Nearly 16 years ago Bathani Tola had shocked and shamed the nation as yet another site of a gory massacre in Bihar. An obscure sleepy hamlet in Sahar block of Bhojpur district in Bihar, Bathani Tola experienced a brutal feudal assault on a fateful July afternoon in 1996. As many as 21 lives, including 11 women, seven children and two infants were killed with a kind of barbarity that was to be seen on a much bigger scale six years later in Gujarat. Bathani Tola was indeed a precursor to the 2002 Gujarat genocide. With Bathani Tola, the country woke up to the sordid reality of the Ranveer Sena, an upper caste feudal private army massacring the oppressed rural poor with the avowed aim of exterminating the CPI(ML) and the radical peasant movement.
Sixteen years later, Bathani Tola is back in the news. The oppressed poor of this obscure village, who have been waiting for justice for years together, have experienced yet another massacre. This time round, it is a judicial massacre perpetrated by the High Court of Bihar which has overturned the verdict of the lower court and acquitted one and all who were convicted for their heinous role in executing this barbaric massacre.While acquitting the guilty, the High Court has apologised to some of the accused even as it has termed the witnesses liars spinning tales. Nothing could perhaps demonstrate the farcical nature of the judicial system than the failure or refusal of the system to mete out any punishment to anybody for a massacre of 21 persons that had taken place not in the darkness of night but in broad daylight.
When Bathani Tola happened Bihar was being ruled by Laloo Prasad with the slogan of social justice. The government banned the Ranveer Sena but the ban was never enforced and the Sena went on massacring people at will. Laxmanpur Bathe, Shankarbigha, Narayanpur, Miyanpur – the list of massacres got longer even as Laloo Prasad himself told his audience in a public meeting that he was ready to team up with the devil to finish the CPI(ML) off. On one level Laloo Prasad waxed eloquent against the BJP, but in Bihar his own government continued to connive with the most reactionary organ of feudal-communal violence. Sixteen years later Bihar today is ruled by Nitish Kumar with the backing of an increasingly aggressive BJP. The slogan of social justice has given way to the rhetoric of development with justice. But for the predominantly dalit, and as in the case of Bathani Tola also Muslim, victims of feudal violence, justice clearly remains as elusive as ever.
What has happened to the Bathani Tola victims is no judicial accident. This has rather been the norm in Bihar and if this exposes for the umpteenth time the caste-class bias of the judiciary we must remember this bias is reinforced by the government of the day. This was true of Congress-ruled Bihar when upper caste politicians used to dominate in the government, and it has remained true all through the last two decades when Laloo Prasad and Nitish Kumar have been in the helm with slogans of social justice or good governance. We must remember that the first thing that Nitish Kumar did on assuming power was to abandon the Amir Das Commission set up in the wake of the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre to probe the political links of the Ranveer Sena. His government also made sure that Brahmeshwar Singh, the infamous supremo of the Ranveer Sena, came out on bail to vitiate the trial of various massacres cases. And Sunil Pandey, another notorious lynchpin of the Sena had already been acquitted and today he is the JD(U) MLA from the post-delimitation Tarari constituency that Bathani Tola comes under.
The abandoning of the Amir Das commission and the subsequent dumping of the Land Reform Commission reports have been two key steps of the Nitish Kumar dispensation that clearly reveal the pro-feudal character of the regime. The verdict delivered by the High Court is just a natural consequence. Equally ‘natural’ in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar is the conviction of people challenging the feudal order. Rupam Pathak, a teacher who had been fed up with being subjected to continuous sexual harassment by a BJP MLA has been issued life sentence and Bodhan Sada and his comrades, who had been fighting for the land rights and dignity of the landless rural poor of the Musahar community, christened Mahadalit by the Nitish government to win the community’s votes, have been handed out death sentences.
Even as Bathani Tola grapples with this judicial massacre, ruling class politicians continue to play their political cards. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram wonders why nobody is speaking out in favour of the Bathani Tola victims, Bihar government says it would now approach the Supreme Court for justice! While challenging the feudal bias on every front and level, the battle for justice for the Bathani Tola victims will have to rebuff this pretentious politics of crocodile tears. The renewed massacre and shame of Bathani Tola has revealed like nothing else what continues to ail and retard Bihar. For everybody aspiring for a better future for Bihar in the centenary of its administrative birth, the message is loud and clear. Bihar can only move forward by effecting a decisive rupture with the still well entrenched feudal forces and mindset, and the continuing politics of appeasement of and alliance with feudal forces is the biggest betrayal to the cause of both justice and development for Bihar. Let us stand by Bathani Tola in this battle for a new and just Bihar.