On 9 October, the Patna High Court acquitted all 26 accused in the Lakshmanpur Bathe massacre, in which 58 Dalit villagers were killed on 1 December 1997 in Jehanabad district. Among those butchered were 27 women and 16 children. In 2010, a lower court had awarded death penalty to 16 of the accused. The rest were sentenced to life imprisonment. But the joint HC Bench said that the evidence and witnesses of the prosecution were not reliable and gave the accused the “benefit of doubt”.
This is not the first instance when accused belonging to upper castes have walked free after being charged with mass murder in Bihar. Only last year, all accused in Bhojpur’s Bathani Tola massacre case, which claimed 22 lives in 1996, went scot-free. In fact, one of the first decisions of Nitish Kumar as chief minister in 2005 was to dismantle the Amir Das Commission, which had been set up by the Rabri Devi government to investigate the role of the Ranvir Sena, Bihar’s notorious upper-caste militia, in these massacres.
In an interview with Nirala, Justice Amir Das confirms that the commission, if not dissolved so hastily, would have exposed the political connections of the Ranvir Sena. Some of the men named in his report, Das points out, are part of the Nitish Kumar government.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
After Bathani Tola and Nagri, all accused in the Lakshmanpur Bathe massacre have also been acquitted. Why are decisions of the lower courts being overruled by the high court?
What can I say? There are certain circumstances in every decision that need to be ignored for the sake of justice. It’s different if an incident takes place in broad daylight. A crime committed in the dark gets the benefit of doubt. I have been to villages like Lakshmanpur Bathe. These are areas engulfed in darkness. Yes, it’s true what happened in Lakshmanpur Bathe was not an accident. But, in certain situations, one has to ignore some things.
There is a difference between lower court, high court and the Supreme Court. I have worked in the lower court too. The IPC, CrPC and Evidence Act are very strong laws. Being well versed with them can help influence the decisions. If there is a man behind the bushes and someone takes him for a bird and shoots him, it will be murder by accident. Similarly, when a massacre takes place in the dark, it is difficult to identify the culprits. But it doesn’t answer all the questions. How were the 58 people killed? Who killed them and why?
But these are the very questions that the lower court’s verdict raised.
That’s why I have been repeating all along that decisions depend on circumstances… Obviously, it is difficult to give clear proof of a murder that took place in the dark. Besides, one has to make sure that no innocent gets wrongly punished. There are a lot of things to take care of.
People believe that the government scrapped the commission headed by you because it was going to make some revelations…
The government did not even seek to know how the commission worked, how the facts were collected, how much hard work was put in to reach the bottom of the story. Within 15-20 days after the ( Nitish Kumar) government was formed, I was pressured to submit the report. I requested for a little more time, but I was told it was already late. Then suddenly, they dissolved it. It had been 7-8 years. All our efforts went to waste. The government blamed the commission for delay in the report but such delays are usual.
Take, for instance, the probe committee for Bhagalpur riots, which was again sent to Bhagalpur after so many years. We were not handling any ordinary case. Fifty-eight people were killed in Lakshmanpur alone, including children and pregnant women. It was a thorough probe which revealed that the killers belonging to the Ranvir Sena did not come from outside. They were all from Lakshmanpur, known to the victims who didn’t need much light to recognise the faces of their attackers. They were their landlords; now they are MLAs.
No party comes out clean in this bloody caste politics, but Nitish Kumar’s desperation is showing
Do you think the commission was dismantled due to political pressure?
I cannot comment on it. The commission was formed by the previous (RJD) government. Trust me, had the government not shown such hurry in dissolving the commission, we could have brought the criminals to justice…
We had presented a group of 40 people. We didn’t bring them of our own accord. They were all witnesses. They included MPs, former MPs, MLAs, etc. Many names were highlighted. The report could affect many people. Obviously, some people from the government were also involved.
Won’t the acquittal of criminals in three cases force the public to take some desperate action?
It’s not three, but five cases. Bathani Tola, Shankar Bigha, Miyanpur, Nagri and Lakshmanpur Bathe. All I can say is that people are powerless economically and socially. Even today, power rests with the dominant upper class. The commission had a major role in stopping the massacres in Bihar. One of the commission’s objectives was to restore peace as soon as possible with help from the government. We asked a Senior Superintendent of Police in Patna how a fugitive could escape from under his nose. He denied any knowledge of it. We told him it was in the newspapers. Soon enough, the chief perpetrators were arrested and the frequency of such massacres came down.
The administration played a role too. But it wasn’t easy. Men were sent to shoot our witnesses in the Patna secretariat. Once, we got wind of it and asked our bodyguard to catch the attacker. But he managed to escape. Last year, we saw the hue and cry raised over a dead body brought to Patna (that of slain Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh, June 2012). You can understand the difficulties that came in our way.
What were the primary responsibilities of the commission?
The commission was formed in 1998 after the Lakshmanpur Bathe incident. The other four incidents of Miyanpur, Bathani Tola, Shankar Bigha and Nagri had already taken place. Initially, the commission had five important duties; others came later. It had to find out who laid the foundation of Ranvir Sena, what was its purpose, who were involved in it, if it had links with political parties, and what steps needed to be taken to establish peace in the villages.
Had the Ranvir Sena become a political group?
We had evidence of it. There is no doubt.
What was the purpose behind forming the Ranvir Sena?
Indira Gandhi had come up with several laws in 1974 — Minimum Wages Act, Abolition of Bonded Labour Act, land reform Acts. Communist leaders convinced the village labourers that these laws were in their favour. As awareness spread, the labourers started demanding their rights. The landlords couldn’t tolerate this. Once the labourers were empowered, they started an economic blockade. The landlords chose other ways to tackle the situation. You will find that most of the victims in the massacre were farm labourers.
Is it true that the Ranvir Sena was associated with a particular dominant caste in Bihar?
Yes, that’s absolutely true. It is evident from Jehanabad to Bhojpur.
Did you face any threats during the probe?
I already had many enemies. When I was in Siwan in 1987-88, the District Magistrate was murdered in Gopalganj and I gave death penalty to two accused. I received many threats. They tried to kidnap my son. A bomb was thrown at me during a session once. It was a close shave. I’m not scared. What will they get by killing me?
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman