Monday, November 29, 2004

7 yrs ago this week 59 Dalits were killed, charges are yet to be framed


7 yrs ago this week 59 Dalits were killed, charges are yet to be framed


The crime: On December 1, 1997, 59 Dalits were killed by suspected Ranvir Sena men in Laxmanpur-Bathe, Jehanabad.
The case: FIR Mehandia 126/97, informant Vinod Paswan. Case pending trial at the Additional Sessions Judge 11 Court, Patna.
The status: After the filing of charge sheets, the case was committed for trial in February 1999. Six years on, even charges have not been framed against the 24 accused. All but two of them are on bail.

Varghese K. George

When Bihar goes to polls in about three months, slogans of social justice will once again be heard. To the world outside, Laloo Prasad Yadav is the messiah of ‘social justice.’ For his coalition partner Congress, he is the only hope in a state that threatens to fall off the map.

In the past 15 years of rule by Laloo, an estimated 1,000 people have been killed by private armies, such as the upper caste Ranbir Sena, in 300 incidents. Left extremists groups have, on their part, perpetrated equally chilling massacres. Spending weeks in dusty, clustered record rooms across 10 courts in five districts — Jehanabad, Bhojpur, Gaya, Aurangabad and Patna — that are, roughly, Bihar’s zone of feudal violence, The Indian Express finds out how the wheels of justice move for the Dalits and the downtrodden in Laloo’s laboratory of social justice.

In the final month of 1997, this obscure rural corner in Bihar shook India. On December 1 that year, 59 Dalits were killed here in a massacre that had then president K.R. Narayan exclaiming, "It is a national shame." On the night of December 1-2, about 250 Ranvir Sena men crossed the Sone river from Bhojpur district to the Subhas Nagar Tola in Laxmanpur-Bathe. They surrounded the hamlet and started firing. It was as simple as that. Of the 59 who died, 26 were women; 19 were children under the age of 10. The victims were all Dalits.

The Ranvir Sena assailants had come from Barki Kharaon and Chotki Kharaon villages in Bhojpur. There were two "provocations". First, five people from the upper castes had been gunned down by CPI-ML activists only recently in the area. More immediately, there was a land dispute. Adjoining the Kamta village was a disputed patch cultivated by the upper caste. Landless Dalits, propped up by the Naxalites, had sought to forcibly harvest the crop.

In mid-November, these people marched down the village, seeking direct action on what they felt were overdue "land reforms". Among the marchers were some from Subhas Nagar Tola. "This land belongs to us," they cried. The upper caste groups were alarmed. The "rebellion" had to be put down, quickly. The result was the bloodbath on a dark December night.

They came in droves. Rabri Devi, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Ram Vilas Paswan, Mulayam Singh Yadav — Laxmanpur-Bathe hadn’t seen so many VIPs in its history. With the visitors, came the promises. Laloo Yadav, then in jail courtesy the fodder scandal, spoke to his wife, the chief minister Rabri. "The state government will constitute a SIT (special investigative team) and set up a special court to try the accused," the chief minister said. On December 5, she promised a special fund of Rs 54 crore for road construction in extremist-affected areas.

Maqdool Dar, then Union minister of state for home, arrived and said, "Private armies will be disarmed. Licences for firearms issued to suspected members of such armies will be cancelled." On December 4, Amnesty International called Bihar a "lawless state". It sought the disarming of the Ranvir Sena.

Today, the Ranvir Sena continues to be armed, continues to terrorise Dalits. As for Rabri's Rs 54 crore, nobody knows how it was spent. Laxmanpur-Bathe continues to be as inaccessible as it was in 1997. The roads are still a nightmare. A larger war on terror was also promised. On December 6, 1997, the Justice Amir Das Commission was constituted, to "probe the nexus between the Ranvir Sena and political elements". It had a six month term. Seven years have passed, the commission continues its endless hearings.

On December 13, after being released from prison, Laloo got to Laxmanpur- Bathe. Rabri and he arrived by helicopter. Rabri promised a special court for speedy trial. Laloo blamed the Left parties for Bihar’s tardy land reforms. He inspected the poor quality foodgrain supplied as part of the relief material, duly upbraided the district magistrate.

"No one will be spared," he said, "even the officers who have been helping these forces will be booked ... Give licences to these people." That last reference was to gun licences. When it was pointed out that the Dalits had no money for food, let alone guns, Laloo kept mum. "I will come again," he said, as he flew off. Laloo has never come back to Laxmanpur-Bathe.

The criminal case related to the massacre is a legal slowcoach, still at a very early stage. Even charges against the accused are yet to be framed. No special court has been designated, contrary to Rabri’s promise. Of the 24 accused, all but two are on bail. During the framing of charges all the accused must be present physically in the court. For the past 20 hearings, the line-up has been incomplete.

On July 10, 2004, Buxar Jail officials told the court of a Home Department "administrative decision" not to produce accused Pramod Singh in any court. Earlier there were reports that informant Vinod Paswan was being threatened by Birendra Singh, one of the main accused. Neither Paswan nor Singh could be traced in the village. "Birendra Singh is present in the village and he roams around free with guns. Who will want to testify in this case and die?" asks Panchan Paswan, a local in Bathe.

Bihar has no answer.

Source: The Indian Express, November 29, 2004

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