Bihar under Nitish Kumar received some stunning good news last week. Long condemned as a basket case, the State buried that image once and for all with a chartbuster GDP growth of 13 per cent. Remarkably, Chief Minister Kumar achieved this in just seven years, setting an example for other leaders struggling to lift their States out of crushing poverty and economic backwardness. Yet only days after scaling this wonderful statistical peak, Bihar would return with a vengeance to its badlands past, with mayhem and worse following the murder of Brahmeshwar Singh, the unofficial chief of the outlawed Ranvir Sena. The violence rekindled memories of an earlier Bihar, where lawlessness was a given, and the Sena, an upper caste Bhumihar-led private militia, plundered and killed as it pleased. Formed in the early 1990s, the Sena ruled unchecked for a decade, leaving its bloody imprints on large swathes of central and south Bihar, where its primary adversaries were the Naxals led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist-Liberation) and the Maoist Communist Centre. And yet, the victims of this class war were almost always the landless Dalits, newly awakening to Bihar's gross caste inequalities but nonetheless rendered doubly vulnerable by their poverty and their social exclusion.

The Sena's signature was evident in over 40 massacres, with the landmark cases of Bathani Tola, Laxmanpur Bathe and Shankarbigha accounting for the murders of over 100 Dalits and Muslims. The Sena's sadistic trait was revealed in the fact that it did not just kill randomly, it acted by design, picking women and children as its targets. Bitter memories of that period were stirred again when the Patna High Court in April this year acquitted all 23 men charged with the Bathani Tola carnage. The court cited lack of prosecutable evidence against the accused but for the families of the victims, this was no consolation. Indeed, the release of the men, among them Brahmeshwar Singh himself, was a warning that Bihar could yet relive the caste nightmare of the 1990s. Tragically, the Nitish Kumar government failed to anticipate the violence inherent in the situation. The regime ought to have exercised vigil, and all the more in view of the perception that the Janata Dal (United) is a patron of the Bhumihars. In his time, Lalu Prasad was wont to boast that he had given swar (voice) to the Dalits of Bihar and he would give them swarg (heaven) too. The caste massacres showed up the emptiness of his words. Under Mr. Kumar, Bihar has admittedly come a long way from the hopelessness of that period. It would be a pity if the feel-good vibes were to escape the Dalits and the landless who form the lowest rung of the social ladder.

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