A travesty of justice

(The Hindu, April 25, editorial)

The acquittal of 23 people convicted by a lower court in the gruesome Bathani Tola massacre case is a shocking indictment of the country's criminal justice system. …

Whether the Court was correct in dismissing all the eight private or independent eyewitnesses as unreliable — the conviction by the sessions court was based on the testimony of two of them — is bound to be called into question. Its disbelief that some of these witnesses could have hidden in close proximity to the village and watched the massacre — on the ground that the bloodthirsty mob would have found and liquidated them — is at best a questionable conjecture. What is certain, though, is that justice has been denied and that it will be a travesty if the perpetrators of this massacre are allowed to get away. The Bihar government, which has said it will appeal the judgment, must prepare the strongest possible case. While it is finally up to the courts to decide on guilt and innocence, the tragedy of Bathani Tola exposes the elitist biases of the country's media, which has paid scant attention to this miscarriage of justice. When the combination of a shoddy investigation and hostile witnesses led to all nine accused being acquitted in the high-profile Jessica Lal murder case a few years ago, it was the spirited campaign by the media that resulted in the Delhi High Court taking suo moto notice of the acquittal and reopening the case. It is important that we do not allow our attention to be diverted and justice to be subverted in this case merely because the victims were poor and landless Dalits living in a remote village in the Bihar hinterland.

Shocking setback

Deccan Herald April 21, 2012

The quest for justice in a massacre in Bathani Tola village in Bihar in 1996 has suffered a grievous setback with the Patna high court reversing a lower court verdict. The high court has acquitted all 23 people who were convicted by a sessions court earlier.

... Witnesses of the massacre identified the perpetrators. Yet it took the police four years to prepare a chargesheet against the 63 that were named. It took another ten years before the sessions court delivered the verdict. The Patna court’s ruling overturning the earlier judgment means that the 23 will now walk free.... the fact that so many people convicted for one of the worst massacres against Dalits in India’s recent history went free shows how tenuous and tortuous the Dalit quest for justice is.

Bathani Tola was not alone in its suffering or grief. Ranvir Sena, a militia of uppercaste Rajputs and Bhumihar, wreaked havoc in several Dalit and Muslim villages in Bihar in the 1995-2002 period. ... The fact that Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh ‘Mukhiya’ has not been convicted still – he has been acquitted in 16 out of the 22 cases against him and granted bail in six other cases – stands testimony to the influence the Ranvir Sena continues to wield in Bihar.

21 murders, 16 years and Zero Conviction

April 20, 2012, Northern Voices Online

Nayeemuddin living in Arrah, sixty kilometers west of Patna is stunned. Five of his family members were butchered sixteen years back by the dreaded Ranvir Sena. He got to know on Monday that Patna High Court has acquitted all the convicted in this case.

The ‘Shaheed Smarak’ at Bahani Tola reminds that sixteen others were also massacred on that day at the same place by the same killers. But by the ruling of High Court, no one is guilty today. …

Only one political party Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) is visible protesting over this acquittal. It blocked the Ara-Patna road to protest over the investigation process which resulted into the acquittal. Ashok Singh, an official of the CPI (ML) has announced that his party would challenge this verdict in the apex court.

For residents of Bathani, it is a horror they cannot forget

BATHANI TOLA (BHOJPUR), April 19, 2012

It was a July afternoon in 1996, and it took the marauding mobs less than a couple of hours to execute the massacre that took 21 lives. Among the dead were 11 women, six children and three infants.

With that, Bathani Tola, an unsung hamlet in central Bihar, shot to fame as one of the many sites where the fearsome Ranbir Sena had left its bloody mark. Last week, the village was once more in the news, with the Patna High Court acquitting 23 men convicted of the gruesome murders.

Bathani Tola was not the first, and would not be the last, in a series of atrocities committed through the 1980s and 1990s by the Sena, a powerful caste army of Bhumihars and Rajputs. Its victims were always landless labourers (Dalits in most cases), who, though poor and impoverished, had begun to get radicalised in the backdrop of the Naxal movement taking root in the State.

“We heard their howls of agony, but simply could not find the courage to come out,” recounts Naimuddin Ansari, one of the prime witnesses who lost six family members in the carnage. “The Sena men encircled our hovels, drew out the victims and slaughtered them,” recounts Sri Kishun Chaudhary, who lodged an FIR against 33 persons the day after the massacre.

Among those named was Brahmeshwar Singh — the infamous Mukhiya and founder of the Ranbir Sena — who is said to have overseen the Bathani killings as well as the caste massacres that followed in Laxmanpur Bathe and Shankarbigha (81 Dalits were killed in the two villages). Fourteen years after the bloodbath in Bathani, the Ara sessions court sentenced three persons to death and awarded life sentence to another 20.

The acquittal of the same men by the High Court has come as a shock to Bathani's residents. The court might have had its reasons — it cited “defective evidence” — for overturning the convictions, but the villagers are inconsolable and recollect every detail of the horror that visited them, including the fact that the Sena men killed women and children by design, not because they came in their way.

“This government [the Nitish Kumar-led NDA] has sold out to the rich and influential. It is now up to the Party [the Communist Party of India (Marxist -Leninist)] to decide the next course of action,” says Mr. Chaudhary, fatigued and bitter from years of fighting the case.

Naimuddin too looks dejected and defeated. A bangle-seller at the time of the carnage, he lost his three-month-old daughter to the aggressors. She had not even been named, when she was killed, he reminisces, adding, “Baby,” as she was called, “was tossed in the air and thrust down the blade of a sword.”

“My seven-year-old son Saddam saw it. They all saw it,” cries Naimuddin. One half of Saddam's face had been mutilated by sword lacerations when Naimuddin finally reached the spot after the Sena men had dispersed.

“As I picked him up, he [Saddam] said, ‘Abba save my life!' It was then that I realised they had cut his spinal cord.” The child died within a week at the Patna Medical College and Hospital.

A Sena sympathiser, who spoke to this correspondent, justified the “reactionary mobilisation” of the upper castes against “those Naxals.” “The land is ours. The crops belong to us. They [the labourers] did not want to work, and moreover, hampered our efforts by burning our machines and imposing economic blockades. So, they had it coming.” Not surprisingly, there is panic in Bathani over the release of the Sena men. ...

Naimuddin and others have one question for visitors: if those named in the FIR are not the killers, who killed the 21 residents of Bathani Tola?

(Shoumojit Banerjee, The Hindu)