Failed by the justice system, how will the Dalits of Laxmanpur Bathe vote?
- On 1 December, 1997, 58 Dalits were massacred, allegedly by the Ranvir Sena
- All the accused were acquitted in 2013
- Dalits of Laxmanpur Bathe still wait for justice
- No political party is willing to raise the massacre as a political issue
- Even the families of the victims don\'t think it\'s a political issue
- The village still awaits electricity and irrigation
More in the story
- Why didn\'t the Dalits of Laxmanpur Bathe join the Naxalite movement?
- How caste inequality is embedded in the very geography of Bihar
The brutal killing of 58 Dalits in Bihar's Laxmanpur Bathe in on 1 December, 1997 left an indelible scar on the conscience of the nation. However, 18 years later, the massacre seems to have lost its political relevance.
Not only the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre, but similar killings at Shankar Bigha and Bathani Tola have also receded into oblivion in the political landscape of Bihar.
The courts have subsequently released all the accused for lack of evidence. Yet, no party wants to make it an election issue.
These three villages - Laxmanpur Bathe, Shankar Bigha and Bathani Tola - are situated within a radius of 60-70 kilometres.
When the massacres took place, every leader in Bihar tried to take up the cause of the victims and project himself as a champions of social justice. But when the accused were acquitted, no leader of any significance felt the need to visit the area, even during elections.
Why open up old wounds?
Even the locals want to bury their painful past.
"What is the point in opening up old wounds? Our village still has no electricity, no irrigation facilities, the paddy crop gets destroyed almost every year," says 21-years-old Mahesh Rajbanshi, whose five family members were killed by the Ranvir Sena.
65-years old Chameli Rajbanshi narrates how six of his family members were murdered that night. He points towards a pit and recalls how he saved himself by jumping into it.
So who killed his family? Nobody, if one goes by the court verdict.
"People from the village were involved in the massacre. But the accused Bhumihars gathered an army of lawyers against us," answers Chameli.
The wait for justice is still not over for many like Chameli. They have placed their hopes in the Supreme Court.
Situated on the banks of the Son river, Laxmanpur Bathe is a Dalit majority village, as are Shankar Bigha and Bathani Tola. On the other side of the river lies the Arrah region, the stronghold of the Ranvir Sena.
The assailants knew the village's geography on the back of their hands. They came from the side of the river and got away with ease after killing 58 Dalits, many of them infants.
Geography of marginalisation
The geography of Bathe also seems to be mocking all the claims of social justice in Bihar. Dalits were traditionally made to stay on the southern side of villages in Bihar. The idea was that the wind touching Dalit households should not pass through upper caste settlements. To this day, Dalits continue to live on the southern side in Bathe. The Dalits here are from different sub-castes - Chamars, Pasis, Dusadhs, and Mallahs.
Even the approach road towards the Dalit section of the village shows no signs of progress. One has to walk through a narrow alley, which later becomes little more than a muddy trail.
Compare this to the northern side of the village, where a broad metalled road takes you to the Bhumihar and Rajput settlements.
No party wants to speak about Laxmanpur Bathe massacre. Even the victims' families have lost hope
Even though the muddy path and the metalled road converge at the village's backyard, the hearts of the Dalits and the upper castes have never reconciled.
Unlike many other parts of Bihar, land has never been the cause of the schism between upper and lower castes in Laxmanpur Bathe. The Dalits of the village never became part of Naxal outfits which took over the fields belonging to the upper castes. Then why were they targeted so brutally by the Ranvir Sena?
"The lower caste people were always dependent on our lands. Why would they try to occupy it? The only reason for the incident was that some youth of the village were radicalised by the Ranvir Sena," says 35-year old Nripendra Kumar, a Bhumihar. His uncle was among those accused of being involved in the massacre.
Ram Bihari, confirms Nripendra's version.
"Some villagers gave information to the Ranvir Sena. The killings would not have been possible without their help," he explains.
The Patna High Court acquitted all the 26 accused for lack of evidence on 1 October, 2013. Out of these, 15 were from Laxmanpur Bathe itself.
22-year-old Mahesh Rajbanshi was barely 5 when the massacre took place. Five of his relatives were killed that night. He was shot in the foot, but survived the wounds. After the High Court verdict, Rajbanshi has lost all hope of justice.
"They are powerful people. They hired a battery of 20 lawyers to plead their case in court. We relied solely on the public prosecutor. They either bought witnesses or threatened them," he says.
So did he ever think of taking revenge on his own?
"They are powerful people. How can poor people like us stand in front of them," answers Mahesh.
"We are a downtrodden lot. Our only hope lies with the Supreme Court," he adds.
This will be the first Assembly election after the High Court's verdict. But even then no political party is taking up cudgels on behalf of the victims.
RJD president Lalu Prasad has openly said that these elections are a battle between upper and lower castes. Yet even he doesn't mention Laxmanpur Bathe.
Incidentally, he was the chief minister when the massacre took place.
The only party that talks about the massacre is the CPI(ML), but its presence is limited.
Driven to hopelessness, even the Dalits of Bathe no longer see it as a major political issue. Like lakhs of people in Bihar, they are waiting for electricity to reach their village. Even though many villages have been electrified under Nitish Kumar, Bathe continues to remain deprived.
After the massacre, Lalu had promised to provide five diesel generators to the village. The generators never arrived.
Even though there are many canals nearby, the village has no irrigation facilities.
There are no medical facilities either and the villagers have to go to Kaler block even for the treatment of minor ailments.
Laxmanpur Bathe may have been betrayed in its pursuit of justice till now. But at least it deserves the basic amenities that have eluded the village since independence.