Shankarbigha: A Foregone Verdict

January 25, 1999: On the eve of Republic Day, at about 8.30pm, an armed mob attacked Shankarbigha, an impoverished Dalit village in Bihar. They butchered 23 men, women and children. The police registered an FIR naming 24 accused persons on the basis of information provided by a survivor, Pragash Rajvanshi, who had lost six members of his family, including his wife, in the massacre. Citing the slogans raised by the mob, Rajvanshi alleged that Shankarbigha was part of a series of massacres in Bihar organized by Ranvir Sena, a private army of landlords drawn mainly from the upper-caste bhumihars.

December 18, 2000: Rajvanshi testified in Patna before the Justice Amir Das Commission, which had been set up by the Bihar government to probe Ranvir Sena's alleged nexus with political leaders. Rajvanshi said that he could easily recognise the accused and name them before the police for two reasons: their faces were lit by the moon and their torches, and the attackers were mostly from a neighbouring village, Dobhibigha, inhabited by bhumihars. Residents of Shankarbigha had worked as labourers in the fields owned by those bhumihars.

September 12, 2014: When he was finally called by the prosecution to testify before a trial court in Jehanabad over 15 years after the massacre, Rajvanshi turned into a hostile witness. This was, in fact, part of a pattern. All 50 prosecution witnesses in the case were declared hostile in the trial court, as they denied identifying any of the culprits. Rajvanshi went to the extent of saying that he was not even present in Shankarbigha at the time of the massacre and that the police had taken his thumb impression for the FIR without reading out its contents to him.

Following this dramatic turnaround, the trial judge, Raghawendra Kumar Singh, acquitted all the 24 accused persons on January 13, 2015 saying that "the evidence of the prosecution has fallen short". Though other Ranvir Senarelated massacres, too, had resulted in acquittals of all the accused, this was the first time that the prosecution's allegations were rejected in toto right in the trial court. Reason: Shankarbigha was the first instance of all the prosecution witnesses turning hostile.

Yet, while witness after witness was disclaiming all knowledge of the involvement of any of the accused persons, the court showed no inclination to interrupt the proceedings at any stage to check whether extraneous factors were at play. In his 14-page verdict, the trial judge expressed no misgiving about why all the 50 witnesses, without exception, had turned hostile. Focused as it was on maintaining its neutrality, the judgment showed no signs of acknowledging any denial of justice for the mass murder of Dalits at Shankarbigha.

For all the rhetoric of social justice in Bihar, the prosecution, too, displayed little concern about the likelihood of witnesses being intimidated by the upper-caste accused and the Ranvir Sena network. When evidence was being recorded in the so-called "fast-track court" from July 23 to November 22, 2014, at no point did the special public prosecutor, Arvind Kumar, ask the court to provide protection to witnesses. All that Kumar (himself a Dalit) did was that on November 14, 2014, by when most of the witnesses had already disowned their testimonies, he wrote to the district magistrate of Arwal about the need for protecting the remaining ones. The DM, in turn, forwarded Kumar's letter to the superintendent of police on January 9, 2015, when the court was just four days away from delivering its verdict.

Thus, the witnesses in the Shankarbigha case were denied protection despite precedents in Bihar and elsewhere. In the Lakshmanpur Bathe case, in which 58 Dalits were allegedly killed by Ranvir Sena members in 1997, the trial was transferred to Patna in a bid to insulate the witnesses from intimidation. In the 2002 Naroda Patiya case in Gujarat, witnesses could depose even against a minister, Maya Kodnani, mainly because the SC had ordered protection for them by a central paramilitary force.

There was a failure to apply such safeguards to Shankarbigha although at the time of the recording of evidence, the chief minister of Bihar was a Dalit, Jitan Ram Manjhi. The damage from that failure is evident from the contrasting testimonies given by Rajvanshi before the Amir Das Commission in 2000 and the trial court in 2014.

When contacted by STOI in Shankarbigha, Rajvanshi admitted that he had turned hostile in the trial court because he had been intimidated by the culprits living in the vicinity of his village. "We deposed fearlessly before the Amir Das Commission because the police had then been deployed to make us feel secure, to escort us to Patna and even give us food," Rajvanshi said. "But when it came to the trial in Jehanabad, none of the authorities bothered to dispel the feeling that we were entirely at the mercy of the accused persons and their influential backers."

Another aspect of the cavalier handling of the Shankarbigha case came to light after the judgment. One of those acquitted, Sheodeni Sharma, filed an application before the Jehanabad court in March seeking the release of a licensed gun seized from him during the investigations into the massacre. Sharma's plea unwittingly betrayed the fact that although the police had recovered empty cartridges from the scene of the crime, as recorded in the judgment, the prosecution failed to place any ballistic report on record. Had any of those cartridges matched the bore of Sharma's rifle, the trial court would have found it hard to acquit him just on the basis of hostile prosecution witnesses.

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