Partners in crime: How Bihar politicians hushed up a Dalit massacre

These days, Nitish Kumar and the BJP are daggers drawn, but once they were chums. And this story has its origins in that BJP-JD(U) bhai-bhai era.

It turns on how together they scuppered an independent judicial investigation into one of the worst mass killings of Dalits in Bihar spread over a period of six long years. A collaboration that has unexpectedly returned to haunt them—embarrassingly in the run-up to the state assembly elections.

Ever heard of the Amir Das Commission?

The chances are “no". After all it all happened so long ago. But time to brush up on it. Because, it is likely to be in the news for some time ahead of the elections as political parties invoke it to embarrass rivals, especially the BJP. And noises have already begun.

The Das Commission was up back in 1997 to investigate the above-mentioned Bihar killings which had shocked the nation. Between 1994-2000, 144 people, including women and children, were killed for demanding their basic right to be treated with dignity and for supporting the CPI(M-L)’s campaign on their behalf. At the heart of the investigations was Ranvir Sena, a dreaded armed militia of upper caste landlords. It was formed by Bhumihar and Rajput landowners to suppress scheduled castes and scheduled tribes people by violent means.

But, in 2005, even as the Commission was preparing to give its report it was abruptly wound up by chief minister Nitish Kumar (yes, he was CM then also) allegedly under pressure from his ruling coalition partner at the time, the BJP, which feared being indicted because of its close links with the Sena.

File photo of Nitish Kumar. Reuters

File photo of Nitish Kumar. Reuters

Ten years later, new revelations have triggered calls for the investigations to be re-opened; and perpetrators of the massacres brought to justice. The revelations flow from a sting operation by the investigative news portal Cobrapost in which six hardened Ranvir Sena "commanders" who were controversially  acquitted by the Patna High Court for lack of sufficient evidence are recorded on camera boasting about their involvement in the killings

They also named several senior local BJP supporters, including  Brahameshwar  Mukhiya, who is alleged to have "masterminded" the massacres.

In another explosive revelation, Justice (retd) Das has claimed that his Commission was scrapped because its report could have named several high-profile politicians such as Murali Manohar Joshi, C.P. Thakur and Sushil Kumar Modi.

"It was closed all of a sudden, without any report or notice. I was not asked to submit the report either. Nitish Kumar was the chief minister at that time and Sushil Kumar Modi was the deputy CM. Modi's name cropped up along with many from the RSS for alleged involvement in the massacre," he told Cobrapost.

There has been no official BJP reaction though some individual party members have dismissed these claims as baseless and politically motivated aimed at embarrassing the BJP before the Bihar elections.

But one  doesn't have to take these revelations at face value to see a case for an investigation. Especially because the previous inquiry was not allowed to complete its work for political reasons. A probe will also be consistent with the BJP's own policy of routinely demanding inquiry against others (Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi, Mamnohan Singh, NGOs, Nalanda University et al) simply on the basis of allegations.

And the rationale is always the same: if they haven't done anything wrong, why are they afraid of facing an inquiry? Surely, the same logic should apply in this case. Why run away from an inquiry if it has nothing to hide?

But to put it in perspective, BJP’s role is only part of the story. While it is true that the party has a lot to answer for because so many of its leaders and supporters have been implicated, other parties--notably Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD and Nitish Kumar's JD (U)-- can't get away with it by simply blaming the whole thing on it.

And here’s why.

Lalu was the chief minister when the first of the massacres took place and the killings continued sporadically during the period when his wife Rabri Devi held the fort for him while he was in jail over the fodder scam. It is well-known that Lalu and his wife’s rule was marked by widespread lawlessness earning them the reputation of running a "jungle raj".

Between them, Lalu and company have a lot of explaining to do: how they allowed so many poor and innocent people to be killed on their watch. And then there’s Nitish Kumar. He was so keen to become CM with the BJP’s support that he had no compunction scrapping the Das inquiry. And even after his alliance with the BJP collapsed, he did not care to order a fresh inquiry or revive the old one.

Pappu Yadav, an RJD MP recently expelled by Lalu, is no paragon of virtue but as a fully-paid up member of Bihar’s political establishment, he knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak. And he is right when he says that "both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav were involved in protecting the Ranvir Sena extremists".

The row is spreading. Four of Britain's leading Dalit organisations have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding his intervention; and expressing their "dismay" over his silence on the issue despite his professed commitment to ensuring the life and property of Dalits and other oppressed people.

"We are deeply shocked by the recent horrifying revelations…you have so far neither spoken out against the killers and their accomplices nor taken any action against them. Can such horrific violence be tolerated in a democratic country? Unfortunately your lack of action on this issue gives the shocking  message that Dalit and oppressed caste lives do not matter in India," says the letter signed by representatives of Dalit Solidarity Network; Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisation, UK; CasteWatchUK; Sri Guru Ravidass Global Organisation for Human Rights); and South Asia Solidarity Group.

The episode is symptomatic of Bihar’s cynical political culture. It is jokingly said that “there’s politics and then there’s Bihar politics” which has reduced all political parties simply to a version of each other. To some degree they all bear responsibility for what Ranvir Sena did; and if political morality means anything to them they should stop continuing to block justice for the victims.

Updated Date: Aug 28, 2015 07:22 AM

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