Friday, December 03, 2004

In Bhagalpur, destitute are on Death Row while Ranvir Sena walks free

Of 38 waiting to die, most are below poverty line, no access to legal help


BHAGALPUR: Shobit Chamar occupies the cell closest to the gate. But the gate near his block of 20 cells on the western side of Bhagalpur Central Jail doesn't open to freedom. It opens to the gallows. All that separates Shobit from the noose, besides a crumbling wooden door, is a mercy petition pending with the President. If it is rejected, he'll make that trip to the gallows.

True, no one has been hanged here for nine years but the block for condemned men is overcrowded. It has 38 inmates—the largest death row contingent in any Indian state. Shobit is among the five whose death sentence has been confirmed by even the Supreme Court. It's all proper: it has been run through the due process of law, lower court to high court to apex court. Yet only one of the five condemned men can remember the name of his lawyer.

Instead, they plead their innocence to those who don't matter, in a manner that will not help.

Krishna Mochi, six feet tall and well-built, with a handlebar moustache faces death for the Bara massacre. Shobit Chamar, short bald and ill with a weak heart, has been convicted for killing local landlord Hardwar Pandey and six members of his family in Bhabua district.

Shobit lets the tears roll down his cheeks. Krishna touches his ears with crossed hands and leans to the ground; Shobit sits with hands folded. "I have not done it."It is their last defence, their final appeal. Two Dalits, united in Bihar's collective tragedy.

Four of Shobit's relatives were murdered. Pandey, the landlord, was an accused in the case which never reached the trial stage. Some Left extremist groups set out to deliver private justice. Pandey and six of his family were killed. Shobit was accused of being one of the kilers.

"Four times I paid lawyers Rs 50 or Rs 100. They would come one day and then disappear," he says of his legal defence. He has spent 14 years in jail. Krishna, too, did not pay his lawyer more than Rs 100. He was in Bara village when the massacre took place in February 1992, but left for Punjab during the next agricultural season.

He came home after eight months, to find his family crying as he walked in. "I learnt my name was in the case," he remembers, "I ran back to the railway station, but was caught." Human rights activist P K Shandilya says that most condemned men on the death row are below the poverty line. Most have never voted in an election and never had access to private lawyers.

Even special laws like Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act seem aimed at such people. Not one member of the Ranvir Sena has been charged under TADA. Nor did the Sena figure in the Union government's list of terrorist organisations.

One TADA case is illustrative. In August 2003, 14 people were sentenced to life imprisonment by a TADA court in Jehanabad. The police said the accused were extremists, who had gathered at a house one day in 1988 to conspire. Apparently, they attacked a police posse. Four men were killed in the resultant battle — three by the police.

Vakil Ram, who the police said owned the house where the extremists had assembled, spent 15 years in jail as an undertrial. Then it turned out that the house didn't belong to him. Even police guns seem to target only one side of Bihar's unending caste conflict. In 1986, the police is fired on a CPI-ML public meeting in Arwal, killing 13. A rough survey indicates 35 incidents of police encounters since then, leading to the death of 250 suspected Left extremists.

Of course, the MCC and People's War insist that in many cases their cadres were shot after capture. This may or may not be true, but the fact is the list of "extremists" eliminated by the police includes even children.

Not once has a Ranvir Sena squad been surrounded and eliminated by the police. The Sena seems to dodge every official bullet.

Source: The Indian Express, December 03, 2004


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