sena raised its ugly head in Bihar we have also seen the most unfortunate but shockingly real phenomenon of peasant/farmer suicides in the country which also marks an extreme form of protest. And SG would like us to accept his rationalisation of the Ranveer Sena as a peasant response to growing input costs and falling rate of agricultural returns?
It is true that there has been a chronic lack of public investment in agriculture in Bihar. But what is equally true, and inseparable from this, is the relentless diversion of agrarian surplus away from agriculture into other avenues of accumulation including crime, corruption and politics, avenues that are known to guarantee much higher returns than agriculture in Bihar. This aspect has been closely observed and discussed by many insightful researchers and writers who have written on the ‘Republic of Bihar’, to use the name of the famous book authored by Arvind N Das in the early 1990s. The Ranveer Sena itself represented a ‘model’ of non-agricultural accumulation along these lines. As SG himself acknowledges, the Ranveer Sena had “global financial patronage” and now there are media reports coming in that there are huge funds with the Sena running into tens of crores of rupees, the control of which remains a bone of contention within Sena circles.
SG argues that the Sena model of ‘social mediation’ flourished as a result of the weak presence of a functional state, and it had been eclipsed with the advent of Nitish Kumar and his paradigm of ‘development’ and ‘good governance’. He therefore sees in the killing of Brahmeswar Singh a political conspiracy to discredit the Nitish Kumar government and derail its development agenda. In the process of glorifying Nitish Kumar’s model of ‘development’ and ‘good governance’, this argument also seeks to lend an element of objective and historical legitimacy to the Sena-led massacres as a mode of social mediation. Apart from the dangerous implications of treating massacres as a mode of social mediation, this argument is utterly untenable both as an assessment of the Ranveer Sena phenomenon as well as an evaluation of the nature and role of the Nitish Kumar-led dispensation in today’s Bihar.
As we have already seen, the Ranveer Sena could ‘flourish’ because of the patronage and complicity of the state and not because of the presumed absence or weakness of the state. It is instructive to note that while the Ranveer Sena raged in Bihar and the local/provincial administration was exposed to be hand in glove with the Sena, the all-India state hardly expressed any concern let alone initiate any corrective action. In sharp contrast to Indira Gandhi’s spectacular visit to Belchi in 1978 when she came riding on an elephant to this rural Patna site of a dalit massacre or more recently Rahul Gandhi’s much publicised visit to Bhatta Parsaul in UP, no senior Congress leader or even former Prime Ministers like Chandrashekhar or VP Singh cared to visit Bathani Tola or Laxmanpur Bathe. Nor did the massacres evoke any judicial intervention or activism on the part of the apex court. It was left only to President KR Narayanan to describe the Bathe massacre as a matter of national shame, but the Justice Amir Das Commission of Inquiry formed in its wake was allowed to gather dust before being finally disbanded in 2006.
The Ranveer Sena was thus allowed to function as a ‘mini state’ within the state and the eclipse of the Sena happened not because of the state but in spite of the state. The Sena had already been eclipsed before Nitish Kumar came to power and this had nothing to do with the so-called development agenda. Behind the steady decline and isolation of the Sena lay the sustained resistance of the rural poor and the opposition of the CPI(ML) and a whole range of other democratic forces, and related to it, the growing disillusionment and dissent within the Sena’s own ranks and erstwhile supporters. It should also be noted that the resistance waged by the rural poor under the leadership of the CPI(ML) never degenerated into indiscriminate counter-violence even as the Maoists briefly sought to intervene by imitating the Ranveer Sena in the name of giving it a rebuff when they massacred 34 innocent people in the predominantly Bhumihar village of Senari in Jahanabad district on 18 March 1999. The CPI(ML) had categorically condemned the Maoist-led massacre and stressed the need to isolate and not imitate private armies like the Ranveer Sena and unite the rural poor and the labouring peasantry on their common class interests instead of dividing them on caste lines.
Nitish Kumar, if anything, tried to protect the Sena and prolong its life, by all the pro-Sena steps that followed systematically during his tenure. And far from weakening the feudal-kulak stranglehold on Bihar’s economy and polity, his development agenda has only sought to reinforce feudal-kulak power in Bihar. Increased public investment in agriculture has not been a priority for this government, and meaningful land reforms a complete taboo! The Land Reforms Commission recommendations have been dumped unceremoniously and even the most modest suggestions to regulate tenancy, arguably the most widespread and rapidly growing mode of cultivation in Bihar, have been abandoned in the face of frenzied feudal objections. Perhaps it is not surprising then that SG too talks of only land management and makes no mention of land reforms.
Nitish Kumar’s supporters of course wax eloquent about the increase in the quantum of funds flowing into Bihar and the resultant ‘growth miracle’ in Bihar. It is well known that the increased funds, whether from the Centre or from the World Bank and related institutions, are going mostly into the construction sector and various cosmetic schemes, with large amounts going straight into the corrupt pockets of contractors, bureaucrats, ruling politicians and their underlings among criminals and lumpens. During the fifteen years of JD/RJD rule, popularly known as the Lalu-Rabri era in Bihar, the state had come to an economic standstill and what Nitish Kumar has done is to re-integrate Bihar with the neoliberal ‘mainstream’ of market fundamentalism. This did result in an initial euphoria about economic growth, but with reality overshadowing the rhetoric, the euphoria has begun to evaporate. It has not gone unnoticed that in the last five years Bihar has had a net addition of five million people to its estimated poor population even by the Planning Commission’s ridiculously low BPL benchmark.
SG gives us an impression that the Senas used to rage in some sort of an ancient, distant past in Bihar. Well, just as the American parallel that he has cited, that of the notoriously white supremacist, anti-semitic, anti-communist outfit called the Ku Klux Klan, flourished not just in the distant nineteenth century but till recently in the late twentieth century US, the phenomenon of the private Senas and the underlying feudal-kulak mobilisation has been very much an integral part of modern-day Bihar. Indeed, the KKK was revived in the 1960s precisely in response to the Civil Rights movement of African Americans, much as Bihar saw desperate feudal attempts to drown in blood the dalit rural poor’s battle to use the right to vote.
Commentators looking at Bihar through the prism of ‘caste’ have always sought to measure Bihar in caste terms, but the oppressed rural poor of Bihar have made huge achievements in terms of their battle for dignity and rights even in the face of fierce feudal-kulak violence and state repression. It is this battle which has been the key motive force in pushing Bihar forward. Given the degree of feudal-kulak domination in Bihar’s overall balance of power and the trajectory of the state, it may well be too early to say that with the exit of Brahmeshwar Singh, the phenomenon of organised feudal-kulak violence in Bihar has come to a definitive end. A concerted attempt can already be seen in Bihar to whip up a renewed feudal frenzy. But we can surely count on the tenacity, courage, determination and maturity displayed historically by the oppressed poor of Bihar in their protracted battle for democracy, dignity and justice; and also on the wisdom and conscience of broader democratic opinion in Bihar and beyond in preventing any possible resurrection of a private army like the Ranveer Sena.