Motive behind attack on ‘Harijan’ hostel remains a matter of conjecture

Early one morning in June, Bajrang Kumar Paswan, a 17-year-old Dalit student, jumped into a stretch of knee-deep slush running for dear life. He covered himself with twigs, hid under the wild shrubbery and made good his escape by jumping over the rear compound wall of his hostel.

At the front, angry mobs were setting fire to rooms and vehicles at the Ambedkar Welfare Hostel, a government facility for Dalit students, known locally as the ‘Harijan hostel.’

“I was brushing my teeth,” recalled Bajrang. “Suddenly, I heard commotion. Groups of men with lathis had entered the hostel. They were hurling abuses. They started vandalising the premises; they pelted stones and bricks and set the place ablaze,” he told The Hindu.

Several Dalit students like Bajrang were busy with their morning ablutions when the attack caught them unawares. It also caught the police on the back foot, coming just three hours after the killing of Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh ‘Mukhiya.’

“They were saying, ‘Harijan ka bacha pankha light me rahega? [Harijan children will use fans and lights?],” said another student Mukesh Kumar.

The hostel itself is located a stone’s throw away from the ‘Mukhiya’s’ house. As per official estimates, property in 15 rooms was found to be burnt, with several other rooms ransacked. Damage was recorded in 48 rooms spread across several wings of the hostel. A library was gutted and several vehicles were also burnt. Soot-covered walls and ceilings, charred windowpanes and de-plastered areas still bear testimony to the mayhem that was unleashed upon the hostel.

While earlier reports pinned the blame on Ranvir Sena supporters, six months after the incident, the motive behind the specific targeting of the Dalit students remains a matter of conjecture for the investigators.

Probes into the incident and three other simultaneous cases of arson and violence – namely the burning of the Circuit House, the Block office and a minor incident at a dairy farm in Ara – that accompanied the hostel attack that day, have discounted any link with the Ranvir Sena.

“Either the sentiments of ‘Mukhiya’s’ supporters or caste Hindus on the whole were fanned after the murder. Or, the murder accused themselves orchestrated the attacks to divert attention. That is a possibility,” a top officer said.

Ara and Patna saw large scale arson in the aftermath of the ‘Mukhiya’s’ murder. He was shot dead in the early hours of June 1 around 4.15 a.m. when he was out on his morning walk.

“The most significant part of the violence,” Bihar Director General of Police Abhayanand said, “was the violence at the Harijan hostel. It was significant because there was an indication that the Mukhiya’s supporters felt that the CPI-ML [Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)] was behind the killing.”

“It was rumoured,” said an officer who was part of the probe, “that the CPI-ML had taken shelter at the Harijan hostel.” Given the old rivalry between the political party and the Sena, an organisation of land-owning Bhumihar Brahmins, it took no time for the rumour to take root.

Although the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has been invoked, the underpinnings of caste violence is entirely absent in the case. The police have rounded up a group of usual upper caste suspects, many of them history-sheeters in extortion cases.

Interestingly, some of the accused in the murder case are also accused in the violence that followed the murder. They wanted to “divert attention from their role,” the police said. A total of five cases of murder, arson and related violence were registered in Ara. The ‘Pandey brothers,’ namely Abhay Pandey and Nandgopal Pandey alias Fauji and six others were named in the murder case. The two, charged with plotting the murder are absconding, while the rest are under arrest.

Anil Kumar Pandey, Rahul Harshawardhan alias Sunny, Ritesh Kumar alias Monu and Prince Pandey are accused in the Mukhiya’s murder as well as the ensuing violence. Hostel authorities accused the government of delay in acknowledging the incident.

“At first no one was willing to accept that the hostel was attacked,” the hostel’s prefect Vikas Kumar Paswan said. The incident itself grabbed relatively less media attention. “The administration only knew about the Circuit House and Block office. A month later, Chairman of the State’s SC Commission Vidyanand Vikal visited the site. Irate students attacked his car and blackened his face.”

The students, who lost many important documents in the arson, have since picked up the pieces. Many have received a portion of the compensation amount.