A Bihar court on April 7 sentenced to death 16 of 26 convicted persons in the Lakshmanpur-Bathe carnage in Jehanabad district in which 61 people, all Dalits, were killed by a private militia of landlords in December 1997. Announcing the judgement, Additional District Judge Vijay Prakash Mishra sentenced to life imprisonment the remaining 10 convicts and imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on each. The trial in the case had concluded on April 1.
[My report on the Lakshmanpur-Bathe massacre of 1997. It was commissioned by Rediff.com.]
The Stench of Death
Lakshmanpur-Bathe (Jehanabad district, Bihar): It has been raining for the past few days and the air is laden with the cold moisture of winter showers. The fields are a soggy brown. The Sone river shimmers is the dull winter daylight, lazily flowing through wide banks of sand.
In normal times, a village like Lakshmanpur-Bathe would be full of sounds that you do not hear in urban India. But these are not normal times. And you do not hear children shrieking to their hearts's delight, the gentle mooing of cows or the bleating of goats. There are no snot-nosed children staring at you in wide-eyed amazement or giggling women in dark doorways. There is no whiff of woodfire in the air.
In this emptiness you can feel strains of sorrow; if you hear hard enough, you can hear the silent, grievous sobbing of women, you can smell the staleness of death. The day before was daswi, the tenth day when rituals are performed for the soul of the departed in rural Bihar so that the journey into the other world is unhindered and peaceful. But what peace can you pray for when the soul is that of a young mother who was shot dead with her infant suckling at her breast? And how do you bade the infant goodbye?
Sixty-one people were shot dead in this village on the night of December 1 by armed criminals who came from across the river. Entire families of three generations wiped out by gunfire. All of them were poor, perhaps the poorest of the poor. They belonged to that vast underclass of Indians who, 50 years after Independence, are yet to realise what freedom means. They were born into oppression, they lived in oppression and their brutal slaughter is the ultimate symbol of oppression.
No, all of them were not dalits. The five boatmen -- three of whom ferried the marauders across the Sone -- whose threats were slit by the killers so that there would be no witnesses to the crime, were Nishads. Among those who were shot dead, were men and women who in life enjoyed a social status higher than that of harijans but in death were united by the economic criterion of unrelenting poverty that stalks the landless peasantry of Bihar.
The villagers of Lakshmanpur-Bathe, caught in the time warp of feudal India, refer to you as 'sarkar.' The landlords in whose fields they work for a kg of foodgrains a day, the petty government officials who make occasional forays, the uniformed policemen and the local politicians are their 'mai-baap.'
Fifty years after India kept its tryst with destiny, these villagers, like millions of villagers in thousands of other villages all over the country, are yet to see the miraculous healing powers of modern medicine or the magic of switching on an electric light. They are yet to learn how to read and write or to explore the world beyond Lakshmanpur-Bathe by travelling down pucca roads, Globalisation may have made the world into a small village, but the only village they are aware of is Lakshmanpur-Bathe.
Like giant concrete totems, electricity poles stick out from the blood-soaked soil of Lakshmanpur-Bathe, inert sentries of modernity that never existed. A politician in Patna, looking for ways and means to make some quick money from sources other than animal fodder, must have ordered the erection of these electricity poles. After paying off the contractor's enormously inflated bill, there was not enough money to string these poles with cables. Not that it would have made any difference. Bihar's towns and villages that have both poles and cables do not have electricity.
The only ray of hope in the benighted lives of these underclothed, underfed, underpaid people who were unlucky enough to be born in villages like Lakshmanpur-Bathe is provided by the revolutionary fervour of groups that profess Marxism-Leninism or dream of a Maoist transformation of rural Bihar society and economy. The Naxalbari movement in rural Bengal triggered the imagination of these men and women, mostly men, in rural Bihar.
Initiated by Jagdish Mahto and Rameshwar Ahir in Bhojpur district, the Naxalite movement in Bihar has taken several twists and turns. And like the Naxal movement in Bengal or Andhra Pradesh, in Bihar too it has splintered over the years, giving birth to three main streams: The Maoist Coordination Committee swears by Maoist tactics while the two CPI-ML factions, Liberation and Party Unity, continue to persist with Marxism-Leninism.
Each has carved out an area for its 'operations' that largely concentrate on securing a better deal for the landless peasantry but often focuses on retributive justice based on the principle of eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, limb for a limb and life for a life.
Like everything else in Bihar, the haves and have-nots are also divided along caste lines. The oppressor, the landlord, is a Rajput, a Bhumihar or a Kurmi. The oppressed is a Paswan, Koeri, Majhi, Musahar, Chamar or, in some cases, even a Yadav. Class and caste have nearly coalesced, defying conventional Left wisdom that seeks to segregate caste from class and draws a line between caste war and class war. In Bihar, class war is also caste war.
And with the virtual withering away of the State, the disappearance of any semblance of constitutional rule of law, the oppressor and oppressed have organised their own lines of defence. The landlords have created brutal private armies like the Ranvir Sena and Sunlight Sena, whose soldiers have a tremendous capacity for brutality. The landless are protected by the Naxal groups whose armed cadre have no less an appetite for bloodletting.
The designated guardian of both the landlords and the landless, the police, is a pathetic carricature of law-keepers. Policemen in Bihar are scared to confront either the extremist groups or the landlord's armies. They would rather disappear from the scene of a carnage and reappear after the killings are over.
Policemen who thought that valour was more important than discretion have both their lives and their weapons. In Patna and elsewhere, policemen refuse to carry weapons, scared that their outdated .303 rifles will attract the attention of either the private armies or the extremist groups whose armoury comprises looted police weaponry. Unarmed policemen can at least plead mercy and run for their lives.
The unending cycle of violence in Bihar where the not-so-poor kill the poor and the poor kill the very poor in a relentless caste/class war, in a sense, provides macabre, black humour in an otherwise unexciting saga of political intrigue and financial misdemeanour. But frivolity apart, the Republic of Bihar today is a grim reminder that all is not well with the Republic of India.
Lakshmanpur-Bathe is a blot on the collective conscience of the nation. The barbarity of the massacre should have stirred us as never before. The entire nation should have grieved along with the grieving men and women who saw their flesh and blood being butchered but dare not raise their voice in protest, lest their mai-baap, their sarkar forsake them forever.
But nobody is perturbed, least of all in New Delhi from where the world of McDonalds and Pizza Hut looks so beautiful.