Silencing the fight for dignity: The Laxmanpur and Bathe massacre

30 November 2021

 

Krishna Ananth teaches at the Department of History, Sikkim University. His work focuses on Indian history, contemporary Indian politics, legal and constitutional issues. His publications include: India since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics (2009), Politics in the Times of Churning (2014), The Indian Constitution and Social Revolution: Right to Property Since Independence (2015) and Between Freedom and Unfreedom: The Press in Independent India (2020). He held a fellowship at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi (May 2009–April 2011), during which he researched on Retreat of the Nehruvian Socialist Project: A Study on the Political, Legislative and the Judicial Interventions. He tweets @VKrishnaAnanth.

This essay is part of a series by Prof. V. Krishna Ananth where he recalls the events that determined the course of politics in post-colonial India, sometimes reinforcing the “idea of India” and otherwise distorting that. The essays revolve around specific events and their consequences and the facts are placed in context and perspective to comprehend the times in which they are being recalled and re-presented. The series recalls the events on their anniversary, they do not follow a chronological order and are seen as moments in history.

There were 180 families from the scheduled Dusadh caste living in the villages of Laxmanpur and Bathe in the Jehanabad district of Bihar on the cold evening of 30 November 1997. The dwellers of the Dalit basti of these two villages had neither electricity nor were there motorable roads connecting them to the rest of Bihar. Located on the banks of the Sone River, residents needed a boat-ride to travel to Bhojpur. However, they hardly travelled anywhere as they made a living as paid laborers in the land owned by members of the Rajput castes.

In the night between 30 November and 1 December 1997, over 100 members of the Ranvir Sena, a private army set up by the landlords, armed with guns and other weapons, reached the basti by boat late at night to massacre whomever they found. Their aim was to silence the landless Dalits, who in this part of Bihar had begun to assert themselves and reclaimed to be treated as human beings.

With the support of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (Party Unity) (CPI-ML(PU)) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (Liberation) (CPI-ML (Liberation)), a good number of the Dalits in Laxmanpur and Bathe had begun to reclaim their democratic rights enshrined in the Constitution rather than remain mute participants in their own exploitation. The landlords would not let this happen and sent the Ranvir Sena to terrorize and silence them.

After the assault, 58 people were killed, including the five boatmen who had ferried the killers across the Sone that night, 27 women and ten children.

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A comprehensive law abolishing the zamindari system was put in place on 11 September 1950 – The Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950 – and was the first to be placed in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution (rendering it immune from any legal challenge) by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1952. The Supreme Court had upheld this amendment and thus struck down the challenge posed by Raja Kameshwar Singh, who then lorded over 5,000 acres of fertile land in Northern Bihar.

Notwithstanding the Constitutional guarantee against landlordism, landless agricultural workers – predominantly from the Dalit community – remained mute partners in their own exploitation and oppression. In other words, the progressive legislation remained a dead letter in Bihar and upper castes continued to lord over the land and its people.

This reality, however, began to change in the 1980s. Behind this – particularly in the Northern and Central parts of Bihar – was the collaboration between Vinod Mishra and Nagabhushan Pattnaik, who inherited the legacy of Charu Mazumdar and the Naxalbari movement. Mishra and Pattnaik founded the CPI-ML (Liberation) with the intention to build a party with a mass base rather than persisting with the annihilation of class enemies by a band of armed cadres. Against the Naxalbari approach that held constitutional democracy and elections as a sham, the party set up the Indian Peoples’ Front (IPF) to contest elections. Rameshwar Prasad of the IPF won the Arrah Lok Sabha seat (in the Bhojpur region) as Member of Parliament in 1989 and the Front won as many as seven seats in the State Assembly elections in 1990.

A critical aspect of the strategy that helped the emergence of the CPI-ML (Liberation) was that it located the unity of caste and class in the realm of oppression rather than seeing them in mutually exclusive terms. Bihar had been home for the radical mobilization of the landless and marginal sections of agrarian society even during the struggle for Independence. In 1929, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati founded the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha that served as the nucleus for the All India Kisan Sabha founded in 1936. The Communist Party of India (CPI) occupied this space in the decades after Independence, but failed to consolidate and its presence as a political force had substantially waned by the 1980s when the CPI-ML (Liberation) filled the vacuum.

The massacre at Laxmanpur and Bathe and various other heinous acts by the Ranvir Sena ought to be seen in this larger context. In other words, this was not an isolated instance of law-and-order breakdown. The Ranvir Sena, a de facto killer squad, was set up in Belaur village in the Bhojpur district in 1994 by the Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars landlords. This was a response to the spread of a radical politics that integrated the struggle for land reforms with the social exclusion of Dalits and large sections of Other Backward Classes, who cultivated others’ lands.

The Ranvir Sena, commanded from its inception by Brahmeshwar Singh, initially indulged local crimes in the villages of Bhojpur district until 11 July 1996, when they assaulted the Dalit cluster of Batani Tola in Bhojpur and left 21 people dead, including 11 women, six children and an infant. The “provocation” was that landless workers, led by the CPI-ML (Liberation), demanded the statutory minimum wage of Rs. 30.75 daily against the Rs. 20 that they were paid. Though the Sessions Court convicted 23 of the killers (three with death sentence and 20 to life imprisonment), the decision was reversed by the Patna High Court on 17 April 2012 and all 23 were acquitted. An appeal by the State Government against this was admitted in the Supreme Court on 16 July 2012. This appeal, however, is yet to be listed for hearing.

The story of the Laxmanpur and Bathe massacre is no different. Although a First Information Report was lodged soon after and a case registered at the Sessions Court in Jehanabad, it lingered there until October 1999. The Patna High Court, then, transferred the case to the Sessions Court in Patna and it remained there without attention until December 2008. Once again, it was an order from the Patna High Court that resulted in the case being sent for trial before the Additional Session Magistrate and hearing commenced on 2 January 2009, with 45 men standing trial.

The Additional District Sessions judge pronounced his orders on 7 April 2010 sentencing 16 of the accused to death, ten to life imprisonment and setting 19 others free. Brahmeshwar Singh, the Ranvir Sena chief, was not even sent to trial on the specious ground that he was absconding. This plea was specious because Singh was an undertrial prisoner in jail, facing charges between 2002 and 2011. Indeed, he was not an absconder when the case of massacre in Laxmanpur and Bathe was taken up for trial though he may have been between 1997 and 2002 when the case was still lingering in the Sessions Courts in Jehanabad and subsequently in Patna.

The Additional Sessions judge’s verdict, however, was challenged by the convicts before the Patna High Court, which struck down the verdict in a decision on 9 October 2013 and all the 26 men were acquitted. The High Court claimed that the Sessions Court judge had relied on eye witness accounts to arrive at his decision and that such accounts in this sort of crimes were unreliable. This reasoning and the consequent miscarriage of justice was not an aberration. In July 2013, the Patna High Court had acquitted all but one of the ten who were convicted by the Sessions Court in the Miapur massacre, where 34 Dalits killed on the night of 16 June 2010 by the Ranvir Sena. This was in the neighboring Aurangabad district where the basti dwellers were beginning to assert their rights for fair wages with support of the CPI-ML (Liberation). The Patna High Court declared the Sessions Court judgment as bad in law for “want of evidence.”

The Patna High Court kept following a pattern. In April 2012, it set aside the conviction of 23 Ranvir Sena members held guilty and convicted by the Sessions Court in the case of the Batani Tola massacre on 11 July 1996 and set them free. The story was repeated in the case of a similar massacre at Nagari village in Bhojpur district where ten people were killed in November 1998. The Ranvir Sena seemed to be able to act with impunity in this part of Bihar striking terror among the landless poor who had begun to rally behind the CPI-ML(Liberation) and other radical outfits to assert their rights as human beings.

A list of such massacres since Batani Tola on 11 July 1996 where 21 Dalits were killed exposes the Patna High Court’s attitude when dealing with the cases involving the Ranvir Sena’s murderous record.

Ranvir Sena struck in Haibaspur village on 23 March 1997 killing 16 people; in Laxmanpur and Bathe the night between 30 November and 1 December 1997 leaving 58 dead; in Shankarbigha on 25 January 1999 and at Narayanpur on 10 February the same year. The Sena struck at Sandani village in Gaya district on 21 April 1999 leaving 12 dead and at Miapur on 16 June 2000 killing 34. All these strikes in the Bhojpur, Jehanabad and Aurangabad districts were in villages where the CPI-ML (Liberation) had started garnering influence and the landless workers had begun to assert their constitutional and human rights.

The Rabri Devi’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) government – a party that claimed a political tradition of social justice – was dismissed on 11 February 1999, invoking Article 356 of the Constitution that provides for President’s rule in the event of a breakdown of the Constitutional scheme of governance in a State. They were let go after the massacres in Shankarbigha and in Narayanpur in January and February 1999. The decision, however, was revoked on 9 March 1999, for lack of support in the Upper House of Parliament as the Constitution warrants that such decisions have to be endorsed by both Houses of Parliament.

This dismissal of the State Government should not be seen as evidence of commitment to the Constitutional cause by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition that reigned in New Delhi neither as an opposition against the feudal ways of the landed gentry for whom the Ranvir Sena carried out these massacres. Evidence to the contrary came when Nitish Kumar, heading a coalition with the BJP in Bihar, lost no time to wound up the Amir Das Commission, set up by the Rabri Devi regime immediately after the Laxmanpur massacre, to probe the nexus between the Ranvir Sena and the political class. Nothing much was expected of the Commission that in fact did nothing in the decade or more of its existence.

The Ranvir Sena had patrons from the elite and political leaders across the spectrum. This private militia was the bulwark against the threat of transformation and the realization of the Constitutional scheme by the landless, who also happened to be the depressed social classes.

The judges of the Patna High Court, who reversed the Session Court’s order convicting the 26 found guilty in the Laxmanpur massacre on 9 October 2013, ought to have known the Ranvir Sena, its terrorist objectives and its clients. The High Court is meant to be a Court of Law and Justice in the Constitutional scheme: this is where the 9 October 2013 decision and the earlier ones about Miapur, Nagari and Batani Tola were clear instances of miscarriage of justice, giving the Sena and their sponsors a signal to carry on with impunity.

In an attempt to ward off criticism, the State Government appealed against the 13 October 2013 Patna High Court decision before the Supreme Court as well as against the April 2012 decision in the Batani Tola massacre. That these were mere posturing is clear from the fact that both these appeals are still stuck in the apex Court’s registry and have not even been listed before a bench.

The criminal appeals – (Nos. 190-210/2014, State of Bihar vs Surender Singh and Others) bearing Diary Number 38688 of 2013 – against the 13 October 2013 decision of the Patna High Court remains with the Registry of the Supreme Court of India 24 years after the massacre and seven years after it was filed. The Supreme Court Registry had last called the case for hearing on 6 February 2019 and upon hearing the counsels, passed the following order:

“Four weeks time is given to the lead counsel for the parties to file the additional documents. After expiry of four weeks, the matters be processed for listing before the Honourable Court under the rules.”

Even after the expiry of the four weeks and many months since 6 February 2019, the criminal appeals have not even been listed for hearing. In the 24 years after the gruesome massacre at Laxmanpur and Bathe, Bihar had witnessed several political changes including having a Dalit Chief Minister, Jita Ram Manjhi, for a short while (20 May 2014-25 February 2015).

The Ranvir Sena seems to have withered after its chief, Brahmeshwar Singh, fell to a spray of bullets while on his morning walk near his home in Arrah, Bhojpur, on 1 June 2012. He had by then been acquitted of all charges. Nothing much was done to find his killers although there was vandalism and protests in the wake of his killing. The CPI-ML (Liberation), that Brahmeshwar Singh and the Sena fought against, won in 12 assembly constituencies in the November 2020 elections.

Meanwhile, justice to the 58 killed by the Ranvir Sena in Laxmanpur and Bathe continues to wait in the Supreme Court. It has been 24 years since the massacre. This travesty of justice, however, failed to shake the conscience of politicians who claim to uphold the Constitutional guarantees against inequalities.

It is not inappropriate, then, to say that the Laxmanpur and Bathe as much as Batani Tola, Narayanpur, Miapur and other instances of massacre were acts of terror by the forces of the status quo with whom a section of mainstream political actors collude to enforce their agenda of sectarian identity politics.

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