After 12 years on death row, this Bihar dacoit had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment
On a bitterly cold winter's night in early January 1989, a gang of dacoits led by Shobhit Chamar broke into the house of Haridwar Pandey in Tirojpur, a village tucked away in the backwaters of Bihar's Kaimur district.
The group rounded up the male members of Pandey's family and ruthlessly gunned them down amid horrified pleas for mercy by their female relatives. In a bid to preclude future revenge attempts, Shobhit and his gang killed two minor children of the family as well.
Haridwar Pandey, perhaps ironically, escaped the slaughter; he was elsewhere in the country that night.
During trial, it was revealed that Shobhit nursed a deep-rooted grudge against the Pandeys, holding them responsible for the murders of his brother and a young nephew.
Shobhit was sentenced to death; his mercy petition was rejected in 2000. In December 2010, after he had spent 12 years on death row, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
The memories of his crime are also alive, shaping the lives of the family members of the victims.
Aftermath of death
Bhajurama Devi, a prime witness who is now in her late-70s, may appear feeble, but remembers vividly the horror of that night when she lost her husband and son. “They bound Ram Iqbal,” she recalls, “and gunned him down before my eyes. I was condemned to watch it.”
Haridwar Pandey's wife, Lalmuni Devi, the younger of the two women, bursts forth with bitter recollections of events past.
“I saw my children being pulled away from me as I clutched them close to my breast,” she says, gesturing towards the courtyard where she lost her sons. Anil and Sunil were aged eight and 10. “I pleaded with that butcher [Shobhit] to spare them at least.”
She recounts how she was persistently threatened by Ram Dular, Shobhit's accomplice who was later killed, against giving evidence against Shobhit in court.
Haridwar Pandey married a second time after the incident, and settled in Varanasi in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
Lalmuni Devi refuses to leave the house. “It's impossible to wrench myself from its memories,” she confesses.
“What do I care whether they [the government] hang that butcher [Shobhit] or let him go free? My children have left me forever,” she says, her voice quivering with despair.
She is not alone in her sentiments.
A stone's throw from the Pandeys' house live the Chamars — in crumbling mud hovels standing on borrowed land, subject to the whims of ‘better-born' castes.
At the time of the incident, the Chamars worked on lands owned by the Pandeys. “They [the Pandeys] owned at least 60 bighas in these parts,” says Khobaru, Shobit's brother.
Mr. Khobaru recounts how Haridwar Pandey and other members of the family had induced Shobhit and others from his community into criminal activities. He graphically details the killing of his son Ram Kewal, in his mid-20s, who was dragged away and murdered in a village 15 km from Tirojpur.
While acknowledging the criminal fraternisation between members of both communities, Mr. Khobaru accuses Pandey of killing his son.
The mood sobers when the conversation turns to the murder of Lalmuni Devi's children.
“Yes, we admit that was unnecessary,” says Mr. Khobaru, and Jugal Kishore, Shobhit's cousin, concurs. The acknowledgement is the closest that members of either group come to anything resembling reconciliation.
But it was “they” who started it, the Chamar group quickly asserts. “They [the Pandeys] killed my father-in-law by thrusting acid down his throat,” says Urmila Devi, a woman in the group.
When he had the money, Mr. Khobaru visited his brother a few times at the Bhagalpur Central Jail. He has not done so during the last few years.
Almost nobody in the community knows that Shobhit has recently been shifted to the Buxar Jail. Nobody here knows where Shobhit's wife and children live today.
The crushing pressures of daily life have not left much time for Tirojpur's Chamars to brood over Shobhit's drawn-out tryst with death.
“Today, there's no tension between the Pandeys and the Chamars,” asserts Mr. Khobaru. “But we try to avoid each other, and if our paths cross, then we lower our eyes and move on.”
“Sir, instead of this old crime, why not write something that would alert this government to our plight?” suggests Jugal Ram, who follows The Hindu team as we leave Tirojpur.
In Buxar, his jailors describe Shobhit as a man who prefers a quiet life. He even does a bit of gardening in the compound.
“I'm very happy to live,” he is said to have uttered on learning that his death sentence had been commuted.