The response by the state to the > 2012 Delhi gang rape case was immediate and effective — a commission to review legislative protections and recommend amendments, and a new enactment. The judiciary responded similarly — death penalty for the accused and although there was indignation about the “leniency” towards the juvenile involved in the crime, there was overall a sense of satisfaction that the ends of justice had indeed been met. But all through this saga, a persistent voice from Dalit intellectuals and activists kept asking why >Khairlanji did not provoke this kind of national outrage and why India is unmoved by the most gruesome massacres of Dalits.
The October 9 verdict of the Patna High Court in the >Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre brings this question up yet again: a painful reminder of the continuing legitimacy of the caste system and aggravated assault, making a mockery of the rule of law.
On a plain reading of this judgment, it is not disputed that 58 persons — men, women and children, all Dalits — were killed after being shot by a mob of over a hundred men armed with guns, in a concerted attack on the intervening night of December 1-2, 1997. It is also not disputed that survivors in this village were eyewitnesses who had lost entire families in the massacre, and had narrowly escaped murder themselves. There was a delay by the police in recording the statements; persons identified by the eyewitnesses were not named in the statements in the first instance; there was a delay of three days in reaching the FIRs to the Chief Judicial Magistrate; there was blood in the homes of the victims and survivors; “copious blood” on the banks of the river Sone; and blood smeared on a boat on the riverbank; the murderous mob shouted slogans in praise of Ranvir baba and dispersed on the sound of a whistle; footprints of 100-150 persons on both banks of the river suggested to the investigating officer that the mob had crossed the river towards Sahar but he did not cross the river in his investigation. The investigating officers recorded statements by the survivors that several of the men named as perpetrators were members of the >Ranvir Sena who had criminal antecedents.
The case was committed to the court of sessions in 1999, but typically as with many atrocity cases, the trial did not begin for 11 years till the High Court issued fresh instructions in November and December 2008. By this time, of 91 witnesses, 38 had turned hostile. Of the 50 accused sent up for trial in 1999, 44 finally faced trial, some having died in the interim. The Sessions Court sentenced 26 persons to death in 2010 after convicting them of murder, criminal conspiracy and atrocity — 13 years after the massacre.
The witnesses cited dispute over wages and standing crop as the reason for the attack — a demand for an increase in wages from one-and-a-half kilos of food grain to three kilos. The perpetrators were not an unknown mob from a strange and distant land. They were landlords in the same and neighbouring villages, who the victims and their families knew well and worked for. They were all from the dominant, landowning castes.
They attacked in the dead of night, flashing torches to search for the victims, and the witness-survivors were hiding from attack — yet they recognised the men and named them. But they had also witnessed unimaginable violence and had lost several members of their families in the attack. Their testimonies through the investigation speak of their hurtling from one house to another discovering more bodies than survivors, and the sound of wailing that rent through the night.
The High Court of Patna speaks of loopholes in the evidence on record: the delay in reaching the FIRs to the Chief Judicial Magistrate; the fact that names were not recorded on the first visit the day after the massacre by witnesses who had lost all their family members in the attack; the impossibility of recognising perpetrators from places of hiding; the impossibility of risking lives to go onto the terrace to identify people from the mob; the impossibility of fixing the identity of individuals in a mob from a distance; inaccuracies in recording the exact location of hiding during the massacre; absence of evidence on any dispute between the dominant landowners and the Dalit wage workers.
Where do these refutations leave us?
Fifty-eight people in a small Dalit hamlet were massacred. There is no denying that. The attackers, says the High Court, were unknown men from Sahar across the river Sone in Bhojpur district, who have not been apprehended. Instead the wrong people who bear no responsibility for the crime have been convicted, says the court. How can we be sure?
This is the trouble with caste atrocity. The fact that perpetrators are in an immediate relation of dominance with victims and survivors and are easily recognised counts for nothing. Can we even begin to understand the courage and determination of poor and traumatised Dalits? The outcome of this case demonstrates yet again how difficult it is to keep a case alive, to keep memories raw and open in the face of an almost certain betrayal by the state, and how tough it is to keep fighting against the conspiracy — between upper caste perpetrators, their collaborators in the establishment and their apologists in a caste-ridden society.
Why not Khairlanji? Why not >Karamchedu ? Why not Laxmanpur-Bathe? Why does this country not come to a grinding halt in the face of atrocity of the worst kind? Justice can only be said to be done when those that are most vulnerable are able to access it without difficulty. It is our collective failure and a national shame that we allow the space for this travesty again and yet again.
(Kalpana Kannabiran is professor and director, Council for Social Development.)