Wednesday, December 01, 2004

"We might end up in jail or hang if you testify. But you will not live another day"


The case : On Feb 10, 1999, suspected landowners killed 12 Dalits in Narayanpur, Jehanabad.
The case
: FIR number Kurtha 17/99. Case number 5/2001, State vs Sidhan Singh & others; 12 named and 32-35 unnamed accused.
The status
: Case collapsing as witnesses turn hostile. Trial has been on since Feb 22, 2002 when charges were framed. All accused are out on bail.

VARGHESE K. GEORGE

NARAYANPUR: After 12 Dalits were killed here on February 10, 1999, Laloo Yadav promised a "speedy" trial. The trial in the Narayanpur massacre case is speedy all right — witness after witness comes to testify in, roughly, one sentence: ‘‘I have not seen anything." Krishna Das, the informant and prime witness, told the trial court in Jehanabad on May 14, 2002, ‘‘I know that the incident happened but did not name any of the accused to the police."

Sidhan Singh of the same village is the main accused. But with over a dozen witnesses resorting to one-sentence testimonies, acquittal is only a matter of time.

The Narayanpur massacre was a political landmark in Bihar's rocky history. It led to the dismissal of the Rabri Devi government — it was reinstated later — by the then NDA government. A day after the killings, a Ranvir Sena press release regretted the ‘‘operation was not proper... Our aim was a much bigger massacre."

Sonia Gandhi who visited the spot said: ‘‘Any government which is helpless in preventing such heinous acts forfeits it moral authority to govern." After the massacre, Rabri Devi promised a ‘‘chargesheet within 60 days." ‘‘The chief minister will meet the chief justice," Laloo Yadav added, ‘‘and request a special court for a speedy trial."

Today it sounds like a cruel joke, even to the three witnesses The Indian Express met in Narayanpur. Prime witness Krishna Das says, ‘‘They (the accused) get to know everything from the police station. They told me the day before testimony, ‘We might go to jail or hang if you testify. But you will not live another day'." Das takes the threat seriously — for it was for him that the murderous mob came that night. He was the target because he was already a witness in an earlier case related to the killing of three Dalits in the village.

On February 10, 1999, Das climbed to the roof of his house and escaped. His brother too was saved — but only after a wife's ultimate sacrifice. Das' sister-in-law hid her husband under his bed, lay down on it herself, covering her face. She was riddled with bullets. From the rooftop, Das saw the mayhem: ‘‘I went to court with the determination to testify, despite earlier threats. But there were a large number of their people outside the court, with rifles. And I could not muster the courage to tell the truth ... But if they were in jail, I would have testified."

Each one of the accused is out on bail. Some of them routinely threaten witnesses, village folk say. "We have to live in this village," says Rampriya Das, a Narayanpur resident, "and work in their fields. And they own more guns than the police."

Our interviews are taking place amid a small gathering in the village. Also present are two other witnesses who turned hostile in court — Surinder Das and Brihaspati Majhi. "People who are resisting the threats have not gone to the court as yet," says Rampriya. Suddenly the chatter stops. "How can we say things in court that we have not seen," Majhi says, abruptly changing the course of the conversation. Surinder backs him, "We did not see who came in the mob."

This is a twist in the tale and right behind us, looking over the shoulder of The Indian Express team, is a burly man. The sight of him is enough to silence the Dalits. "You please go," we say, "let us talk to the villagers." He is introduced to us as a local landowner and is clearly reluctant to move: "It is my village and I will stand here." Finally he retreats with a cold stare.

A few yards away from the Dalit hamlet is an 18-acre plot formed, in the early 1990s, by a change in the course of the Morhar river. This plot was claimed by landless Dalits but appropriated by the upper caste Lakhan Singh.

Singh was later shot by the MCC. A cycle of revenge killings began, and Krishna Das was witness to one such. After the February 1999 bloodbath, Laloo promised to settle the land dispute "within 48 hours". It’s now been six years.

"We had gone up to the revenue minister, but the land remains in the control of the Bhumihars," say the Dalits, ‘‘every season, they merge it, bit by bit, into their own property." What is the administration doing? ‘‘We have been advised by the district magistrate not to enter the land until the dispute is settled."

In Narayanpur, they've just perfected the vicious circle.

Source: The Indian Express, December 01, 2004

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