It may become tough to keep intact the social combination of upper castes and EBCs he presides over

Friday's murder of Brahmeshwar Singh, chief of the outlawed Ranvir Sena (a private army owing allegiance to the powerful upper caste Bhumihars) in Bhojpur, 71 km from Patna, could become a major test for the seven-year-old Nitish Kumar government's continued ability to maintain social harmony in Bihar. Within hours of the killing in the early hours, Singh's supporters went on the rampage, upsetting the delicate caste equilibrium in south Bihar, and reviving memories of the 1990s, when this region was the stronghold of both the Ranvir Sena and its rivals, the outlawed Maoist groups and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

The response of political leaders was immediate: Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad sought an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Senior Congress leader and former Minister of State for Home Shakeel Ahmed, who will be flying to Patna on Saturday, was muted by comparison: “Violence,” he said, “has no place in civil society: the possibility of a caste war, which some anti-social elements are trying to provoke, must be prevented at all costs.”

The State administration's first response has been to check the violence and arson, imposing an indefinite curfew in Arrah and sounding a red alert in the districts of Jehanabad, Arwal, Aurangabad and Gaya. But the murder could have repercussions that go beyond upsetting law and order, as the powerful Bhumihars have been backing Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) government, thanks to the presence of the Bharatiya Janata Party in it.

The killing of Brahmeshwar Singh (who had been out on bail since 2011 after nine years in jail), RJD sources stressed, comes close on the heels of the Patna High Court setting aside the Arrah sessions court verdict in the case of the brutal murder of 21 landless peasants at Bathani Tola, a Dalit hamlet in Bhojpur district on July 11, 1996. The sessions court had sentenced 23 members of the Ranvir Sena — three of them to death and the others to life imprisonment. But on April 16 this year, the High Court overturned the conviction, and acquitted all the accused.

Indeed, after their acquittal, a group of intellectual-activists including economist Jean Dreze, writer Arundhati Roy and filmmaker Anand Patwardhan wrote to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. “The fact that 16 years after this massacre, not a single person stands convicted for the brutal and barbaric slaughter of innocents, raises disturbing questions about whether the oppressed and the poor victims of massacres can expect justice in our courts,” their memorandum said, pointing out that though the Ranvir Sena (which had been involved in as many as 29 massacres between 1995 and 2000) was banned after the Bathani Tola massacre, it continued to operate openly, committing several more massacres, including the one at Laxmanpur-Bathe in December 1998, in which 61 landless Dalits were killed.

The memorandum pointed out that the Commission of Enquiry headed by Justice Amir Das, set up after the Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre to probe the political support received by the Ranvir Sena, was disbanded after the Nitish Kumar government came to power.

On Friday, a senior Congress leader from Bihar told The Hindu, “At the time when the High Court overturned the sessions court verdict, there was talk in the State that it could have a negative impact in the coming months. Indeed, some people even went so far as to say the State government had influenced the change.”

In social terms, the JD(U)-BJP government that came to power in end-2005 represented a combination of the most economically backward castes, led by Kurmis and Koeris, and the upper castes, dominated by the Bhumihars. With the Bhumihar community's interests now taken care of by the government, its members no longer needed to resort to violence to protect their land from Maoist groups who had the backing of the Kurmis and the Dalits.

Five years later in 2010, the BJP, which brings upper caste votes to the Nitish Kumar government, won a whopping 91 of the 102 seats it contested, while the JD(U) secured 115 of the 141 seats: in short, the BJP's score rate was much higher than that of the JD(U). With the Bhumihars now demanding that Brahmeshwar Singh's murderers be brought to book swiftly, Mr. Kumar is in an unenviable situation: if the guilty are not apprehended soon, there could be a revival of the Ranvir Sena, on the one hand, and a boost to the Maoists, who represent the landless lower castes, on the other. And if the guilty turn out to be members of the communities most affected by the massacres of the 1990s, he may well find it tough to keep intact the social combination of upper castes and EBCs that he presides over.