After five years and 16 murders, nothing seems to have changed in the two impoverished villages of Khagaria district in Bihar.
The evening news brought horror to Icharua, a tiny remote village in Khagaria district of Bihar.
Last Friday, the Patna High Court acquitted all the 14 accused in the case of the 2009 massacre of 16 Icharua residents, most of them Kurmis, an Other Backward Community, by Dalits from the neighbouring Amausi. Ten of the accused had been sentenced to death by a lower court.
After the acquittal, Abhilasha Devi lost her appetite and spent a sleepless night. Her husband Ranjit Singh and brother-in-law Sanjit Singh were among those shot dead. “This is injustice. They [accused] should not have been let off. They deserve death,” she said.
On the intervening night of October 1 and 2, 2009, Icharua woke up to a bloody sight as the bodies of the victims arrived on a tractor.
With tears in eyes, Uma Devi, mother of Mitilesh Mahto, who was 20 then, recalled the three bullet wounds on her son’s body.
The victims were blindfolded and their hands and legs tied before they were shot. Five of them were children. Ram Badan Mahato’s son Fuchilal was only 12. “I saw his hands tied at the back, and he was shot in the stomach twice.”
With the male members gone, hard times and fear of harm gripped the lives of the women. Ms. Abhilasha’s three little children think they don’t have a father as the other children do because they did not purchase one.
“There are times when I don’t have money to buy even biscuits, or medicine for my sister-in-law, who also lost her husband in the massacre. My father-in-law is the only one left to work in the fields, but we prevent him from going because of fear,” she said.
This massacre cannot be clubbed with the other incidents of caste violence, marked by confrontations between the Ranvir Sena, a militia formed by the Bhumihars, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) that rocked Bihar through the 1990s.
Residents of both Icharua and Amausi ruled out caste hatred as a possible cause for the attack. At the heart of it, said residents of Icharua, is an area of agricultural land known as ‘Bahiyar,’ at Amausi, a few km away and separated by the river Kamala. Many of the deceased had acquired leases from the original owner and cultivated this land. The Dalit Musahar community of Amausi worked as farm labourers.
“They [Amausi people] wanted to take possession of the land and created an atmosphere of terror. There was some following in that village for Bhodan Sada [an alleged former Naxal area commander and an accused in the case]. They claimed that our land was government land. They said that since they tilled it, they should have it. They rejected our documentary proof. They wanted to chase us away by terrorising us,” said Sanjay Kumar, a cultivator.
He alleged that Amausi people used the money they had received under the Indira Awaas Yojana to buy arms. “Whereas, our applications for arms licences have not been approved,” he said.
Initially, investigators believed that there a Naxal link, but this theory was later questioned. Neelmani, who was then Additional Director-General of Police (Headquarters), said: “Though the perpetrators were Dalits, the Sada caste is powerful in Khagaria. While there are no clear Naxal links, they were allying themselves with some extremist outfits.”
Dismissing all these theories, Amausi residents argued that the accused were falsely implicated. The original landownership was also under question.
“Earlier, there was no farming here,” said Sanjay Sada, a supporter of the Janata Dal (United). “When the land became fertile after the 2001 floods, both villages eyed it. Icharua residents started capturing parts of it through oral transactions with the original owner. A large part of the area was also government land. In this scenario, criminal elements jumped in. And since it was an election time, ahead of the 2010 Assembly polls, political elements, too, had their vested interests. The Sadas are a big majority. The Naxal link is also specious. There are innocents among those who died and those who were accused,” he said at Amausi.
The High Court itself rejected the land dispute theory. “The prosecution claim that there is a land dispute between the accused and the members of the prosecution party is also without any evidence,” it said.
It gave the benefit of the doubt to the accused and held that the prosecution was “not aware of the identity of the assailants and implicated all and sundry residents of Amausi at will.”
The verdict flummoxed Pappu Singh, whose brother Guddu was killed. “If doubt is the basis for acquittal, who killed those 16 people? Everyone did their duty by testifying. The court could have at least reduced the punishment. This order should be challenged and we should be given protection and arms licence. This verdict has boosted the morale of the accused,” he said.
The corn standing on the fields would be harvested in fear. Hum dar dark ke kheti karte hai [We cultivate in fear], Sanjay Kumar said.
At Amausi, some welcomed the verdict, but many families of the accused were not even aware of it. On the face of it, both villages look equally impoverished. After five years and 16 murders, nothing seems to have changed. Icharua residents continue to cultivate the land. And those at Amausi have been working as labourers for Rs.180 in daily wages.