It had been a week since the body of Dinanath Manjhi turned into ashes but his wife’s mourning had just begun. With a 13-year-old tonsured eldest son standing beside her at the entrance of her parental home, Reena Kunwar (30) still hopes for a miracle which could bring her 34-year-old husband Dinanath Manjhi back to life. She has three sons to look after.
The family belongs to the rat-eater sub-caste Musahar. He was the sole bread-earner in the family. As a daily wager, he had become a heavy drinker. Consuming country-made liquor at a nearby shop had become a routine once his job as a stone-crusher got over by the evening. Consequently, it led him straight into the jaws of death.
Ironically, it was the local Independence Day celebration that lured him to drink his last when he, along with other friends, visited a nearby desi liquor shop at Khajurbaani village in the afternoon. That day, after consuming to his fill, he got home and slept without dinner.
“At 11.30 in the night he complained of severe headache. We immediately took him to the district hospital. The doctor administered glucose drip in his body and asked me to take him to a bigger hospital in Gorakhpur or Patna to deal with the poison inside his body,” narrates Reena. Extreme poverty discouraged Reena from taking her husband to a better hospital.
Seeing his condition deteriorating early in the morning the following day, she pleaded the doctor to do something. “Angrily the doctor roared at me ‘Abhi bhago nahi to phaasi de dunga’ (Get out from here, else I will hang you).” Utterly frightened, she came back to her husband only to witness his dead body at 7 am. The harsh treatment meted out to her by the doctor still haunts her. Incidentally, the district headquarter of Gopalganj happens to be the native town of Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is sharing power with Nitish Kumar in Bihar.
Equally horrible is the story of 27-year-old Sashikant Chaudhary of Nonia Toli who also died due to the apathy of hospital staff and district administration. He lived in Delhi with his parents who work as low-grade employees in private factories. Two years ago he had married 25-year-old Kanchan Devi.
Sasikant did not have sufficient room to accommodate his wife who lived in Gopalganj. “He had landed here only two months ago”, laments his mother Leela Devi.
It was Sashikant’s wife who rushed him from Khwajapur village to the district hospital after he complained of severe abdominal pain due to uncontrolled drinking. The doctors gave them a cold reception. The bed allotted to him was in poor condition and did not visit even once. By the afternoon he was declared dead. “The doctors told me to take the body soon and burn it, else they would call the police,” says Kanchan. But at the telephonic advice of her mother-in-law she stayed with the body in the hospital’s morgue.
Two days later, Sashikant’s body was burnt in the presence of his wife and mother Leela, who had rushed to Gopalganj from Delhi. “The hospital administration discouraged me from telling media the truth and wanted us to tell them that my son died of poison consumption. In the end they took my dead son’s watch off his wrist only after extorting a sum of 2500 from us,” says an incensed Leela. “I felt ashamed seeing the inhuman treatment of the government officials and doctors. “Aadamkhor hain sab (They are man-eaters),” murmurs Sashikant’s father.
The tragedy has turned Kanchan into a living corpse. She has not eaten for days and weeps profusely, asking God to send back her husband.
The family members of the persons who lost their lives after consuming spurious liquor have more or less the same horrific experiences to share with the media and fact-finding teams approaching them.
Till now, the Bihar government has recorded 17 deaths following the consumption of spurious liquor which was being illegally manufactured at Khajurbaani village in Gopalganj district despite ban on sale of liquor in the state. Apart from the deceased, four have lost their eye sights, three of them are under treatment in the Patna Medical College and Hospital while another has been sent to a rehabilitation centre.
If the people living around the liquor shop are to be believed, its business runs uninterrupted from early morning till late night. “I have seen even policemen coming to this theka on a regular basis”, reveals a 16-year-old boy belonging to a minority community. Ravi Ranjan, the district excise superintendent, tells Tehelka, “Although I joined only a year ago, I have gathered information that spurious liquor is being sold at Khajurbaani for the past 15 years”. The officer, who faces departmental enquiry after the ghastly incident of hooch tragedy, candidly admits, “Even after the promulgation of total prohibition in the state on first April this year, hooch business was in full swing here at the village.” So far, 29 policemen, including an officer, besides an excise inspector, have been suspended.
Replicating its character, the government agencies tried its best to cover up the heinous crime committed by a notorious liquor mafia, Nageena Paasi, hailing from the same village. He was arrested on 21 August. It was not enough; the government officers frequently visited the families of the victims to deter them from telling the truth to the media.
Reena Kunwar says, “The circle officer offered me money to say in writing that my husband had died of epilepsy”. Similarly, Munmun Mahto, son of deceased Parma Mehto, was being persuaded by an officer to tell that his father met his death after he consumed poison. Remarkably, at the behest of the powers-that-be, a leading newspaper of Bihar published a big news captioned “Dozens died of loose motion and vomiting”.
Kudos to Rajiv Kumar Mishra, the stringer of the local daily Prabhat Khabar, who didn’t succumb to the pressure of district administration. It was he, who first reached the victims and discovered the cause of death and subsequently reported to his newspaper. Unsurprisingly, he was also threatened with dire consequences by ‘unknown’ forces on his mobile.
The district administration was reportedly informed about the sale of the spurious liquor on 13 August in that very village. At the meeting of the Peace Committee held in the office of the district magistrate, which was attended by officers right from the block to district level including the SP as well as legislators and parliamentarians, former public prosecutor, who is also a CPI (ML) Liberation leader, informed the meeting in writing about the sale of liquor and had demanded action against the kingpin. “But none took my complaint seriously because of the reasons best known to the officers”, he tells Tehelka.
Also, Manu Alam of Khajurbaani had alarmed the local police of the threat to frame him under The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 as Pasi caste comes under SC category. A reliable source revealed to Tehelka, “The police officers take bribes to protect the people involved in making spurious liquor”.
With the approval of the new Bihar Excise Act by Bihar government on 25 July, it will be illegal to grant economical assistance to the close relatives of the deceased belonging to extremely poor castes and community. Alleged Shivanand Tiwary, former Rajya Sabha member, “The draconian liquor law imposed by Nitish Kumar has left them emptyhanded in terms of compensation”. However, Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav, MP, has given a sum of 20,000 to each of the kin of the victims.
A district general secretary of the ruling Janta Dal (U), Arvind Patel, issued a press release saying it was a natural calamity and not illicit drugs that claimed lives of the poor in Gopalganj. Meanwhile, the town is agog to know the actual figure of causalities in the illegal liquor case. Munna Cheek, who runs a chicken shop, claimed he had seen 28 bodies lying in the morgue for autopsy whereas almost all the relatives of the victims who visited the hospital to collect the bodies alleged, “The bodies of more than 50 drunkards have been made to disappear by the officers who feared losing their position with the connivance of those who did not want any blot on the much publicised clean image in Patna.”