A national shame, said President KR Narayanan in 1997. But it was not the first time that Bihar’s caste violence had shamed the country. Before 58 Dalits were butchered at Lakshmanpur Bathe, another 59 were massacred in seven such incidents in 1997 alone. A year before that, 21 Dalits were killed at Bathani Tola. Not that Lakshmanpur Bathe was any turning point either. In quick succession followed the massacres at Nagri (1998, 10 dead), Shankar Bigha (1999, 23 killed) and Mianpur (2000, 33 killed).
In all, 136 victims in five major massacres. And more than 70 accused belonging to Ranvir Sena, the militia floated by the upper-caste Bhumihar landlords in the mid-1990s — almost all acquitted by the high court in the Bathani Tola (23), Nagri (11) and now in Lakshmanpur Bathe (26) and Mianpur (9) cases. There are enough eyewitnesses and the accused were handed either death sentence or life terms by the lower court. But the cases fell flat at the HC, apparently for lack of evidence.
Before concluding that shoddy investigation is the hallmark of Bihar, consider the other side of the story. In the past four decades, for roughly every six massacres of Dalits, the upper-caste landlords of Bihar have been at the receiving end of caste violence at least once. The most infamous reprisal in the 1990s was the Bara massacre of 1992.
In an interview with Nirala, Justice Amir Das confirms that the commission, if not dissolved so hastily, would have exposed the political connections of the Ranvir Sena.
Armed cadres of the Maoist Communist Centre killed 35 Bhumihars of the Suvarna Liberation Army, one of the harbingers of Ranvir Sena, at Bara in Gaya, prompting then CM Lalu Prasad Yadav to invoke TADA. In 2001, the Gaya district court and the special TADA court together sentenced seven accused to death and four others to life terms. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict.
For all the empowerment of the lower castes Lalu is credited with, the outlawed Ranvir Sena operated with impunity in the RJD-ruled Bihar. To be fair, the Rabri Devi government did set up the Amir Das Commission to investigate the affairs of Ranvir Sena. Nitish Kumar scrapped it immediately after coming to power in 2005.
CPI leader AB Bardhan went to the extent of accusing Kumar of taking Ranvir Sena’s help to defeat the RJD. In 2006, a media exposé claimed that the unpublished Das Commission report named the who’s who of Bihar politics, cutting across party lines. Not just in Bihar, justice tends to elude the lower castes across India. Against an overall conviction rate of 38.5 percent, the conviction rate in crime against SCs stands at only 23.9 percent.
While nobody emerges clean from this dirty caste cauldron, Kumar’s predicament stood out last year after the murder of Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh. Kumar’s regime did not even attempt to control the mayhem unleashed by Singh’s followers on the roads of Ara and Patna. Like Lalu, Kumar pitched his own brand of social engineering by creating two new backward categories — Ati Pichhra and Mahadalits — and offering them land and other sops. It earned him rich early dividends until the sheen of his Mahadalit Vikas Yojana was lost to rampant corruption and shoddy implementation.
Along with this core BC constituency of 32 percent voters, a good section of the numerically small but politically powerful upper castes have also backed his government since 2005, thanks to the presence of the BJP in the coalition. Ever since Kumar distanced himself from Narendra Modi, their support has become suspect. Given his waning support base among the lower castes, Kumar could not have pegged his political future on the slim 16 percent Muslim vote, which may well swing the RJD’s way. A desperate Kumar’s bid to offer plum postings to Bhumihars and Rajputs has not cut much ice.
Soon after Brahmeshwar’s death, his son Indubhushan Singh took charge as the president of Akhil Bharatiya Rashtrawadi Kisan Sanghathan, a front organisation of the Ranvir Sena, and accused two JD(U) MLAs of plotting the murder. This June, Singh hosted BJP MLAs on the first death anniversary of his father and vowed to unite Bhumihars against the government.
Given the changing equations, Kumar has been evasive about contesting the acquittal of the Lakshmanpur Bathe accused in the SC. He did not even censor his Cabinet colleague Giriraj Singh for eulogising the slain Ranvir Sena chief as a true Gandhian who had dedicated his life for farmers’ betterment. Few expect his jittery government to get the massacred farmhands justice, but he can certainly spare the survivors such agony.