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Four decades after strike by Phoolan Devi, missing case diary defers Behmai’s wait for justice

Rajaram Singh and Akbar Singh (sitting on the chair) in Behmai. Photo: Omar Rashid.  

Depleted by age and illness, Rajaram Singh (72), rests on a cot in his verandah, solemnly visualising the massacre he bore witness to in his village Behmai almost four decades ago. His younger brother Banwari Singh and six other relatives were among those killed when a gang of dacoits allegedly led by Phoolan Devi massacred 20 villagers on February 14, 1981. The bloody scenes were famously replayed for mainstream viewers in the 1994 film Bandit Queen.

For the survivors and the kin of the victims, including Mr. Rajaram, the main plaintiff and witness in the case, justice and closure remain elusive to this day as the legal battle carries on in a local court in Kanpur Dehat.

In January 2020, hope was ignited when a special court (dacoity) fixed a date for pronouncing the verdict in the case. However, it was deferred multiple times on grounds that the original case diary was curiously found missing from the court records. Then struck COVID-19. The court instituted a probe, the outcome for which is still pending, to the chagrin of those in Behmai, a dusty village of 500-odd voters nestled in the ravines of the Yamuna valley 100 km from Kanpur.

Mr. Rajaram smells mischief. “If the files were missing then why did they record everyone’s statements and fix the date [for verdict]? Does this mean that even the courts are chor (a con)?” he asked. “Now what do I wait for?”

The victims were all men, aged 16-55 years, 17 of them Thakurs. Two Dalit labourers from Rajpur and a Muslim from Sikandra, who were in the village on that day, were also killed, while six to seven others were injured.

A scene of the village, which is nestled in the ravines of the Yamuna valley in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur Dehat district.

A scene of the village, which is nestled in the ravines of the Yamuna valley in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur Dehat district.   | Photo Credit: Omar Rashid

 

On the fateful day, Mr. Rajaram was returning from the fields when he noticed dacoits dressed in police fatigues storm the village from the Yamuna river end. Hiding in the nearby bushes, he became a witness to the horror.

“She [Phoolan] shouted ‘Jai Kali mai ki’ (hail mother Kali) and the badmaash (scoundrel) started firing. They must have been 40-45 dacoits,” recalls Mr. Rajaram. As a young man, he says he contemplated revenge but found it futile. “My soul flares up when I remember the killings. But we are so helpless,” he said.

Behmai served as a haven for dacoits during those years owing to its rugged, undulated and treacherous ravines and dense overgrowth. Today, the ravines leading to the village have been cropped to accommodate widening pucca roads and the banks of the Yamuna are dotted with machines drilling for sand. A police outpost and a “martyr memorial” listing the names of the “unarmed, innocent and noble” persons killed by dacoits at 4 p.m. on February 14, 1981 are the only reminders of that era.

Mr. Rajaram complains that the government did not provide them any support in all these years. “We fought for 40 years, suffered great losses, but did not receive a penny,” he said.

The legal battle has crawled over the years. The charges against the five surviving accused dacoits were framed only in 2012. The initial FIR was against four dacoits, including Phoolan and Mustaqim, and 36 unnamed others. Three others, including Maan Singh, Phoolan’s close aide, are still absconding. The prosecution had in 2012 submitted that Maan Singh was running a restaurant in Chaura but never appeared before court. Most of the other accused have either died or were shot dead subsequently by police or rivals.

Fifteen witnesses were examined in court, said Raju Porwal, government counsel.

Phoolan had herself surrendered and after spending 11 years in Madhya Pradesh jails, she was released in 1994 after the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in U.P. withdrew the cases against her. She was then elected as MP twice.

But a local court set aside the government’s decision which was also upheld by the Allahabad High Court.

Before Phoolan could surrender before the trial court to avail relief as per the Supreme Court’s directions, she was gunned down in 2001 outside her official residence in Delhi.

Phoolan allegedly committed the massacre to avenge her rape and humiliation in Behmai by Lala Ram and Sri Ram, two rival Thakur gang leaders who had also shot dead her paramour and caste-fellow Vikram Mallah. The two brothers, like other dacoits, would often frequent Behmai and before shooting dead the villagers Phoolan’s gang sought to know about the two Thakurs from them.

Mr. Porwal says once inquiry into the missing case diary is over, the arguments of all the sides would have to be heard again before the final judgment. “Nothing vanishes. It may have got misplaced,” he said, adding that the case diary was “immaterial” at this stage as the witnesses had already been examined.

In Behmai, however, the entire process is viewed with suspicion and the kin of the victims demand that the case be expedited.

“When our files can vanish, what justice can we expect? And doesn’t the government know where the absconding accused are when it can hunt down a criminal [Vikas Dubey]?” asks Babuji Singh, whose uncle was shot dead in the massacre.

Even though justice may have been excruciatingly delayed, a conviction for the surviving accused would still bring a semblance of closure for many like Akbar Singh. He had gone to sell wood on that day and was lucky to escape the bullets, unlike his kin. “In some years, they will all die. But even if these four are hanged, our hearts will find some solace,” he said.

There is also general anger against successive governments for not paying attention to the socio-economic condition of the village. “Forget about building houses or issuing monetary compensation, they didn’t even provide us general amenities,” said Mr. Babuji Singh, pointing to the broken roads and an unfinished pucca bridge under construction since the last 15 years.

On Friday, the court listed the next hearing for December 24.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 10:33:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/four-decades-after-strike-by-phoolan-devi-missing-case-diary-defers-behmais-wait-for-justice/article33257908.ece

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