Old caste war haunts Nitish’s naya Bihar

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Brahmeshwar Singh’s body
A violent end Brahmeshwar Singh’s body, after he was shot dead in Ara; Photos: Vikas Kumar

SLOGANS OF hate and rage filled the streets of Patna on the morning of 2 June, as a thousand-strong crowd went amok, setting fire to police jeeps and state transport buses.“Ranvir Sena Zindabad… Mukhiyaji Zindabad… Jo Hamse Takraega, choor-choor ho jayega… Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge,” the people shouted. These scenes of violence had exploded in the aftermath of the gunning down of Ranvir Sena founder, Brahmeshwar Singh, aka Mukhiyaji, on 1 June in Ara, 70 km from Patna.

A rickshawala, who tried to douse the flames unsuccessfully, sums up the situation: “In all my years in Patna, I have never seen something like this. Are caste wars really a thing of the past in Bihar? Or are we heading back to those dark days?” Questions that have been baffling Bihar ever since the fateful day the Ranvir Sena patriarch was shot dead by two unidentified motorcycle-borne assailants in his hometown Ara. Angry Sena members set fire to the circuit house, blocked rail services and ransacked government offices.

The following day, Brahmeshwar’s body was taken to Patna by an armed mob that wreaked havoc on the city. They torched vehicles, beat up mediapersons, looted shops, molested women and burned down temples. The ruckus even reached near Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s residence. Why did things come to such a pass, where even the police were helpless to stop such violence?

“By not taking action against the irate mob, the police have actually ensured that the violence did not spill over to the rest of the state,” says DGP Abhayanand. “We endured the violence so that it could be contained in Patna. Now we’ll take action against the miscreants based on video footage.” And then there was Animal Husbandry Minister Giriraj Singh, who said the violence was carried out by goons from the Opposition. What complicates matters further for Nitish is that the violence comes at a time when he’s on a goodwill tour of the state to promote Bihar’s ideals of inclusive development and law and order.

Brahmeshwar was the main accused in the gruesome butchering of 58 Dalits in Laxmanpur Bathe, Arwal district, in 1997. He was also the mastermind behind the massacres in Bathanitola, Shankar Bigha, Narayanpur and Miyanpur villages, in which over 200 people from lower castes were killed. These included women and children. Such was Brahmeshwar’s terror that the Bihar government put a bounty of Rs 5 lakh on his head, and banned the Ranvir Sena in 1995. After serving a nine-year sentence, Brahmeshwar was released last year and acquitted in 16 of the 22 cases lodged against him. Around 25 days before his death, he had started a farmer association, Akhil Bhartiya Rashtravadi Kisan Sangathan.Abhayanand’s bizarre theory — not preventing violence in the city to contain it in the state — crumbles when one considers the arson Ara witnessed on the day Brahmeshwar was killed. Also, allowing a heavily armed mob to march around Patna with Brahmeshwar’s body and raise hateful slogans questions the government’s credibility and efficiency. “What could the police do if the relatives wanted him to be cremated in Patna?” says Abhayanand. Interestingly, when the DGP met Brahmeshwar’s relatives, they wanted the last rites to be performed in his native village. Looking at the turnout, the DGP had suggested that the body be taken to Buxar, and even offered to provide the means of transport for the relatives and the crowd. For reasons best known to the Ranvir Sena, the procession went in the opposite direction, to Patna, and took to rioting. Considering Brahmeshwar was not exactly an upright icon of the state, Abhayanand also faces criticism for his offer of state transportation to the Sena supporters.

While the Opposition tried to gain mileage from this incident, some state politicians, including BJP regional head CP Thakur, JD(U) MLA Sunil Pandey, BJP’s Sanjay Tiger, etc, were roughed up by Brahmeshwar’s supporters. Even RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav jumped into the fray by making a tendentious claim that had this happened if he were in power, there would have been accusations of it being a state-sponsored murder. Was that a backhanded comment indicating that the present government had a role in it? CPI(ML) Secretary Deepankar Bhat also demanded to know why a police force, that had only last year opened fire at unarmed villagers in Forbesganj and even trampled a man to death, chose to remain silent witnesses to the violence.

In the wake of all this, Nitish seems to have gone into damage-control mode. He has cancelled his much-touted Sevayatra to Ara. Ironically, the circuit house he would have stayed in was burned down in the riots of 1 June. According to police sources, Nitish has given strict instructions to nab the suspects behind Brahmeshwar’s murder. On 6 June, the investigation was formally handed over to the CBI.

What could also be worrying the chief minister is that despite being an outlaw, Brahmeshwar was influential among the powerful Bhumihar Brahmins, who constitute Nitish’s base among the upper castes. Of late, many Bhumihar leaders have deserted Nitish’s camp. Though the community makes up only 4-5 percent of Bihar’s population, an active political presence and solid financial standing make them important to any party. Besides, rumours about Brahmeshwar’s killing being masterminded by JD(U) MLA Sunil Pandey and MLC Hulas Pandey have fanned the fire.

SO FAR, no old communal grievances or Naxal connections have been offered as possible explanations for Brahmeshwar’s murder. And the Ranvir Sena without its founding figure is an outfit without a future. DM Divakar, director, AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences, says the Ranvir Sena’s heinous butchering legacy is over. Clashes over land also lack their erstwhile intensity, and the upper castes have evolved a middle class ethos that doesn’t want to get into conflagrations over land matters. These could bode well for Bihar.

Even Brahmeshwar’s son and head of Khopira Panchayat, Indubhushan Singh, is not eager to associate with any outfit, political or otherwise. “I will fulfill all familial duties required of me, but not join any organisation,” he says.

By handing over the investigation of the murder to the CBI, Nitish Kumar might just have dealt a political masterstroke. With this one act, the CM has put to rest all doubts regarding his sincerity in bringing the guilty to book. The question is: Will it be enough?

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