Bathe (Arwal/Bihar): For Laxman Rajvanshi, Subedar Ram, Vinod Paswan, Sikandar Choudhary, Manoj Kumar and Parbatia Devi, a single issue will decide their preference to support or vote in the Lok Sabha polls – whoever ensures them punishment for the 26 accused in the 1997 Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre of dalits. The accused were acquitted by the Patna High Court, citing lack of evidence.
All these six persons are close relatives of the 58 dalits, the poorest of the poor, who were allegedly massacred by the upper caste Ranvir Sena in 1997 in Laxmanpur-Bathe village in the then Jehanabad district of Bihar. The victims included 27 women and 10 children. Arwal is part of Jehanabad parliamentary constituency of Bihar.
With electioneering picking up in Bihar, dalits and backward caste villagers of Laxmanpur-Bathe, a village on the banks of Sone river, want only punishment for the accused. The helpless kin of the victims said acquittal of all the accused had forced them to think that poor would never get justice.
“Sajay (saja) hona chahiye”(They should be punished), said Laxman Rajvanshi, who is in his early 70s, sitting under a tree near his house, where 22 years ago, three of his family members -- his wife, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter -- were killed on a cold December night.
Laxman, who is one of the main witnesses in the case ,told Newsclick that the accused should get harsh punishment by the Supreme Court to ensure justice to “us and to strengthen our faith in the system.”
“If the accused are not punished, it is bound to raise serious questions over justice for poor, deprived and marginalised people like us. It will prove the words of the accused true, that nothing will be done against them despite killing so many people. The acquittal was an injustice” he added.
Laxman pointed out that more than development or any other issue, punishment for the accused matter to them the most. “We were told that BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ally JD-U (Janata Dal- United) helped the accused. Why should we vote for a party that is a known sympathiser of Ranvir Sena.”
He questioned the BJP’s silence on the issue. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government did nothing in the last five years to ensure punishment to the accused, as they belong to the landed Bhumihar caste that overwhelming supports it”, he said, adding that he would prefer to die but not compromise on his fight for punishment to the accused.
“I will continue to speak, raise voice and stand against accused…. I am not afraid of my life. Some of the accused approached me and offered me to give Rs 50 lakh to become a hostile witness, but I refused,” Laxman said.
Another villager, Subedar Ram, whose five close relatives -- mother, brother, sister-in-law and two nephews -- were among the victims, said he wanted death penalty for the accused. “They should be given death sentence or at least life imprisonment”, he added.
Subedar, in his late 50s, said that after being acquitted, the accused (mostly belonging to the landed upper caste Bhumihar community that is considered powerful for muscle power), have been threatening us against moving the Supreme Court. “They (accused) openly say that even after killing dozens nothing has happened to them,” he said, adding that “we will support and vote for the party that protested against acquittal of accused.”
Subedar was supported by Vinod Paswan and his wife Sunaina Devi, who lost seven family members in the massacre. A red coloured memorial in memory of the dead stands in front of Paswan’s house.
“The court has disappointed us. We expected death sentence for the accused but the court has acquitted them”, he said.
Nine family members of Sikandar Choudhary were also killed we’re killed. ”My family lost the highest number of people. But the accused are free now. It is like adding salt to our deep wounds,” he said.
Not just the affected families, but even a vendor selling aluminium utensils in the village since the 1990s said that punishment to the accused was a must.
”The poor should get justice for the blood of their close relatives” said Ram Bali Prasad, who belongs to a nearby village.
Vimlesh Rajvanshi said he was hardly 8-10 years old when the massacre took place. “Five of my family members -- father, two brothers and two sisters- in-law -- were killed. I was the only family member who survived despite a bullet having hit me”, he said, showing a bullet mark on his cheek.
“I am a poor man, working as farm labourer to earn livelihood. My desire is to see the accused behind bars, not on streets” he added.
Similarly, Manoj Kumar was 3 years old when his mother, brother and sister were killed. He said he had no memory except the sound of loud crying in the dark night. ”I want big punishment to them ” said Manoj, who works as farm labourer.
Parbatia Devi also lost three family members. She said her grandson was then only six months old,now he is young but unemployed. He works occasionally as farm labourer, getting Rs 250 a day. ”My son and daughter-in-law were killed along with their minor daughter, but my grandson is yet to get government job as promised”, she told Newsclick.
All of these people, belonging to one of the most marginalised sections of society, had a common refrain -- the accused were acquitted due to the failure of the police to properly frame charges against them.
They recalled that villagers were happy in April 2010 when 16 people were sentenced to death and 10 were awarded life imprisonment by the additional district and sessions judge of the Patna civil court, while acquitting 19 people.
"There was a festivity in the village then as the verdict gave us hope for justice. Now, after the high court acquitted all of them, we strongly doubt justice now” Paswan said.
After the massacre, this hamlet of Laxmanpur-Bathe has no doubt changed in the past two decades. The mud and thatched houses have been replaced by brick-concrete (pakka) houses. Soon after the shocking massacre, roads were constructed to connect the village but the narrow lanes in the hamlet are still without roads. “Only six-seven months ago, electricity arrived in the village,” Subedar said.
According to the villagers, about a dozen of the kin of massacre victims got government jobs and compensation that boosted their income.
“We have purchased agricultural land and constructed a house with the money” Laxman said. Similar changes were visible in the village, such as some youths riding new model two-wheelers and the sound of television from some homes.
On December 1, 1997, upper caste men belonging to the militia Ranvir Sena had allegedly carried out the killing of 58 dalits, borne out of caste animosities. Charges were framed against 44 people on December 23, 2008, almost 11 years after the massacre.
The then Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) government, led by Rabri Devi, set up the Amir Das Commission to probe the political links of the Ranvir Sena. However, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar wound up the commission after coming to power in 2006 in alliance with the BJP.
Opposition parties, including the RJD and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) have alleged that the Nitish Kumar government was protecting the interests of the Ranvir Sena and suppressing the voices of the poorest of the poor.
This is not the only case in which the accused were acquitted by a court in Bihar, shocking the families of the victims of caste massacres in Bihar. In 2012, Patna High Court acquitted 23 men in the 1996 Bathani tola massacre of 21 people, mostly dalits and Muslims, by the Ranvir Sena militia in Bhojpur district.
Later, the Patna High Court acquitted 11 people accused in the Nagari Bazaar massacre in which 10 CPI(ML) supporters, mostly dalits, were killed in Bhojpur district in 1998.