‘They are free and we are trapped,’ says a resident, as many villagers share her fear that they may be targeted again

On Wednesday night, Baudh Paswan kept tossing and turning in bed, his appetite and sleep gone.

“I feel they will come back again,” he murmured. As they did on the night of December 1, 1997 and began a killing spree. Armed with firearms and swords, members of the Ranvir Sena, militia of the Bhumihar landlords, slaughtered 58 Dalits, including 27 women and 16 children.

On Wednesday, the Patna High Court acquitted all the 26 accused, setting aside the lower court’s verdict that awarded the death sentence to 16 and life imprisonment to the other 10.

“I do not have the strength to fight anymore. After 58 murders, no one is guilty. The courts are theirs, the government is theirs, the lathi [the baton of power] is theirs. The poor have nothing. This is injustice,” Paswan said, hobbling around on his walking stick. He lost seven of his family members. Some more died later, of grief.

The sense of victory felt by the Dalit hamlet after the conviction by the trial court has vanished. Now there lurks a threat. Will the doors be broken open again? Will the houses be invaded?

Haunted by this fear, Sunaina Devi breaks down. “Jiska ghar me itna parivar mara hai vo kaise himmat rakhega? [How will the family that has lost so many members find strength?] So many were killed and nothing happened. Now, they [the upper caste] are threatening us, saying they would barge into our houses and beat us with sticks as nothing has happened to them. Since yesterday, sweets have been distributed in the upper caste quarters and firecrackers have gone off. The High Court let them off and left us trapped. We have lost all hope.”

House after house shares her unease. “The whole country knows who killed those 58 people. Only the courts don’t know,” said Pramila Devi, who lost three women relatives. “Last night, they staged celebrations. They are free now. But we have to think whether we will survive.”

Laxmanpur Bathe is 100 km from Patna, on the banks of the Sone. As in any other village, there are upper caste quarters of Rajputs and Bhumihars and the Dalit hamlet comprising the lower castes of Mallah, Paswan, Ravidas and Rajvanshi. After the massacre, the hamlet got pucca brick houses from the government. But some of the mud huts with broken doors still stand, testifying to the violence.

Laxman Rajvanshi is a survivor and eyewitness who testified in court. “Give us justice or drown us,” he said.

Asked about the High Court’s observation that witnesses were unreliable, he said: “How could I not have recognised them? We stay in the same village and I see them about 10 times a day! We worked on their fields. We had no inkling of this attack, otherwise we would have been alert. The Nitish Kumar government is hand in glove with the feudal elements. He slotted us into the Mahadalit category, collected our votes and then cut our throats.”

Another eyewitness, Ram Ugraharajbanshi, said the assailants divided themselves into two groups. One was a killing squad of 35 persons and the other, of 80 men, stood guard. “The armed men had their mouths covered with handkerchiefs. But, of course, we were familiar with their voices.”

The massacre was one in a series of brutal caste killings that marked the 1990s in Bihar.

In the backdrop of a peasant struggle, the late Brahmeshwar Singh Mukhiya rallied the land-owning Bhumihars under the banner of Ranvir Sena.

Violent and brutal confrontations between the Sena and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) were the order of the day.

“Innocent”

“But in this village, there had never been any dispute. The Ranvir Sena came wading through the Sone from Bhojpur and attacked the hamlet. And we got trapped in a caste issue,” said Nageshwar Sharma, brother of the acquitted accused Shatrughan Singh.

“We are happy that the truth has come out,” said Shambhunarayan Singh, brother of Dharichand Singh. Asked whether Dalits worked on the fields, he said: “Now they do not; they have become rich and we have become poor.” The key question everyone asks is that if the 26 people did not kill, who did? “That’s the main secret,” said Alok Kumar Singh, a family member of three of the accused.

On Thursday, Advocate-General Lalit Kishore said the government decided to file an appeal in the Supreme Court against the High Court’s verdict.

The talk of justice and evidence confuses Parvati Devi. “Injustice has been done,” she said. “Do you need another massacre for proof? Why did they kill little children? What had they done? Our little Anita was only one. Her head got ripped off and bits of her head had to be swept off the floor.”

Among the victims were eight pregnant women. The Mukhiya justified this, saying Maoists had to be killed in their wombs. Rashmi Devi was also pregnant then. She hid herself in a grain sack. But “I was so scared that I was delivered of a stillborn baby,” she said.