The killing of the Ranvir Sena chief and the violence it triggered expose the fragile foundations of Nitish Kumar's ‘new Bihar'
The assassination of Brahmeshwar Singh alias Mukhiya, founder of Ranvir Sena, the dreaded private army of upper caste Bhumihars, raises fears of the revival of “Barbaric Bihar”. From the first major massacre of Dalits in Belchi in 1977 to the killings in Mianpur in 2000 by socially dominant castes and classes, the careers of the violent, antisocial, anti-Naxal commanders of caste sena reveal the blurred distinction between crime and politics in contemporary Bihar. While Ramadhar Singh, chief of ‘Diamond Sena'(a precursor of Ranvir Sena), opted for a career as a small-time arms smuggler in his hometown, Baiju Yadav, commander of the notorious Yadav ‘Lorik Sena', became a member of the State Assembly on an RJD ticket in the 1990s. On the other hand, Brahmeshwar Singh's plan to play a larger political role after his release from prison in April ended as it did for Laddu Singh, the commander of the Kurmi militia ‘Bhumi Sena', in violent death. Brahmeshwar Singh did contest parliamentary elections from Ara jail in 2004. Pitted against his bête noire, the legendary Naxal leader Ram Naresh Singh, and Lalu Yadav's protégée Kanti Singh, he secured 1, 48,957 votes and came third.
Known as Gandhi among his followers in central Bihar and khooni (bloodthirsty) among the lower castes, the Ranvir Sena chief was killed either a result of old rivalries and factional warfare, or for reasons linked to his recent acquittal in the 1996 Bathani Tola massacre. The less than spontaneous street violence and vandalism by Mukhiya's supporters in Ara and the mindless violence during his funeral in the capital city of Patna indicate the pervasiveness of the politics of caste revenge and hatred in Bihar. The demand for a CBI enquiry into the killing by political parties and supporters of Ranvir Sena is indicative of the status of caste militias.
A PUDR document in the 1990s titled “Bitter harvest” documented the cosy relationship between the Ranvir Sena and leading political parties, especially the BJP and the Samata Party in Bihar. The gunning down of Mukhiya, the mastermind of several bloodthirsty massacres including the gruesome Laxampur Bathe massacre in which 62 Dalit men, women and children were butchered in December 1997, is a violent reminder of the fragile foundations of Nitish Kumar's Sushashan and Naya Bihar. In retrospect, Nitish Kumar's decision in 2006 to scrap the Amir Das Commission, set up to probe Ranvir Sena's role in the Bathe massacre and alleged complicity of several big politicians with the Sena, has come to haunt him.
Most of the major sena that arose in the late 1970s and disintegrated by the late 1980s comprised the upper castes and the upwardly mobile backward castes. Militias such as Sunlight Sena (Rajputs), Bhumi Sena (Kurmis), Kisan Sangh (Yadavs) and Diamond Sena (Bhumihars) primarily emerged as violent and voluntary organisations of landlord-turned-capitalist farmers, kulak-type erstwhile tenants and upwardly mobile groups in central Bihar. They came up in the region described as “flaming field” and were pitted against the combined uprising of Naxals and Dalits. As Bihar entered a turbulent phase of post-Mandal politics in the 1990s, state power initially hobbled and tottered, and finally surrendered to the combined might of insurgent caste warriors, resurgent class revolutionaries, dreaded caste sena and diehard criminals.
The origin of the Ranvir Sena is shrouded in myths and legends. According to local narratives, it is named after the 19th century Bhumihar warrior Ranvir Choudhary who fought against local Rajput landlords for Bhumihar supremacy and honour. Bhumihars in Belaur in Ara district have built a temple in his memory. The CPI (ML)'s literature, on the other hand, traces the origins to a class conflict over daily wages and blockades of Bhumihar and other farmers in the region. After its 1994 formation in Belaur, Brahmeshwar Singh fought a bitter factional struggle with leaders of the so-called Belaur Committee and emerged as supreme leader.
The first massacre by Ranvir Sena took place in Khopirya on April 4, 1995 in which three lower caste people were killed; but its first big strike was at Bathani Tola in the Bhojpur district in July 1996 in which 21 Dalit Naxal supporters were killed. Mukhiya carried a bounty of Rs.5 lakh on his head; the police caught him twice, in 1998 and 1999, but released him for want of proper identification. He claimed to own about 60 acres of land but preferred to describe himself a “farmer” with modest means. His preference for Hinduvta, a fascination for Atal Bihari Vajpayee and hatred for lower castes was well known. In 2004, along with 97 prisoners and supporters of Ranvir Sena, he went on a strike for a separate kitchen for upper caste inmates in Ara district jail.
Despite being part of a relatively longer history of private caste sena, the Ranvir Sena differs from its precursor militias in more than one way. It is not only the most ruthless and violent but, unlike the earlier sena, it also has a well articulated ideological, organisational, political and leadership structure. Brahmeshwar Singh turned Ranvir Sena into a paramilitary machine and de facto political organisation with his superior organisational skills and guerrilla warfare tactics. He was also said to have established a monthly salary-based recruitment strategy for cadres and mobilised financial resources from a countrywide network of friends and sympathisers. He was known to have guided Ranvir Sena's functioning even after his arrest in 2003. His appointee, Shamsher Singh, avenged his arrest by massacring five Dalits on January 3, 2004 in Pariyari Bigha Tola village in Arwal district.
Ranvir Sena has often been portrayed as an organisation of class warriors engaged in defending the agrarian and political interests of propertied classes in the countryside. But cadres of Ranvir Sena have also performed quasi-political functions by helping politicians win elections as well as attempted to restore purity and pollution norms of traditional caste society.
Facing political marginalisation due to the capture of political power by Mandal castes and social vulnerability in the face of militant assertion by oppressed castes, Ranvir Sena gradually transformed itself from “violent political entrepreneurs” to “community warriors” for defending not only their land from the armed bands of Maoists but also to protect their traditional caste status. It is tragic that followers of the glorious peasant movements of Swami Sahjanand who had prophesied the rise of the agrarian proletariat in the “flaming field” have become defenders of Ranvir Sena and mourn the death of the man who epitomised the most violent expression of Hinduvta and hatred for Dalits.
Nitish Kumar's most urgent task would be ensure justice to victims of the Bathani Tola massacre in 1996 and convert the “flaming fields” into long lasting granaries of India to fight hunger and starvation. If this is delayed further, the ethnocidal fury of caste mobs will once again rob Bihar's date with its promised liberation from misery.
(Ashwani Kumar is at the School of Development Studies, TISS, Mumbai, and is the author of Community Warriors; State, Peasants and Caste Armies in Bihar, Anthem Press, London; 2008.)