The Patna High Court Oct 9 suspended conviction of the 26 accused in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre for want of evidence. The trial court had convicted all 26 accused and sentenced 10 to life imprisonment and handed down capital punishment to 16 in April 2010.
The gruesome massacre was committed Dec 1, 1997, in Laxmanpur Bathe village in south Bihar where 58 Dalits, including 27 women and 16 children, (Paswans, Chamars, Mallahs and Machuwara community) were killed by the now-disbanded anti-Naxal upper caste militia Ranvir Sena. The division bench of justice V.N. Sinha and justice A.K. Lal gave the benefit of doubt to the accused on the ground that there were discrepancies in the statement of prosecution witnesses and the prosecution had not produced any evidence to guarantee any punishment.
This is the third instance of acquittal by the Patna High Court in 2013 in the cases of Dalit massacre. In two cases earlier, the Patna High Court division bench (July 3) acquitted nine of 10 accused in the Miyapur massacre where 32 Dalits were allegedly killed by Ranvir Sena in June 2000. Similarly, in the Nagari Bazar carnage case, involving the killing of 11 Dalits, the high court released 11 convicts.
The majority of these massacres and violence under the umbrella of anti-Naxal forces was during the second phase of the Naxal movement in Bihar. Undivided central Bihar saw unprecedented level of violence during the second phase of the Naxalite movement. This was marked by alteration of power equation, which was now tilted towards the labour and the oppressed class as opposed to the landlord or upper class segment of current southern Bihar. The second phase also witnessed new political alignments and rise of new Naxalite groups.
An excessive growth of Naxalism and change of power equation brought with itself concomitant problems. There was huge retaliation by the upper caste landlords, creating their own militias. The most prominent among them was Ranvir Sena, which was formed in 1994. The available literature shows a ghastly phase of massacres and counter massacres following the formation of Ranvir Sena in order to counter the growing influence of Naxal-backed peasant resistance and violence.
The rise of upper class militia led to violence in 1990s. The Ranvir Sena was however marred by internecine feud. The infighting became the stiffest challenge, slowly leading to the group’s downfall. The change of political landscape during the last decade created fissure among the proxy holders, weakening the central authority and sabotaging networks operations during the period. The arrest of Ranvir Sena head Brahmeshwar Singh, the mastermind behind Dalit massacres, in 2002 destroyed the structural base of Ranvir Sena.
On the other hand, infighting amongst Naxal groups, mainly between People’s War Group and Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) as well as Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (Liberation), heightened during early 2000s, subverting the ideological battle fought with arms. The changing social and economic condition of various Dalit groups as well as upper caste groups also led to a status of repair, and subsequently led to a decline in violence and mass massacres. Overall south Bihar, once the central turf in the ongoing class conflict, saw the decline of violence both by the Naxal groups and anti-Naxal groups.
The series of acquittals of convicts in different massacre cases can have a multi-dimensional impact, with the scope being measured wholly at the political and security levels. Currently, it is seen as a major blow to the hopes of the numerous victims and their family members, who in all cases belong to a particular caste. All the same, the acquittal can lead to polarization of Dalits against the state machinery and the upper castes who were members of the Ranvir Sena.
The animosity between the Dalit supporters and Ranvir Sena sympathisers has been running high after Brahmeshwar Singh was killed. The judgment can add fuel to the fire.
The question of justice in terms of compensating the victims of Dalit caste within Bihar often seems contentious as the series of acquittals has hampered the faith of Dalits in the democratic system. The government has decided to appeal in the Supreme Court against the high court verdict. The ensuing social response to the judgment is hard to predict; but the fact remains inviolable that the judgment has the potential to provide fodder for future agrarian wars fought in the name of Naxal or anti-Naxal war.
(Gaurav Dixit is an independent researcher on conflict situations in South Asia. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)