No matter which party or coalition is in power in Bihar, the caste-based feudal hierarchy in the rural areas of the State is a constant. In a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of the oppressed sections, six members of the extremely backward Kahar caste in Rampur-Shyamchak village of Vaishali district were burnt to death in the early hours of the New Year for refusing to withdraw a complaint of theft against members of a dominant community. Although the massacre was not directly related to the caste-equations in the village, the perpetrators, all Yadavs, apparently thought their dominant status in the social hierarchy gave them immunity from the law. Without a long-established tradition of such an immunity, the attackers would not have dared to commit a mass murder over an issue as trivial as a complaint of theft of a buffalo. While Bijendra Mahto is still battling for life, his pregnant wife and five children died when their house was set on fire. The killers fired in the air pre-empting any rescue effort. Although the police station was only a couple of kilometres away, Mr. Mahto and his family got no help. Evidently, Mr. Mahto was being taught a lesson: to respect the feudal hierarchy, and to not complain against those higher up in the social order.

As the villagers pointed out to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar after the attack, the police appeared to be on the side of the dominant caste group. The Inspector-in-charge of the Raghopur police station, Noorudin Khan, was placed under suspension after the killing, but it will take much more on the part of the State Government to infuse in the villagers a confidence in the law enforcing machinery. The police are yet to apprehend the main suspect in the killing, Jagat Rai. Kahars, who are in a minority in the village, are helpless if the dominant caste group turns against them. According to Mr. Mahto, the police were informed about Mr. Rai issuing threats asking him to withdraw the complaint. Although the police had earlier arrested Mr. Rai, his son and his nephew on the basis of Mr. Mahto's complaint of theft, no action was taken following the threats. Mr. Rai and his supporters must have known that Mr. Mahto and his family could not count on police protection. The killing is certain to have a political fall-out. The village falls within the constituency of former Chief Minister Rabri Devi, whose party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, counts Yadavs among its support base. Although RJD chief and Railway Minister Lalu Prasad was quick to condemn the killing, his detractors might sense an opportunity to put him on the defensive. But Mr. Nitish Kumar would do well not to politicise the killing. Ending lawlessness in Bihar is his responsibility. Aside from some brownie points, the Nitish Kumar Government will gain little by continuing to blame Mr. Prasad for all the ills of Bihar. The task before the State administration is to demonstrate to the traditionally oppressed sections that they will not be denied fairplay and justice.