The Patna High Court has acquitted all the 23 persons accused of perpetrating the massacre of 21 Dalits at Bathani Tola in Bhojpur in 1996.
The accused were convicted by the sessions court in Ara district and sentenced in May 2010. While three persons were awarded capital punishment, the remaining twenty were handed life imprisonment.
However, on Monday a Division Bench of Justices Navneeti Prasad Singh and Ashwani Kumar Singh cited “defective evidence” to acquit all of them.
The carnage took place on the afternoon of July 11, 1996. Upper caste (Rajput and Bhumihar) landowners of Ranvir Sena — a private militia of the landlords — stormed Bathani Tola in Bhojpur district's Sahar block in Central Bihar and ruthlessly hacked the Dalits, among them women, teenage girls and babies less than 10 months old.
Ajay Singh was charged with brutally killing 10-year-old Phool Kumari, Manoj Singh was charged with the murder of the three-month-old daughter of Naimuddin (one of the prime eyewitnesses) and Nagender alias Narendra Singh was charged with slaughtering two women, Sanjharu and Ramratiya Devi. They were awarded the death sentence by the sessions court
Bathani Tola, along with Laxmanpur-Bathe (where more than 60 Dalit men, women and children were slaughtered by the Ranvir Sena), has since become a byword for caste massacres that engulfed central Bihar from the mid-1990s onwards.
An FIR was lodged against 33 people the day after the massacre. The Bhojpur police framed charges against 63 persons in all in October 1996.
“I am shocked by the High Court verdict,” said Anand Vatsyayan, counsel for the witnesses in the Bathani Tola case. “The evidence at hand was more than sufficient to uphold the judgment passed by the Ara sessions court.
“The Supreme Court guidelines in the event of a massacre are quite clear. The eyewitnesses need not remember all the names. And, of the six prime witnesses questioned in this case, all had conclusively pointed fingers at the persons convicted by the lower court.” In July last year, the supremo of the Ranvir Sena, Brahmeshwar Singh “Mukhiya,” known as the ‘Butcher of Bathani Tola,' walked out of Ara Jail.