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The return of the dead

The brutal gunning down of the chief of the banned Ranvir Sena, Brahmeshwar Singh ‘Mukhiya’, in broad daylight in Ara on June 1 is being seen as linked to the April 2012 acquittal of 23 Bathani Tola massacre convicts by the Patna high court. The Mukhiya — one of the main accused among them — spent nine years in jail and was also an accused in 21 other massacres. But he was acquitted in 16 of these and had got bail in the remaining six.

The high court ruling and the murder of the Mukhiya have reminded us of the brutal decade of the 1990s, when the Ranvir Sena and the Maoists carried out several gruesome massacres, killing hundreds of innocent Dalits as well as upper castes. But, more important, these events are a testimony to the fragile faultlines and unresolved issues related to land relations and ownership, caste conflict, OBC-Dalit reassertion in the post-Mandal era and the new matrix formed by the creamy layer of Other Backward Classes like the Kurmis and the Keoris [represented by Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United)] and upper-caste landed communities like the Bhumihars and the Rajputs, who are the key support base of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In all this churning, the Dalits have been feeling increasingly isolated politically. Let us revisit some of the brutalities committed by the Ranvir Sena and the Maoists in the past, indicative of ongoing caste-related animosities and their connection with ownership of land in the still-very-feudal state of Bihar.

The Ranvir Sena was formed in the Bhojpur district in 1994 and, since then, it has carried out massacres of Dalits, the most infamous being the one in Bathani Tola where 21 people were killed in 1996, followed by a massacre of 61 people in Laxmanpur Bathe in 1997. On the eve of Republic Day in 1999, 23 people were killed and more than 33 Dalits in Mianpur village in Aurangabad district in 2000. These are just a few of the many gruesome acts of violence where the Sena shot dead, hacked and beheaded even women and children. It carried out at least 20 other such massacres between November 1996 and June 2000. In retaliation, the different factions of the Maoists unleashed their own revenge killings of the upper castes. In 1997, they lined up 35 Bhumihar men, women and children in Gaya’s Bara village and shot them dead. Those who tried to run away were hacked to death. In 1999, the Maoist Communist Centre killed 35 upper-caste persons in Senari.

Until the killing of the Mukhiya, there had been an apparent lull in caste or class violence for over a decade since 2001. The present Nitish Kumar government, which is in an alliance with the BJP, had been quick to claim this as an indication of improvement in law and order. However, there has been a series of court judgments in recent years that have strengthened the perception that the present regime is hostage to upper-caste economic and social interests. To add to that is the silence and subversion by Nitish Kumar’s government of the commissions that were mandated to investigate and provide reforms and strategies that could have gone a long way in resolving many of the conflicts related to caste and the owning of land.

Take the instance of court rulings first. In two significant rulings by the district courts in the last five years, eight Maoists have been awarded death penalties. Five were accused of killing policemen in Banka district and three are accused of carrying out the Bara massacre. They have obviously moved to the higher courts but their plea is still pending. But all Ranvir Sena men accused of the Bathani Tola massacre were acquitted by the high court on the grounds that the prosecution had failed to prove their culpability. On the one hand, these rulings have strengthened the perception that the government is hostage to the upper and landed castes. On the other, these rulings have once again given legitimacy to the argument of the Maoists and their sympathizers that the judiciary and the criminal justice system are mere tools being used by the ruling classes to exploit the poor and the Dalits.

The Nitish Kumar government argues that the judiciary is independent and the government has no say in the pronouncements made by the courts. But then, his government has had other opportunities to demonstrate that caste-massacre victims would be provided justice, and that it is serious in exposing and countering a determined nexus of involving the landed castes, the police, the State and the bureaucracy.

Take, first, the case of the Amir Das Commission set up by Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in 1997, after the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre. The mandate of the commission was to inquire if there were any links between political parties and the Ranvir Sena. The Nitish Kumar government abruptly disbanded the commission in 2006, just before it was to submit its report.

The government has not yet been able to provide any convincing answer to the question of what prompted it to take such a radical decision. It is strongly believed, and there may be some truth in it, that the commission’s findings were going to demonstrate firm links among the Ranvir Sena, the JD(U) and the BJP.

Second, the Nitish Kumar government appointed the Bihar Land Reform Commission in 2006 and it submitted its report in April 2008. The commission made important recommendations like providing bataidars or share-croppers with secure cultivating rights and making available surplus land for distribution to the landless by implementing the ceiling on land holdings. The Nitish Kumar government has been silent on the commission’s findings, reinforcing the arguments being made by Maoists that the Indian State will never take any action against the interests of the landed castes.

The murder of the Mukhiya is just one of the examples of the past and the present coexisting in Bihar. The government needs to conduct radical reforms in the areas of criminal justice, hasten the punishment of those involved in political violence, compensate the victims of massacres and make development agendas more inclusive. These require statesmanship and a will to sacrifice short-term political interests and gains. Until this is done, the violent past will keep coming back to haunt Bihar.