Lakshmanpur Bathe

S. Banerji

Lakshmanpur Bathe or simply Bathe, has become a synonym for brutal massacre. After the killing of 58 persons particularly women and children, while they were asleep, in the early hours of 1 December 1997 by the Ranbir Sena, the Jehanabad village attained tragic notoriety. As with other instances of mass killings of poor, low caste labourers this notoriety too is shortlived. Less than a year later, Bathe appears to have already been forgotten even as the painful process of restoration of 'normalcy' exacts its own toll on the survivors of the massacre. This was the largest ever massacre in the ongoing war between the newest private army of landlords in Central Bihar, the Ranbir Sena, and the rural poor. In the course of this violence over hundred and fifty persons have been murdered since the formation of the Sena in 1994 in Belaur village, Bhojpur district. There have been instances of retaliatory violence by Marxist Leninist led peasant organisations under whose leadership demands for higher wages and land distribution are being raised. The majority of the killings however have been perpetrated by the Ranbirs (as the Sena men are called).

The Bathe massacre was the first to be perpetrated by the Ranbir Sena in Jehanabad district. In fact, many of the attackers were not from Jehanabad itself but from across the Sone river, from the adjacent district of Bhojpur. Crossing the Sone river by boat, the Ranbir Sena men landed at Lakshmanpur at about 9 pm on the night of 30 November 1997. They made their way to the nearby Batanbigha tola (hamlet) of the village, occupied mainly by backward (such as mallahs) and scheduled castes (paswans, rajwars etc.). Batanbigha is one of the four tolas that together make up the village of Lakshmanpur Bathe. The main village has some upper caste (bhumihar, and a few rajput) residents, those who possess considerable tracts of land. Entering the tola the Sena members brutally and arbitrarily slaughtered the residents of fourteen houses as they were sleeping. The attack went on far over three hours. Houses were burnt and those attempting to escape were shot. Some of those who lived in the tola were saved because they were able to hide successfully from the attackers. After crossing back into Bhojpur the armed Sena men cut the throats of the boatman (mallahs) who had ferried them across.

Mahendiya Police Station is 3 km away from Lakshmanpur Bathe. Yet, the police reached the village as many as thirteen hours after the massacre. They lodged a First Information Report naming twenty, six known and one hundred and twenty five 'unknown' attackers. Many of the chief accused, some of them known figures and big landowners (and their associates) in the area have not yet been arrested.

The Chief Minister Ms. Rabri Devi visited the village three days after the massacre. The state government promised compensation of two lakh rupees each to the families of the victims, jobs and houses to the next of kin. Only a few of them have actually got the promised jobs. A police camp has come up in the village. Ironically enough, it is located squarely within the upper caste tola, and shares a common wall with the house of the headman of the village, a well known supporter of the Ranbir Sena. Who is the police protecting against whom?

Contrary to conclusions drawn in media reportage, this massacre is not an instance of 'random' or 'mindless' or endemic violence that tends to be almost automatically conjured up by the mere mention of Bihar. The carnage at Lakshmanpur Bathe is part of the series of such killings that have become regular in Central Bihar. It has to be seen in the context of the history of agrarian conflict between overwhelmingly landed upper castes (mainly bhumihars and rajputs in the region) and the largely landless or small peasantry belonging primarily to the backward and scheduled castes. It cannot, however, be simply explained away as 'caste violence' or an expression of age-old hatred of the upper castes for the lower. For this violence has a new, more brutal edge to it, since the factors of caste and class conflict are lent potency by the fact that small peasants and agricultural labourers have been getting organised under the political leadership of peasant organisations. Some of organisations active in Central Bihar are the Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabha affiliated to the CPI (ML) Liberation group (popularly known as Ma-Le) and the Mazdoor Kisan Sangrami Parishad (earlier, the banned Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti) referred to as 'Sangram' affiliated to the CPI (ML) Party Unity. They have been active here over the last thirty years and particularly so over the last fifteen years.

The issues raised by these organisations are distribution of gair mazarua land (common lands and those lands that were neither settled with the landlords nor the tenants), wages, rural crime, feudal and caste oppression and self-dignity. While zamindari abolition, implemented in Bihar in 1950 gave 20 million former tenants control over land, it was only partially successful. For the ex-zamindars continued to retain land for 'personal cultivation', which continued to be worked by unrecorded tenants often of the lowest castes. Moreover, the recorded tenants who got land had already been sub-leasing their land under sharecropping arrangements. The nature of relations between landowners and labourers (still belonging mainly to backward and dalit castes) remained the same, even though the social base of landowners had now widened.

Attempts to recover surplus land from large landlords under the Land Ceiling Act 1961 were also unsuccessful. Surplus land was hidden by fictitious transfers. i.e. to individuals or institutions that existed only on paper, and sometimes surplus land was fraudulently under-registered with the collusion of officials responsible for land-measurement. In 1972, the target for acquisition of surplus land was 18 lakh acres. Only 4.8 lakh acres had been actually declared surplus by 1990. Of this 3.85 lakh acres had been taken possession of and only 2.62 lakh acres actually distributed.

A third attempt at land reform was tenancy regulation. The Tenancy Regulation Act of 1986 tried to limit sharecropping (bataidari) and legally limit the landlord's share of the produce to 25 per cent. Sharecropping and systems of dependent labour such as the harwaha system (in which labour is pledged against a loan, and the debt bond can pass from one generation to the next) are widely prevalent arrangements in central Bihar by which landlords work their land. Most of these arrangements are orally made, and completely unrecorded, rendering ridiculous any attempt to delimit or control them. Such tenants and workers remain therefore at the mercy of the landlords.

Despite a relatively widened social and caste base of the landowning class consequent to zamindari abolition, there still remains some correlation between caste and class, at least at the lower end of the social spectrum. For instance, according the most recent known figures, roughly 61 per cent of the lower backwards and 70 per cent of the scheduled castes are landless in Central Bihar. Very few scheduled castes are landless in Central Bihar. Very few scheduled caste families own land above 5 acres. Yet it should be noted that the proportion of upper caste households (bhumihars, rajputs, brahmins etc.) owning small plots of land (up to 5 acres) is quite large. They are important because they form as significant part of the base of the Ranbir Sena.

Why would these relatively small and middle peasants support a defence force of landlords like the Ranbir Sena? For it is true that while landed bhumihars remain at the head of the Sena, it draws its strength from the fact that the small farmers belonging to the caste support it and form its rank and file. The majority of the bhumihars in this area own middle sized holdings of 5 to 15 acres bordering the Sone, while the largest among them have holdings of 50 to 60 acres.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the domination of the bhumihars stems not only from their control over land but also their social superiority and high caste status. They choose to assert the upper caste status by not touching the plough, ensuring dependence on hired labour. Wages continue to be extremely low, well below the stipulated minimum of Rs. 30.25 per day for wage labour in the state. By keeping wages low all bhumihars are (or hope to be) able to ensure a supply of labour to till their lands. What is more, it is the only way it still remains economically viable for them to get their lands tilled, through hired labour instead of family labour. Moreover all landowners, big or small, collectively have a stake in the ceiling surplus or gair mazarua land that is fiercely contested and occasionally distributed to the poor. Over time zamindars had started illegally controlling this land and continue to do so long after these lands have been distributed to the landless and dalits. Even land for which ownership deeds (parchas) have been distributed twenty years ago continued to be actually controlled by landlords of the area. The issue over which the Lakshmanpur Bathe massacre occurred was in fact 50 acres of gair mazarua land which had been a bone of contention between agricultural labourers and local bhumihars. It is therefore the prospect of continuing control over irrigated gair mazarua land and of suppressing wages, along with the conventionally recognised factor of 'caste loyalty', because of which potential class differences within the bhumihars, say between a 1 bigha and a 40 bigha owning bhumihar family get submerged and small and middle peasants of the caste align themselves with the large landowners in supporting the Sena.

It is this hegemony of bhumihar landowners that is being challenged by the peasant organisations. Economic boycott of landowners land by agricultural labourers organised by these groups hits the landowners financially and forces smaller landlords to take to the plough. There are sharp differences that exist between villages where these organisations have been struggling, where the wages for all kinds of agricultural work are markedly higher and those in which such struggles are absent. These organisations are also trying ensure implementation of land distribution to the landless, which responsibility the state has abdicated in the entire region. In Bathe the ML party organisations active in the area had managed to distribute ten acres of the contested gair mazarua land. The immediate catalyst for the attack here is reported to have been a CPI (ML) plan to hold a jan-adalat (people's court) to examine and settle land disputes. Similar issues have led to massacres by the Ranbir Sena elsewhere in the area. While the Ranbir Sena supporters universally attribute the massacres to a struggle for 'varchasva' or dominance, between upper and lower castes, the actual struggle is also, to a large extent, of the maintenance of economic privileges collectively secured by upper castes as well as of their ritual and social superiority and status.

The Ranbir Sena is the most recent attempt by the class of landlords, mainly the bhumihars to protect their economic and social vested interests in this intensifying conflict. Earlier private armies set up to preserve landlord interests include the Brahmarshi Sena in the early eighties in Gaya, the Savarna Liberation Front formed in 1990, active in Gaya and Jehanabad, both with a bhumihar caste base. As zamindari abolition led to improvement in the position of occupancy tenants who largely derived from the middle castes, and from subsequent purchases of ceiling surplus land, they became dominant landlords in some areas, and formed their own 'defence' forces. The yadavs had their Lorik Sena (Patna, Nalanda districts), the kurmis their Bhoomi Sena (Patna, Jehanabad) etc. in the 1980s. The Kisan Sena, active in Patna and Bhojpur districts was relatively unusual because it brought together yadavas, rajputs, and bhumihars. In Palamu district, the Sunlight Sena carried out massacres, representing the interests of rajputs and pathans. So, while caste, whose importance as a factor underlying domination and exploitation, influencing access to and conditions of labour, cannot be underestimated in rural Bihar, and most private senas coalesce around single castes, it is apparent that in regions where landlords of different castes are represented in equal strength, and the lower caste poor peasantry show any propensity to demand legitimate rights, caste coalitions to preserve feudal privileges, are the norm.

In less than four years of existence, the Ranbir Sena has been responsible for a large number of killings at Ekwari, Belaur, Nanaur, Nadhi, Khanet, Bathani tola (Badki Kharaon village) etc. in Bhojpur itself, Haibaspur in Patna district, and now Lakshmanpur Bathe in Jehanabad. Unlike the lathaits of feudal landlords the Sena is a well-organised defence force and even has public offices in towns, despite being banned. It is known to be receiving more political patronage than all other private senas. Its members possess about 4000 licensed arms which they flaunt openly. It kills with the support of bhumihar landlords in the village and the vicinity where the attack is planned. The Marxist-Leninist organisations and their supporters in the area have retaliated to the violence perpetrated by the Sena by killing leaders and some of Ranbir Sena supporters, for instance of Raghopur in Patna district in April 1997. These organisations, some of which are also banned, are however forced to remain in hiding and can therefore never carry arms openly as these are more often than not unlicenced or seized from the police.

A distinction must be made between violence perpetrated by the senas and the violence by peasant organisations. The killings by the peasant organisations for one, do not match the Ranbir killings in scale. Secondly, the Ranbir Sena often kills arbitrarily attacking poor, landless, dalit households regardless of whether or not they are members of the organisations. They routinely and ruthlessly kill women, children and old people, and even those who are not activists of or associated with peasant organisations. Violent acts by Marxist Leninist groups are more specifically targeted at oppressive, exploitative individuals, landlords who are Ranbir Sena members, even though even these killings appears to be caste-based at times.

From failure to implement land reforms to overt and covert collusion with the Ranbir Senas during the after its attacked, the role of the state in the ongoing agrarian violence has been completely one-sided at worst and extremely dubious at best. In attacks like the one at Ekwari for instance (10 April 1997) the police got people to open doors and then let the Ranbir Sena members attack, while they encircled the village and prevented any help from reaching them from outside. In Khanet (12 December 1996) the police verified whether or not there were armed militants in the dalit tola before the attack by the Ranbir Sena.

Another routine operation that exposes the bias of the police is that of 'kudki zabti' or attachment of property of absconding accused under Section 83 CrPC. Under this law the police have the power to take the movable property of an absconding accused into custody till such time as they present themselves in court. Arrest warrants are sometimes issued to a number of villagers as 'suspected extremists'. When they evade arrest, the police, led by senior officers armed with rapidly issued 'kudki zabti' orders from the court very soon after the arrest warrants are issued, attack the houses of the accused, destroy property including the doorposts of the huts, classified in official language as 'movable property'. Other property is confiscated or destroyed, stores of grain mixed together, roofs of houses punctured and so on. Lists of confiscated goods are rarely, if ever, handed to families of the absconding accused. 'Kudki zabti' operations have been conducted with particular zeal after the Bathe massacre. In Uber village, in one such operation the police first took the buffaloes of one absconding accused and then demanded Rs. 100 per day to get fodder for them!

Few such raids are conducted on the houses of Ranbir Sena supporters in which the prime accused live openly. The house of Jitendra Ojha, one of the main accused in the Bathani tola massacre, in Chotki Ajholia village has not been raided even two years after the incident though the accused that not yet been arrested. Moreover the pucca houses of the richer landlords would not break as easily as the huts of the poorer accused, even if zabti operations were conducted. For the largely poor supporters or even mild sympathisers of peasant organisations raising demands of small peasant, lower castes, and agricultural labourers, in effect therefore, 'kudki zabti' means the destruction of property and los of livelihood for the family of the accused, as means of living -- tools, utensils for feeding animals and so on are all destroyed.

In the post-Bathe months another phenomenon that has witnessed a dramatic increase and has taken frightening proportions is the police raid, the common term for which is chhapa mari. The ostensible purpose of these raids is to 'flush out' extremists. Ironically, the raids are normally conducted on lower caste tolas targeted at 'naxalites' blithely ignoring the fact that Lakshmanpur Bathe was perpetrated against the poor and exploited classes in the village. In Jhunathi village for instance, January and February saw at least twenty raids while in Andhrachak village raids are conducted every week. The nature of these raids reveals the inherent bias of the police. In the course of a chhapa mari operation, the police completely surrounds the village occasionally firing in the air and then while 'searching' the houses, abuse women and molest them and brutally assault people.

A number of fake encounters have taken place in the reign of terror unleashed by the police and paramilitary after the massacre at Lakshmanpur Bathe. A prime example of these is the one at Kodihara village where the police, pursuing an armed squad of the ML group, killed two members of the squad after they had surrendered their weapons. This however was officially recorded as an 'encounter', defined as a confrontation between an armed group and police where the police are forced to fire in self defence.

Another so-called encounter occurred in Makarpur village where the police conducted a raid on 6 January 1998. Villagers ran away thinking it to be a Ranbir Sena attack. The pursuing police caught one R.C. Yadav and got him back to the headman's house where he and his family were gathered. A policeman started shoving and pushing Yadav (while asking questions), all the while holding a gun in his hand. The gun went off accidentally and a bullet hit the knee of thirteen year old Shrikant Kumar Yadav. Though the injured boy has been given some compensation, he will never be able to walk properly again.

Clearly then, a selective and opportunistic maintenance of law and order is the practice in Central Bihar. After the Ranbir Sena massacres, too, police behaviour invariably follows a set pattern. The police reaches the site several hours after the incident. Normally no camp is set up to protect villagers from further attacks. On the other hand in Raghopur, where six bhumihars were killed by a squad of the CPI (ML) PU, in the course of this conflict, the police reached the village promptly. A police camp was set up immediately.

Compensation to victims of massacre and rehabilitation lacks a policy. The size of compensation depends on the Chief Minister's visiting the area to give Rs. 1 or 2 lakh to the family of the victim. Otherwise it is much lower, and at the discretion of the District Magistrate. It is also dependent on the 'official' version of the incident. In Nadhi for instance the Ranbir Sena killed three innocent and unarmed people in cold blood. This was followed by a shootout between party activists and the Ranbir Sena. The administration denied compensation for the incident claiming it happened because of the exchange of fire by the two groups.

The district administration's complicity with the police is fairly apparent. The basic process of initiating magisterial inquiries into the massacres under section 176 CrPC is not done. There is only a superficial recognition of the fact that the peasant movement stems from the failure of land reform and rural development. District Magistrates of these districts have attempted to take a few haphazard steps in dealing with this such as giving grants under various schemes to affected people etc. Some distribution of gair mazarua land has also taken place in Bhojpur. Without ensuring actual access and control, this is completely meaningless. For instance, the massacres as Nadhi and elsewhere occurred over the issue of land distributed by the state to the poor and yet controlled by landlords.

The fact is that the close mesh of networks between state institutions at various levels, the bhumihar landed elite, ruling and opposition politicians, make the state forces patently biased referees.

The metaphor of a game with teams of the Ranbir Sena and Marxist Leninist organisations as 'players' is ill chosen. For Central Bihar's rural poor attacks by the Ranbir Sena and the killing of loved ones are the grim reality. Any struggle to better their lot, break out of an exploitative and oppressive cycle, is met with prompt and ruthless repression which has the full support of this sovereign, 'secular' and 'socialist' Indian state.

(The article is based on the press releases issued after fact finding investigation by PUDR in May 1997 and February 1998 and the PUDR report 'Agrarian Conflict and the Ranbir Sena').

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