SIXTEEN years ago 21 people – almost all of them women and children including infants – had been butchered in broad daylight in Bathani Tola in central Bihar’s Bhojpur district. That was when the country woke up to the existence of this obscure hamlet and the sordid reality of the Ranveer Sena, a feudal private army that went on to perpetrate a series of horrific massacres in the late 1990s, killing hundreds of people all over central Bihar.

That was the twentieth century and we are now into the second decade of a new century and new millennium. Bihar is now ruled by a government which claims to be delivering ‘development with justice’. The massacres have apparently stopped and in May 2010, the district court in Ara convicted 23 people for the massacre in Bathani Tola, awarding death penalty to three and life sentence to the rest.

At last justice was being delivered to the massacre victims of yesteryear, claimed the government and romped back to power with a bigger majority in November 2010. The oppressed and marginalised rural poor, rechristened mahadalits (dalits among dalits), ati pichhdas (most backward castes) and pasmanda Musalmans (backward Muslims), all reposed considerable faith in the new dispensation.

Two years later, in April 2012, all the 23 convicts have been acquitted by the Patna High Court leaving everybody to wonder who killed the hapless twenty-one in Bathani Tola on that fateful July 11 afternoon in 1996.

How are we to make sense of this High Court verdict? Is it just a case of judicial aberration? On the contrary, records tell us that this has rather been the norm in Bihar – those accused of massacring the rural poor have almost all got acquitted eventually even if some of them may have had to spend a few years in jail as under-trial prisoners. But then aren’t things supposed to have changed in Bihar? Is it not anachronistic to talk of any feudal bias in Nitish Kumar’s ‘changed’ Bihar?

Just as the July 1996 Bathani Tola massacre had served to underline the socio-political character of the Lalu regime, the April 2012 High Court verdict – call it a judicial massacre or Bathani Tola-II – holds a mirror to the dominant socio-political milieu in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar. While the Supreme Court must judicially review the High Court verdict and ensure legal justice for the Bathani Tola victims, political and social justice demands we must understand the context and implications of Bathani Tola and stand by the victims in their battle for dignity and democracy.

When Bathani Tola-I happened many thought it was just another caste massacre rooted in some land dispute. But contrary to this common wisdom, Bathani Tola was an explicitly political massacre carried out with the avowed aim of teaching the CPI(ML) supporters a lesson. It was a massacre perpetrated in broad daylight that targeted women and children, including pregnant women and infants, with a kind of barbarity seen only in genocides marked by the motto of ethnic cleansing. Women were targeted because they would give birth Naxalites, children were eliminated because they would otherwise grow into Naxalites.

Some people believe that private armies like the Ranveer Sena arose in Bihar only as a social reaction to the ‘excesses’ committed by the CPI(ML) in land and wage struggles. It is sought to be pointed out that Bhojpur or its neighbouring districts in central Bihar hardly have the kind of huge landholdings that one would usually associate with feudalism and hence the CPI(ML)’s entire theory and practice of anti-feudal struggle is rather misplaced.

The CPI(ML)’s history in Bhojpur and many other parts of Bihar clearly shows that while land and wages have been important issues, decisive battles often have been fought on questions of human dignity and political representation. This should not come as a surprise if we care to remember that feudal power is exercised and reproduced primarily through extra-economic coercion. Social oppression, various kinds and degrees of bondage and political exclusion have historically been the hallmarks of feudal domination the world over.

If we look at the history of the CPI(ML) movement in Bhojpur, we will see that the right to vote has been one of the most keenly contested issues. In fact, behind the very emergence of the CPI(ML) in Bhojpur was the Assembly election in 1967 in which Comrade Ramnaresh Ram contested as a CPI(M) candidate and he and all his close comrades were badly beaten up and harassed by the feudal lobby which could not stomach this ‘political audacity’ of the oppressed and the downtrodden.

Years later, in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, when large numbers of dalits for the first time succeeded in exercising their franchise and electing Comrade Rameshwar Prasad as the first ‘Naxalite’ member of Parliament from Ara, a bloodbath ensued in Danwar-Bihta village just after the polling and as many as twenty-two persons had to pay with their lives the price for the right to vote.

Bathani Tola had a very similar backdrop. In the panchayat elections in 1978, Mohammad Yunus had become the ‘mukhiya’ (chief) of Kharaon panchayat in Sahar block much to the chagrin of the feudal-communal forces in the area. Under the leadership of this popular mukhiya, poor Muslims in and around Kharaon joined the CPI(ML) in large numbers. In 1995, the Sahar (SC) Assembly seat as well as the adjacent seat of Sandesh were won for the first time by the CPI(ML) and the victorious MLAs were none other than Comrades Ramnaresh Ram – the 1967 CPI(M) candidate was now a towering leader of the CPI(ML) in Bihar – and Rameshwar Prasad, the former Indian People’s Front MP from Ara.

The feudal lobby of Bhojpur became jittery and desperate. The Ranveer Sena was formed with the declared objective of wiping out the CPI(ML) from the soil of Bihar. A communal mobilisation began in Kharaon to deny the Muslim people their customary right to the Imambada and Karbala land. It was in the course of the struggle to defend their land and right that several Muslim families got evicted and had to relocate themselves in the predominantly dalit settlement of Bathani Tola in Kharaon panchayat. It was this united settlement of dalit and Muslim rural poor households that witnessed the macabre dance of death on July 11, 1996.

Massive protests ensued in Bihar following the massacre. One would have expected Lalu Prasad, the self-styled champion of the poor, the backward castes and Muslims in particular, to swing into action. But it took weeks of hunger strike by Comrade Rameshwar Prasad and the octogenarian CPI(ML) leader Comrade Taqi Rahim to make Lalu Prasad order a mere transfer of the DM of Bhojpur for his failure in stopping a massacre of this magnitude that went on for hours, with a police station being present at a distance of just two kilometres, and three police camps between 100 metres to 1 kilometres from the massacre site, without a single bullet being fired by the police. The Ranvir Sena was banned on paper but nobody was arrested and the list of massacres got longer with every passing year. In one of his most revealing political statements, Lalu Prasad announced in a public meeting in Bhojpur that to combat the CPI(ML) he was ready to unite with the devil!

No wonder Bathani Tola was soon followed by Laxmanpur Bathe. At the end of 1997 when the whole country was celebrating the eve of the New Year, the Ranveer Sena gunned down sixty-odd people in cold blood in Laxmanpur Bathe village of Jahanabad district. Bathani and Bathe, two obscure hamlets on two sides of the River Sone became prominent names in national news. KR Narayanan, the then President of India described the Bathe massacre as an act of ‘national shame’. Lalu Prasad was forced to set up a one-man Commission led by Justice Amir Das to probe the political and administrative patronage behind the Ranveer Sena. The commission however kept complaining that it was starved of necessary staff, powers and resources. Meanwhile, the Ranveer Sena got increasingly isolated and in 2002, the Sena supremo Brahmeswar Singh ‘surrendered’ to the state.

In November 2005 Bihar witnessed a change of guard and Nitish Kumar became the chief minister with the BJP’s support. One of the first steps the government took was to disband the Amir Das Commission. The BJP-JDU leaders and even a few leaders of the RJD and the Congress who had all been summoned by the Commission to depose before it heaved a huge sigh of relief. As the second term began, Brahmeswar Singh was granted bail. And now the High Court has acquitted the Bathani convicts while the fate of Bathe hangs in the balance. Nitish Kumar of course waxes eloquent about ‘development with justice’ and Bihar witnessing ‘waves of revolutionary change’ in his tenure.

Bihar has surely changed. From the Jagannath Mishras and Bindeshwari Dubeys of yesteryear, power has passed on to the likes of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. Yet Bathani-I and Bathani-II clearly tells us that this power remains as feudal as ever. Nitish Kumar is in an explicit alliance with the BJP, the most organised representative of the feudal-communal lobby in Bihar. Even Lalu Prasad for all his rhetoric against upper-caste domination always went out of his way to appease the feudal forces especially vis-à-vis the rural poor and the CPI(ML). It is not an aberration that the report of the Land Reform commission gets dumped. That the Amir Das Commission gets disbanded before it can produce its report. That the Bathani convicts get acquitted and a mastermind of dozens of heinous massacres is out on bail.

Real change in Bihar does not lie in the changing caste complexion of the rulers. Real change does not lie in the changing political rhetoric of the rulers – whether Lalu Prasad’s slogan ‘social justice’ or Nitish Kumar’s gospel of ‘good governance’. Real change does not lie in the gloss of globalisation and corporatisation added to the semi-feudal political economy of Bihar resulting in spectacular statistical growth on paper.

Real change lies in the tenacity and courage and determination with which Bathani and Bathe fight back for their justice, their dignity and their democracy. Yes, justice, dignity and democracy are not class-neutral words, and are certainly not monopolies of the rich and the powerful. In the wake of the Arwal massacre in April 1986, when Jallianwala Bagh was re-enacted in Congress-ruled Bihar, Comrade Vinod Mishra had written, “when the unceremonious death of the poorest among the peasants in the unknown, unheard of, dingy, mud-tracked, tiny country-town of Arwal begins to shape the political crisis of the powers that be in Bihar, one can safely proclaim that the heroes have finally arrived on the stage.” Regardless of court verdicts, Arwal, Bathani and Bathe refuse to fade away and continue to pump fresh energy into the battle for justice and democracy in Bihar.

In 1974 Bihar challenged the budding autocracy in Delhi with the dreams and aspirations of the youth. When Lalu Prasad’s reign of ‘social justice’ degenerated into scams and massacres, Bihar fought back saying social transformation was a must for social justice. Today when Nitish Kumar’s slogan of ‘development with justice’ is fast turning into ‘injustice with loot’, and ‘good governance’ is giving way to unfettered police raj, every dreamer and defender of democracy must stand by the victims of Bathani Tola to take Bihar forward, upholding the banner of justice and real transformation.