Monday, June 16, 2003

15 yrs on, Jehanabad awaits next massacre

Life hasn't changed for survivors of killing that set off Bihar caste war

VARGHESE K GEORGE

NONAHI-NAGWAN (JEHANABAD), JUNE 15: Exactly 15 years ago, this village shot to national infamy when 20 Dalits were massacred for daring to demand wages. For the survivors and the victims' kin, little has changed in the intervening period; they live in fear of another massacre, the land they received as compensation has been seized, the promised jobs haven't come for all and, where they have, the salaries haven't.

The thick cover of fear over the village is despite the judgement on June 6 of a special court ordering the death sentence for eight of the accused and life terms for six others.

The landlords and political masters - Bhumihars and Yadavs - have instilled such fear in the Dalits here that no one dares to speak in the open. ''Please don't name me in reports. We fear another massacre any time'', Ram Prasad (name changed) whispers even as 'spies' look on.

The political landscape of the village has changed substantially since 1988, as in other parts of Bihar, but the Dalits aren't sure it has been for the better. ''Though we still live in fear of our lives, no landlord can prevent our children from being sent to school,'' says Ram Prasad, accentuating the positive. But what landlords legally can't do, poverty can; only four or five children from the 30-plus Dalit families get to attend the school just a stone's throw away.

Even on paper, much needs to be one. The government had offered land and a job to each of the 15 dependents of the 20 victims. Till date, nine have got jobs - four of them only six months ago. Land was given to all, says Jahanabad Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), M S Jamal, but Dalits complain that it has all been taken over by those in power.

''This is where I was given land'', Mangali Majhi says, pointing to a large pond under construction. The money for the pond came from a Union Rural Development Ministry scheme administered by local non-governmental groups, in this case controlled by the upper-castes.

Jamal acknowledges that the pond should have been in a government plot adjacent to those given to Dalits. "We were not aware of these things. But we will look into it and ensure that the Dalits get back their land, if dispossessed," says Jahanabad DM Santhosh Kumar Lall. The immediate cause for the June 16 massacre was the refusal of Laldas Paswan, a Dalit labourer, to work without being paid. The landlords had already been angered by workers' demands for a wage increase - from the daily one kg of grain to one and half - which they saw as a direct challenge to their authority. Paswan's audacity was beyond their tolerance.

''The landlords hired goons from nearby villages, who came in the night," recalls Dewnandan Das whose father, two sons and two sisters were killed. Laldas Paswan and his seven-year-old son were killed.

Das and Paswan's widow Malti Devi were among the key prosecution witnesses in the case. ''They come and threaten me still, but I don't care now'', says Das (70).

Those present at the upper-caste gathering at the school ground refused to talk to this correspondent, saying Rameshwar Yadav was the only man who would comment. Yadav, the village's elected mukhiya, was away organising the appeal petitions for the accused and was unavailable.

The wheels of power inevitably roll to try and save the accused from the gallows. In their dingy quarters, meanwhile, Dalits huddle together praying that the events of 15 years ago aren't repeated.

Source: The Indian Express, June 16, 2003

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