Court verdict rekindles memories of a dark day in 1996

It was a July afternoon in 1996, and it took the marauding mobs less than a couple of hours to execute the massacre that took 21 lives. Among the dead were 11 women, six children and three infants.

With that, Bathani Tola, an unsung hamlet in central Bihar, shot to fame as one of the many sites where the fearsome Ranbir Sena had left its bloody mark. Last week, the village was once more in the news, with the Patna High Court acquitting 23 men convicted of the gruesome murders.

Bathani Tola was not the first, and would not be the last, in a series of atrocities committed through the 1980s and 1990s by the Sena, a powerful caste army of Bhumihars and Rajputs. Its victims were always landless labourers (Dalits in most cases), who, though poor and impoverished, had begun to get radicalised in the backdrop of the Naxal movement taking root in the State.

“We heard their howls of agony, but simply could not find the courage to come out,” recounts Naimuddin Ansari, one of the prime witnesses who lost six family members in the carnage. “The Sena men encircled our hovels, drew out the victims and slaughtered them,” recounts Sri Kishun Chaudhary, who lodged an FIR against 33 persons the day after the massacre.

Among those named was Brahmeshwar Singh — the infamous Mukhiya and founder of the Ranbir Sena — who is said to have overseen the Bathani killings as well as the caste massacres that followed in Laxmanpur Bathe and Shankarbigha (81 Dalits were killed in the two villages). Fourteen years after the bloodbath in Bathani, the Ara sessions court sentenced three persons to death and awarded life sentence to another 20.

The acquittal of the same men by the High Court has come as a shock to Bathani's residents. The court might have had its reasons — it cited “defective evidence” — for overturning the convictions, but the villagers are inconsolable and recollect every detail of the horror that visited them, including the fact that the Sena men killed women and children by design, not because they came in their way.

“This government [the Nitish Kumar-led NDA] has sold out to the rich and influential. It is now up to the Party [the Communist Party of India (Marxist -Leninist)] to decide the next course of action,” says Mr. Chaudhary, fatigued and bitter from years of fighting the case.

Naimuddin too looks dejected and defeated. A bangle-seller at the time of the carnage, he lost his three-month-old daughter to the aggressors. She had not even been named, when she was killed, he reminisces, adding, “Baby,” as she was called, “was tossed in the air and thrust down the blade of a sword.”

“My seven-year-old son Saddam saw it. They all saw it,” cries Naimuddin. One half of Saddam's face had been mutilated by sword lacerations when Naimuddin finally reached the spot after the Sena men had dispersed.

“As I picked him up, he [Saddam] said, ‘Abba save my life!' It was then that I realised they had cut his spinal cord.” The child died within a week at the Patna Medical College and Hospital.

A Sena sympathiser, who spoke to this correspondent, justified the “reactionary mobilisation” of the upper castes against “those Naxals.” “The land is ours. The crops belong to us. They [the labourers] did not want to work, and moreover, hampered our efforts by burning our machines and imposing economic blockades. So, they had it coming.”

Not surprisingly, there is panic in Bathani over the release of the Sena men. Their fear is compounded by the fact that their source of security, the CPI(ML), today lacks the necessary leadership at the ground level. In the 2010 Assembly elections, the CPI(ML) failed to bag even one of seven seats in Bhojpur district, which were split between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United).

Naimuddin and others have one question for visitors: if those named in the FIR are not the killers, who killed the 21 residents of Bathani Tola?