Dangerous signs: Is Bihar moving back to era of bloody caste wars?

After nearly a decade of shift of emphasis to development, growth, good governance and social harmony, Bihar is returning fast to the vicious cycle of violent caste conflicts. In the south-central region of the state, a hotbed of Maoist-Ranvir Sena conflicts decades ago, the trend of revenge and retribution killings looks set for a comeback.

Last week, seven upper caste Bhumihar villagers were killed by suspected Maoists - the first such attack in over decade.

 Dangerous signs: Is Bihar moving back to era of bloody caste wars?

A file photograph of a vehicle set on fire during a protest by the Ranvir Sena.

The victims were returning to their village in south Bihar's Aurangabad district in a vehicle when the rebels triggered a powerful landmine blast using an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). All the victims were killed on the spot. The blast was so powerful that it blew the vehicles to smithereens and tore the bodies into pieces. This is the first time, the police claim, that IEDs have been used in Bihar for such killings. Those dead included Sushil Pandey, a former commander of the now disbanded Ranvir Sena, a private militia of upper caste landlords.

The incident would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the timing. It came close on the heels of the recent acquittal of all 26 accused of the Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre in which 58 Dalit villagers had been killed in cold blood by alleged activists of the Ranvir Sena in December 1997. Prior to that all the accused of the massacres at Bathani Tola, Miyanpur and Nagari had been acquitted after being convicted by the lower courts. They all were acquitted by the High Court for lack of "sufficient evidence". A series of such acquittals has now angered the Maoists who claim to be fighting for the cause of the poor, Dalits and the oppressed.

"In the prevailing system, it's just impossible to get justice for the poor. A series of recent acquittals of the massacre accused by the courts point towards it," the Magadh Zonal Committee of the Maiosts has said in a press statement adding, "While on the one hand, the poor, innocent and the oppressed are being frequently held guilty by the court, the persons accused in massacre cases are being acquitted."

The rebels even owned up responsibility for the killing of the seven Aurangabad villagers even as the police were trying to play down the issue. "The people's guerrilla army carried out the operation as the Ranvir Sena was trying to stop the 'jankranti' (people's revolution) in Bihar," a spokesman of the Maoists, who identified himself as Natwar, told the media. The rebels have further pasted posters in neighbouring Arwal district where as many as 22 farmers figure on their target-list.

Reacting sharply to this incident, the Ranvir Sena has asked the state government to "rein in" such elements adding they too would be forced to react if the rebels continued targeting the farmers. "We are not wearing bangles in our hands...it will be difficult for the government to control the situation if the farmers get awakened," is how Indu Bhushan, national president of the Rashtrawadi Kisan Mahasangh, which is said to be the frontal wing of the now disbanded Ranvir Sena, reacted. Bhushan is the son of slain Ranvir Sena's self-styled chief Barmeshwar Singh Mukhia who was killed in June last year.

One got a clear hint of how things are going to shape up when revenge cries rent the air after Bhushan reached the Pisay village, the scene of Thursday's Maoist attack, to console the bereaved family members of Sushil Singh and others. "Khoon ka badla khoo se lenge", "Ek ka badla sau se lenge" and "Mukhya Mantri Nitish Kumar murdabad" - these were some of the slogans raised by the youth present. The previous bloody clashes between the Maoists and the Sena led to the loss of hundreds of lives. The fear of caste riots has come to haunt Bihar again.

The panic in the atmosphere is underlined bythe fact that soon after the news reached Nitish in the evening, he held a meeting with all senior officials and transferred the Aurangabad district superintendent police Daljeet Singh quickly. Singh was replaced by Upendra Kumar Sharma, who was rushed to the new place of posting by helicopter.

Apart from this, the chief minister rushed a team of senior police officials to the spot for a thorough investigation into the incident and directed launching a massive combing operation in the areas to ensure no retaliatory attacks take place. Still, villagers are said to be quite nervous.

In recent years, both the Maoists and Ranvir Sena have virtually lost their relevance in Bihar due to the Nitish Kumar government's emphasis on development. While a huge number of top ranking Maoists have either been arrested by the police or surrendered to join the mainstream, the Ranvir Sena had virtually disbanded. The recent killing seems to have revived the old, bloody battle.

Observers say had the Nitish government been fair in ensuring justice to the massacre victims, the Left wing extremists or other outfits would not have got the chance to win public support. "We will not allow the trend of acquittals that has been noticed in the Laxmanpur-Bathe, Bathani Tola and Miyanpur masacre cases to continue. This has started to threaten the poor and emboldened feudal forces," CPI-ML general secretary Deepankar Bhattacharya had said at a rally in the village.

There is a political angle to the story also. Nitish has been wooing the upper caste Bhumihar community for some time now and his efforts have intensified after the NDA split. This has caused heartburn among other castes. The major victim of his approach, observers add, are the Dalits for whom the chief minister had rolled out the red carpet earlier. The acquittal of the accused in four massacres in which Dalits were the victims has now come a rude shock to this community that now blames Nitish for the situation.

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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2013 11:02:37 IST