Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre: No one killed 58 Dalits
The spate of acquittals in massacre cases like Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur-Bathe by the Patna High Court stirs a political debate. Will Nitish Kumar rise up to the occasion to give justice to the Dalits?
On a chilly December night 16 years ago, 58 villagers of Laxmanpur-Bathe in south Bihar’s Arwal district were murdered in cold blood. All the victims of the massacre were Dalits and many among them children, the youngest being a one-year-old, and pregnant women. The incident shocked the nation. Former Indian President late KR Narayanan called it a ‘national shame’. Now it seems no one killed the villagers. On Wednesday, the Patna High Court acquitted all the accused for “lack of evidence”.
The 26 accused let off were earlier convicted by a lower court. Sixteen of them were awarded the capital punishment while the rest were served life imprisonment. “More than the ‘rarest of the rare case’, it was a heinous crime,” the lower court judge had observed while delivering his judgment in the case. There were 46 accused in the case originally; 19 of them were let off and one turned approver. The higher court found all prosecution witnesses unreliable and thus felt the accused were entitled to the benefit of the doubt.
The villagers waiting for justice for more than a generation are in a shock after the verdict. “There is no law to protect us because we are poor,” said 67-year-old Laxman Rajvanshi who lost three members of his family in the brutal attack, allegedly by the Ranvir Sena, the militia of the upper castes. “We have been denied justice,” rues another villager Baudh Paswan, 70, saying, “Sarkar, judge, collector aur thana ne bata diya ki garib ki aukat bakari ki hoti hai (Everyone in the system has made us believe we are rubbish)”.
The villagers are not wholly wrong. This is the fourth time in quick succession that all the accused in massacre cases have been acquitted by the court for “lack of evidence”. Earlier in July this year, nine of the 10 persons convicted for killing 34 Dalit villagers at Miyanpur village in Aurangabad district were acquitted by the Patna High Court, six years after they were convicted by a special district court. The massacre was carried out on June 16, 2000 by Ranvir Sena men in retaliation to the killing of upper caste people at Senari village in neighbouring Jehanabad district earlier that year.
Again in March this year, all the 11 accused convicted by a lower court for the massacre of 10 CPI-ML sympathisers at Nagari village in Bhojpur district in November 1998 were acquitted by the high court. It was a similar verdict in case of the infamous Bathani Tola massacre in which all the 23 convicts declared guilty by a lower court for the cold-blooded killing of 21 dalit villagers were acquitted by the high court last year. The Bathani Tola massacre had taken place in Bhojpur district in July 1996. In all the incidents, Ranvir Sena men were allegedly involved but all walked free ultimately.
The state SC Commission chairman Vidyannad Vikal has expressed shock, saying, “If the court finds all the accused innocent, then it must also tell who are guilty.” “If the court was not satisfied with the evidence submitted by the police and the Justice Amir Das Commission (it was appointed by the previous RJD government to probe the atrocities by members of Ranvir Sena), then it should have directed for conducting the investigation for other agency”, he added.
The acquittals have set off a political debate in Bihar. The political implication of these could be heavy. It is lost on no political party. All the victims “denied justice” come from the oppressed Mahadalit community, which constitutes a sizable vote bank. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has been wooing this community aggressively with several welfare measures, might find himself in trouble when the election arrives.
The Left and other parties have already sharpened the attack on the state government. “This is a massacre of justice and the Nitish Kumar government is responsible for it,” alleged CPI-ML general secretary Dipankar Bhhattacharya, adding “under the previous RJD government, the poor men were becoming victims of massacre, under the Nitish Kumar regime the massacre accused are easily walking free.”
Reacting to the acquittals, senior JD(U) leader Shivanand Tiwari said, “There is a need to overhaul the current judicial system…This system is dominated by the ‘abhijatya and samanti’ (upper and feudal class) people. How is it that the same evidences on the basis of which the lower court convicts the accused are rejected by the higher court?”
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