The acquittal of 23 people convicted by a lower court in the gruesome Bathani Tola massacre case is a shocking indictment of the country's criminal justice system. The mass murder of a group of 21 Dalits and Muslims, most of them women and children, by the notorious caste militia, the Ranvir Sena, took place in Bihar's Bhojpur district in 1996 in broad daylight. The basic facts about the ghastly crime are not contested. The judgment of the two-member Bench of the Patna High Court is a lengthy condemnation of the manner this ghastly crime was investigated and prosecuted — a process it felt was so full of infirmities that “unfortunately…[those] who actually perpetuated the crime, got away with it.” The judgment is a story of compounded procedural and other follies. These include the uncertainty about exactly when the FIR was registered; the failure to recover a single cartridge from the site despite hundreds of rounds being fired; the fact that not even one firearm used in the massacre was seized; the inexplicable decision not to cross-examine some defence witnesses; and the internal contradictions and conflicting accounts put out by the prosecution witnesses.
Whether the Court was correct in dismissing all the eight private or independent eyewitnesses as unreliable — the conviction by the sessions court was based on the testimony of two of them — is bound to be called into question. Its disbelief that some of these witnesses could have hidden in close proximity to the village and watched the massacre — on the ground that the bloodthirsty mob would have found and liquidated them — is at best a questionable conjecture. What is certain, though, is that justice has been denied and that it will be a travesty if the perpetrators of this massacre are allowed to get away. The Bihar government, which has said it will appeal the judgment, must prepare the strongest possible case. While it is finally up to the courts to decide on guilt and innocence, the tragedy of Bathani Tola exposes the elitist biases of the country's media, which has paid scant attention to this miscarriage of justice. When the combination of a shoddy investigation and hostile witnesses led to all nine accused being acquitted in the high-profile Jessica Lal murder case a few years ago, it was the spirited campaign by the media that resulted in the Delhi High Court taking suo moto notice of the acquittal and reopening the case. It is important that we do not allow our attention to be diverted and justice to be subverted in this case merely because the victims were poor and landless Dalits living in a remote village in the Bihar hinterland.