The conviction in the lower court itself came after the intervention of the High Court, which expedited the trial more than 11 years after the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre.
That the prosecution must meet the highest standards of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, is an indispensable condition in the trial of any criminal case. The benefit of doubt should invariably go to the defendants. As the English jurist William Blackstone wrote, better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. In India, however, sloppy investigation and shoddy prosecution have been part of an extremely inefficient and slow justice delivery system that has allowed conviction rates to stay at alarmingly low levels. Criminals have repeatedly gotten away with murder and massacre. While reinforcing each other, money power and muscle power have turned out to be among the biggest beneficiaries of the doubt perceived by the judiciary. Almost inevitably, in cases where the victims are poor, landless peasants and Dalits, the perpetrators have remained beyond the reach of law. On October 9, the Patna High Court acquitted all the 26 persons convicted by a lower court in the 1997 Laxmanpur Bathe case of massacre of 58 Dalits. The judges found the prosecution witnesses “not reliable” and gave the benefit of doubt to the 16 sentenced to death, and the 10 sentenced to life imprisonment. If a high-profile case such as the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre can collapse in this manner, India’s criminal justice system can infuse little confidence in its people.
Actually, the conviction in the lower court itself came after the intervention of the High Court, which expedited the trial more than 11 years after the massacre. However, the period between the massacre and the conviction was far from quiet. Both Ranvir Sena, a private army of upper caste landlords, and Maoist groups, who mobilised large sections of poor peasants, including Dalits, carried out a series of attacks and reprisals in rural Bihar. Not surprisingly, several witnesses in the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre case turned hostile. To begin with, eye-witnesses to the massacre were indeed few, as the culprits had come in the dead of the night and shot everyone they found. The trial court indeed acquitted 19 of the accused. And while analysing the motives of the defendants, it had taken into account not only the specific, known circumstances of the massacre, but also the history and cycle of violence in the region. The appellate court, however, chose to ignore the testimony of the available witnesses. When justice is not seen as being done in a case of brutal massacre, India’s under-classes can hardly be blamed for losing faith in a system that invariably works to the advantage of the privileged and the powerful. This is a case where the State must appeal against the High Court order, and ensure that those found guilty by the trial court are put away for life.