Acquittals kindle new fear in Bihar’s caste battleground

Nearly 20 of the acquitted are from the upper-caste hamlet of Bathe.

Written by Deepu Sebastian Edmond | Arwal | Published: October 11, 2013 10:06:40 pm

Baudh Ram paused long enough while laying out clothes he had washed to dry,to spew some expletives. Then,calming down,he said,“Go look at the memorial. That is all that is left now.”

Anger and frustration provide a not-so subtle cover for fear that has taken root in Subash Nagar of Laxmanpur Bathe village of Arwal district – site of the December 1,1997 killing of 58 people by upper-caste men – after the 26 who had been convicted in that case were acquitted by the Patna High Court Wednesday.

Patna High Court sets aside conviction of 26 in Laxmanpur Bathe Dalit massacre case

Seven of Ram’s relatives were among the 53 dalits and five from the backward fisherman caste killed by the now-defunct Bhumihar caste militia,Ranvir Sena. And nearly 20 of the acquitted are from the upper-caste hamlet of Bathe. “They killed even infants young enough to drink their mothers’ milk. Now they will come back. We all have to die some time. I am 80 years old now,now is a good time as any,” said Ram.

The martyrs’ memorial says 19 of the 58 were aged 15 or under. The youngest was Chhotelal,a year old. Keeping in line with the Ranvir Sena tradition of targeting women and children,34 victims were women.

Eighteen people were witnesses to the Bathe incident. They ran away into the night,scampered up the roof,and hid under cots and behind storage areas and watched as their family members were shot. What adds to the hurt of acquittal is the observation by the high court that the witnesses were not up to scratch.

Village casts aside violent past,opts for development

“I remember everything,” declared Munni Rajbansi,who was witness number 12. Munni watched as his wife,daughter-in-law,granddaughter and grandson,the infant Chhotelal,were murdered. “I saw them all clearly – they were carrying five-cell torches. I remember every detail,” he said.

The high court thought his evidence was “quite improbable” as it was unlikely he would have left his hiding place and also because there was no light. The court also junked the testimony of Binod Paswan,on whose complaint the whole case is based. Binod,the only witness to identify all 26 acquitted,lost seven of his family.

None of the younger witnesses,including Binod,were in the village Friday.

“There has been talk around the village that we could be attacked again,” said Ram Ugrah Rajbansi,prosecution witness 16,who lost four women relatives. Rajbansi’s testimony was also discounted by the high court,thanks to a lapse by the investigating officer.

Then,there are those who walked into the conflict of late.

“My husband had a difficult childhood. His relatives took turns bringing him up. I have not found the right circumstances to ask him what he thinks about this acquittal – it can’t be easy for him to talk about it,” said Rita Devi,wife of Bimlesh Rajbansi,who was 10 years old at the time of the incident.

Bimlesh lost his parents,both brothers and their wives in the attack. He was shot in the face and was made a witness. The high court said he “suffered lacerated wound just below the right lower eyelid,which could not be caused by a direct firearm shot as claimed by the witness…It is difficult to hold he was in a position to identify the miscreants”.

Some insist there was nothing wrong to begin with.

“My brother was implicated by the investigation officer,who got the witnesses to record their statements a second time,” said Shiv Kumar Singh,elder brother of Bijender,who is to be released now.

Bijender had been sentenced to death. “It has been peaceful since that night; it will be peaceful even after these people return. We have never had any problems – or else,why would people from that hamlet come work for us?,” he asked.

The brick-red memorial has become a repository of sorts: one which the hamlet consults to refresh its memory. When asked about the casualties in his family,Ram Rekha Chaudhary walked up to the structure and began poring over the names.

“There – 50,51,52,53,54,55 – six people from three different families on my wife’s side. Two of them died only because there were visiting that night,” he said.

Yet,Ram Rekha has since moved into the house from another village where he lived during the attack: “My wife wanted me to – her mother was one of those killed that night.”

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