What happened to the blood spilt at Laxmanpur Bathe on the night of December 1st 1997? The blood of 58 people, butchered in their sleep? The blood of the poorest of the poor, the oppressed – who paid with that blood for daring to dream of equality, emancipation, and dignity? Will the blood of Bathe remain ‘orphan blood’ – or will we embrace it, adopt it, join its cries for justice?
There’s no sign of blood, not anywhere.
I’ve searched everywhere.
The executioner’s hands are clean, his nails transparent.
The sleeves of each assassin are spotless.
No sign of blood: no trace of red,
not on the edge of the knife, none on the point of the sword.
The ground is without stains, the ceiling white.
This blood which has disappeared without leaving a trace
isn’t part of written history: who will guide me to it?
But, unheard, it still kept crying out to be heard.
No one had the time to listen, no one the desire.
It kept crying out, this orphan blood,
but there was no witness. No case was filed.
From the beginning this blood was nourished only by dust.
Then it turned to ashes, left no trace, became food for dust.
(In Search of Vanished Blood, Faiz Ahmed Faiz,
Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)
When we are mauled, maimed,
Butchered, burnt in the broadest
Of daylight in common sight—which is
Several times a day from north to south,
East to west—nobody is ever guilty.
If some lowly judge points fingers,
A truly twice-born higher one
Puts to right the drudge.
Thus, the fifty eight live ones who
Were put to the gun and the machete
At Laxmanpur Bathe were never
Killed; their wretched destiny was
Fulfilled by a gust of wind from
Brahmlok which the low-caste santri
Mistook for Ranveer folk.
Baba Saheb may have made the
Constitution, but Manu’s progeny
Have always known how to
Get round that one. Thus, what wonder
That great lawyers and advocates
Who thunder about justice and
Morality see to it that those
Flush with wealth remain in good
Judicial health. Casteless underlings
Are disposable things upon which
The artifice of the republic does trade;
Such small price is paid by wise worthies
To keep in place divine hierarchies.
Yet, hear the enraged cacophonies
That bespeak the treachery of things;
And beware the end of patient habit
That even now a great change brings.
- Badri Raina
Those 58 people didn’t die in a natural calamity. Nor in an accident. The massacre wasn’t even ‘revenge’ against dalit labourers for demanding wages or land – for after all, there were other villages where such struggles over land and wages had been much sharper. The landlord armies themselves had changed sharply from their earlier avatars. Since the emergence of the CPI(ML) as an electoral contender in 1989, they had become explicitly political, with the intention of terrorising the political base of the CPI(ML). To call it a ‘caste war’ is to obscure this essentially political form that class struggle had taken.
So, Bathe was chosen for the bloodbath due to entirely cold-blooded political calculations. As CPI(ML)’s then General Secretary Vinod Mishra had written, “This time the target chosen was a village in Jehanabad that lies close to the districts of Bhojpur, Patna and Aurangabad. The essential purpose was to send the message across the whole of central Bihar. The time chosen was significant as the political crisis at the centre had matured and a caretaker government was in office. Thus, by effecting an upper caste mobilisation of both Bhumihars and Rajputs, it also symbolised the beginning of the political offensive by arch-reactionary forces. As reports suggest, this was first of the trilogy of massacres before the elections. ...The whole operation was meticulously planned. Professional killers were assembled from all neighbouring districts apart from Jehanabad. To create a record and grab the international news headlines, the number of persons to be killed was predetermined with the specific targeting of women and children. For a smooth operation, a soft target was selected where people were most unsuspecting, most unprepared and thus chances of resistance was zero.” The purpose was to consolidate upper caste support for the BJP on the eve of the Bihar elections.
The Bare Facts
Bathe, quite literally, has a blood kinship with Bathani Tola, which lies just across the Sone river from Bathe. The killers of Bathe included men from Badki Kharaon village across the Sone - the same men who had committed the Bathani Tola massacre in 1996. There were also, of course, many others – from other villages across the Sone, as well as from Bathe and its neighbouring villages like Kamta.
Let us, in the bare words available to us, reconstruct what happened that night.
That night, two big boatfuls of armed Ranvir Sena men crossed over from Sahar to the banks near the Tola. They gagged the two boatmen who ferried them across the river, and later killed them after they ferried them back. Five men found fishing at night in the river were also gagged and hacked to death.
Once they crossed the river, they were joined by a waiting team of Sena men from nearby villages. In all, they totalled about 150 men, who made their way to Batan Bigha, divided themselves into groups of 10, entered houses, and slaughtered 53 sleeping people including 27 women and 10 children, including a baby. Those killed included mostly from people from the dalit and extremely backward castes like the Mallah caste and some from the OBC Koeri caste. In all, the Ranveer Sena killed 58 people that night.
The grieved and enraged people of Batan Bigha refused to cremate the dead. When the local MLA of the ruling RJD, Ravindra Singh, came to persuade them to cremate the dead, he was chased away. On 3 December, Chief Minister Rabri Devi along with Maqbool Dar, Deputy Home Minister of the Union Government, flew down to Bathe to console the victims and offer consolation, she met with a hostile reception.
Later on 3 December, CPI(ML) leaders Comrade Vinod Mishra, Rajaram Singh, Mahendra Singh and KD Yadav visited Bathe. Only after they went to each house, meeting the bereaved and paying homage to the victims, that the villagers finally brought the dead to the banks of the Sone. The mass cremation took place on the banks of the Sone.
How was the massacre planned?
A day earlier on 30 November, a meeting of the Sena was held at the house of one Dharma Sharma in the neighbouring Kamta village. Apart from Sena men from Kamta and Laxmanpur-Bathe, the meeting was attended by men from the nearby villages of Belsar, Chanda, Sohasa, Kharsa, Koyal Bhupat, Basantpur, Parshurampur etc. The meeting also elected the Sena chief for the district.
CPI(ML) cadres in Bhojpur had got wind of an impending ‘mega-massacre,’ had informed and warned the police, and had intensified their vigil and preparedness in Bhojpur. What is notable that in spite of these warnings, the banned Ranveer Sena was allowed to hold its meeting in Kamta village with no interference, and no follow-up from the police. The police firmly looked the other way.
The ways of the Indian judicial system are strange. There are some cases in which a conviction and a severe sentence are a foregone conclusion, undaunted by the sheer paucity of evidence. “National conscience” itself, devoid of eyewitnesses or other evidence, is enough to hang an Afzal Guru. It’s also enough to convict a Shehzad for murder in the Batla House case, with the Court obligingly making a fantastic leap in imagination to fill in the gaping holes left by the prosecution. But in other cases, like the series of massacre cases in Bihar’s Patna HC, acquittals seem caste(e) in stone, blithely dismissing a mass of eyewitness testimony!
Read the Patna HC verdicts in the Bathani and Bathe cases, and it’s clear how eyewitnesses have been deemed unreliable on one or the other pretext. The HC in the Bathani case held the eyewitnesses couldn’t have been present – if they were, they would have been dead. Moreover, the HC in both Bathe and Bathani cases holds the hiding places to have been ‘improbable’. It is obsessed, in the case of one Bathe witness, with asking why the police failed to verify (soon after the massacre, with the dead and injured to be attended to and chaos all around) whether he in fact did hide in the thatched roof as claimed by him.
What about the ones who were injured – there is one such in Bathani and several such in Bathe? Surely the fact that they were injured proves they were there, and therefore their word must be true? Not so fast. In the Bathani case, the HC quibbles over injuries – asking how come Radhika Devi, shot in the chest, failed to mention a crushed finger to the doctor!
In the Bathe case, though, the main –and easy – plank adopted to dismiss eyewitness testimony has been the fact that there was a delay in getting the FIR, filed on 2 December, to the Jehanabad Civil Court till 4 December. Though the eyewitnesses stated that they told the IO the names of the accused in their very first statement, the HC has chosen to interpret the delay to mean that the names absent in the first FIR were supplied later during the gap of two days. The HC has not quarrelled with the case precedents cited by the prosecution to show that eyewitness identification has been held reliable even when the incident occurred in darkness or torch light; and that persons may be recognised thanks to the witness’ familiarity with their manner of ‘speech, walking, gesticulating.’
But if the 26 men convicted by a lower court got the ‘benefit of doubt’, who killed the 58 people? According to the HC, the killers – all of them – had escaped across the Sone into the Bhojpur villages; the police of Jehanabad district contacted the Bhojpur police with a view to identifying and finding them; but eventually dropped that effort. So, the Court concludes conveniently, the 26 men positively identified by the witnesses are innocent, the real culprits escaped unrecognised across the Sone.
There is, however, a rather obvious flaw in this neat tale. Eyewitnesses had always maintained that the assailants numbered around 150; and it is true that many of were from Bhojpur villages and escaped over the Sone. The survivors never claimed to have identified all 150. But, right from day one, survivors had categorically said that their neighbours, on whose fields they labour, were among the assailants and were positively identified beyond possible doubt. Moreover, they could also easily identify men from Bhojpur villages bordering the Sone, who were familiar to them since it was common for residents of villages on both sides of the Sone to cross the river regularly, as well as some prominent Sena leaders who were well-known and dreaded by the rural poor in the whole region. The trial court acquitted 19 accused, mostly those from the Bhojpur side, but the 26 men convicted are almost overwhelmingly from in and around Bathe.
Courage and Dignity
What the High Court verdict has been entirely callous towards, is in its failure to accord a measure of respect to the courage and dignity of the survivors who bore witness.
What the verdict calls ‘benefit of doubt’ to the accused (a laudable principle of criminal justice), is in this case something else entirely: it is selective doubt for the eyewitness and the victim! What the verdict has chosen to believe is that the prosecution witnesses took the first two days after the massacre to falsely name the accused, letting off the real culprits. Let us for a moment explore this possibility.
Why would those who lost loved ones, want to protect the real culprits or frame someone falsely? Moreover, why would they – people already in terror following the massacre - take the real social and physical risk of falsely framing those whose families wield daily social and economic power over them? Would they not be afraid of reprisal?
Further, the eyewitness testimony recorded in the trail court in 2010 is testimony that survived more than a decade of actual intimidation and acute pressure. Not all witnesses remained firm – several turned hostile. After the Nitish Kumar Government came to power and the Amir Das Commission was scrapped, it was a real morale booster for the feudal forces and a clear message to these witnesses that they could not hope to win. The pressure on them redoubled. And the shameful fact on the ground is that the pressure didn’t just come from JD(U) and BJP quarters. One of the key agents to exert this pressure and turn several witnesses hostile was Dularchand Yadav, MLA of Arwal in the crucial pre-trial period between 2005-2010, who was from the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) headed by Ram Vilas Paswan. A party claiming to represent the Dalits was an active agent in the betrayal of justice.
If the witnesses had indeed falsely named people in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, would they really be able to stick to their testimony in the face of overwhelming intimidation and coercion, if that testimony were really false? They did so at considerable cost and personal risk. In a sense, they have stuck to their testimony in spite of what can be deemed prolonged torture, watching those around them succumb. Surely the fact that they survived this tortuous test makes them reliable? To deem them ‘unreliable’ is to set up a standard of ‘reliability’ that callously refuses to take into consideration the real test of reliability in the given conditions of social, economic, and political power.
Not Only Police and Prosecution, HC Too Showed Biased
The investigation and prosecution were undoubtedly biased in the various massacre cases. But the acquittals in the HC can’t be put down to prosecutorial mishandling alone. After all, the trial court, while acquitting many, did hold that the prosecution fulfilled its burden of proof, and did therefore award convictions.
The evidence placed on record in the trial court will remain the only evidence available to the apex court. The various gaps on the part of the investigation and prosecution in the trial court cannot now be corrected in the apex court; failure of the police and prosecution to forensically match weapons with spent cartridges cannot now be corrected; nor can the delay in getting the FIR to the Jehanabad Civil Court now be remedied.
The only question on which justice hangs, then, is about the objectivity and sensitivity of the Court to the testimony of the eyewitnesses. The verdict itself mentions a whole host of legal precedents in which convictions have been granted on eyewitness evidence of crimes committed in darkness and semi-darkness, where the criminals escaped and were arrested only later. The trial Court found enough evidence to convict – not all, but some of the accused. The High Court acquitted all. Two Courts have diametrically opposed readings of the same body of evidence, presented by the same prosecution (complete with all its biases and failures).
Bela Bhatia’s fine special article (‘Justice Not Vengeance: The Bathani Tola Massacre and the Ranbeer Sena in Bihar’), on the Bathani Tola verdict, puts her finger unerringly on the biased lens with which the Patna HC viewed the evidence. She draws on her own research to situate the massacre and the struggle for justice in the actual social conditions of rural Bihar. Her article helps us to ‘meet,’ and empathise with, the actual individuals who seek justice (for instead Naeemuddin and the little son he lost, Saddam). But her empathy for the individual never makes her lose sight of the social landscape, which she brings alive with a thick description of actual daily struggles for dignity, economic justice and survival.
Her observations regarding the HC verdict in the Bathani Tola case are equally true of the Bathe HC verdict: “Even in a generous mood, it would be difficult not to find the high court judgment on the Bathani Tola case as anything but unconscionable. What the verdict does is to prepare the ground for the acquittal of the 23 found guilty by the sessions court. It uses old tactics: overdrawing upon the weaknesses of the prosecution and discrepancies in witness accounts to discredit the investigation and garnered evidence as unreliable. Having effectively done away with the witnesses, it invokes case law to justify its decision. The high court judgment reveals a clear leaning in the direction of the accused.... On closer examination of the two judgments, it is clearly the High Court judgement that is guilty of the bias it attributes to the lower court judgement.”
In the Bathe case, the Patna HC has delivered the ultimate insult by recommending that the survivors and victims’ families be compensated in keeping with Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, and that “In absence of any documentary proof of any of the victim, trial court will calculate the income of the victim on the basis of minimum wage payable on the date of occurrence...of course after adjusting ex gratia amount already paid.” Bihar in 1997 boasted some the lowest agricultural wages in the country. The minimum wage, which had hovered around Rs 27, had been recently raised at the time of the massacre to Rs. 38.61 (Source: Report On the Working of Minimum Wages Act, 1948 for Year 1998, http://labourbureau.nic.in/mwtab61.htm#bihar). The CPI(ML) used to organise struggles to raise the actual wage being paid; getting the minimum wage paid was virtually impossible then as it is now. Women, of course, would be paid even less than what the men were paid. But the dalit labouring women and men, denied in life the paltry statutory minimum wage fixed for their labour, will find in death that their lives are valued at that same paltry rate!
Bela Bhatia’s conclusion underlines the tremendous courage and restraint shown by the survivors:
“Justice for the Bathani Tola massacre victims was long in coming, and when it did, it came on a false note. What is public knowledge could not be proved in a court of law.
The Bathani Tola residents exercised restraint for many years. It must not have been easy for the survivors of the carnage and families of victims to live alongside those they know to be killers of their loved ones. The fact that “the court” was looking into the case however provided them some hope. Fighting for justice has made them even more vulnerable. We must not forget that in these regions, until recently (and to a large extent even now) just looking into the eyes of the malik while talking to him was held as audacious. Taking them to court is an unimaginable affront. Had justice been accorded judiciously it would have given strength to the victims, and worked as a deterrent. Many other lives could have been saved – lives that were lost in the interim as the Ranbeer Sena’s activities continued and many other “successful” massacres of the dalits and other oppressed groups in this region were perpetrated, especially against those who dared to rebel. The Bathani Tola residents were seeking justice, not revenge....”
The survivors of the Bathe massacre will appeal the Patna HC verdict in the Supreme Court, as must the Bihar Government. In July last year, the Supreme Court admitted appeals (filed by survivor Sri Kishun Choudhury and also by the Bihar Government) against the Patna HC verdict in the Bathani Tola case. More than a year has passed, but the hearing is yet to begin, mainly because the accused have been evading notices that have to be served to them. They will continue to evade and stall until non-bailable warrants are issued against them.
Political Patrons of the Killer Army
It is also important to demand that the Justice Amir Das Commission report be completed and made public. Why was a Commission set up to look into the funding and political support for a terrorist outfit starved of resources in the RJD regime and then wound up within the first couple of weeks of Nitish Kumar’s tenure?
The list of the politicians whose names figured in the Amir Das report is a veritable who’s who of Bihar’s powerful politicians, across parties. Links to these politicians were established through the personal diary of Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Mukhiya. Speaking to the CNN-IBN, Ram Nagina Prasad, Secretary Amir Das Commission said, “Had the report been submitted by the chairman, many people would have had to face some sort of punishment.” He also said there was proof that Brahmeshwar took funds from the rich and politically powerful, and did political services in turn for them.
And the Ranveer Sena links are common knowledge. Just how commonplace this knowledge is, is illustrated by a gaffe made by the SHO of Darihat police station in Rohtas district in June 2011. The good SHO, in a weekly confidential report with an update on a conflict over land dating back to 2003, referred to JDU MLA Sunil Pandey as “former Ranveer Sena legislator.”
Some of the prominent names in the Amir Das investigation will grace PM aspirant Narendra Modi’s ‘Hunkar Rally’ at Patna on 27 October. They’ll be in good company. The communal fascist mobs in Modi’s Gujarat 2002 had, after all, learnt several lessons from the Ranveer Sena. The Ranveer Sena chief Brahmeshwar had made no secret of his Sangh background and his hope to see Modi as PM.
The survivors and families of the victims of the Ranveer Sena’s butchery will not cower in terror at the Hunkar, however. They will join thousands to say ‘Khabardar’ (Beware) at CPI(ML)’s Rally on 30th October. All over Bihar, in preparation for the Rally, activists from amongst Bihar’s most oppressed sections are campaigning “Communal-feudal fascists be warned, this isn’t Gujarat, this is Bihar,” and also warning the people of Bihar against the true face of Modi.