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Brahmeshwar Singh, alias Mukhiya, is said to have once publicly justified the killing of Dalit women and children. The self-styled chief of the Ranvir Sena, a private militia of upper caste landlords which unleashed terror in the 1990s killing fields of Bihar, was quoted as saying that Dalit children grew up to be Naxalites and the women give birth to them. Hence the final solution. ‘Mukhiyaji’, arrested in ’02, spent nine years in jail before getting bail in 2011. Strangely, he wasn’t even an accused in the 1996 Bathani Tola massacre, in which 12 Dalit women and children died, one of his outfit’s worst doings.
In 2012, the Ranvir Sena, a rag-tag, upper-caste militia group that left over 300 landless, desperate people dead in a series of massacres in the Bihar of the ’90s, may sound something of an anachronism. But as Mukhiya’s murder and the resulting violence proved, things haven’t changed so much from then in Bihar’s badlands.
The recent spark was the state’s decision in April to appeal the Patna HC’s acquittal of the 23 accused in the Bathani Tola case. Three of them had been sentenced to death by a sessions court. Brahmeshwar was quick to address a press conference and criticise the government. Not long after that, out on his morning walk, he was gunned down by unknown assailants. At the funeral, his Bhumihar supporters went berserk, even manhandling state dgp Abhayanand—himself a Bhumihar—who had turned up in civilian clothes.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar was away in Kishanganj on the eastern fringes of Bihar on his ‘seva yatra’. But it is presumed he knew about the police allowing Mukhiya’s supporters to lead the funeral procession from Ara to Bansghat in Patna. The decision was curious because the irate supporters had already vandalised the circuit house and torched several vehicles in Ara. As the procession reached the state capital, Patna shut down. The processionists held the city to ransom for over four hours. In the countryside, the violence continued for the next several days. Facing flak from all sides, Nitish finally ordered a CBI probe, but by then a JD(U) legislator and erstwhile Mukhiya aide, Sunil Pande, had been implicated in the killing.
“The attitude of the top brass in Bihar on June 1 and 2 was remarkably similar to that shown post-Godhra in Gujarat.”
So why did the state allow the funeral procession to cover the long distance? Even when Babu Jagjivan Ram, Dalit leader and former deputy PM, died, in 1986, his last rites were performed in his native village in Ara. It hadn’t done the 65-km procession to the state capital. The CPI(ML) Liberation, another agent provacateur in the tit-for-tat killings of the ’90s, was scathing in its criticism. General secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya, in a statement, said, “Nitish may like to distance Bihar from Modi’s Gujarat, yet the attitude of the top brass here on June 1 and 2 was remarkably similar to that shown post-Godhra. The Bihar government believes some chosen people have the privilege to give vent to their ire in whichever way they want.”
Indeed, the killing and the caste polarisation that has followed is perhaps Nitish’s first serious political challenge since coming to power. The NDA government in Bihar is widely perceived to be dominated by the upper-caste Bhumihars, who also form the core constituency of the BJP. If the government is seen to be soft on Mukhiya’s successors—and if it indeed now fails to appeal against the acquittal of the accused in the Bathani Tola massacre—it could upset the social engineering blue-printed by Nitish Kumar.
Earlier, Mukhiya’s legions were working overtime to dispel any talk that the killing was the handiwork of disgruntled ‘insiders’, that it wasn’t the Naxals who had gunned him down and made him a martyr to the cause. But the arrest of criminal-turned-JD(U) MLA Sunil Pande has proved a dampener. Incidentally, Pande was one of the last people to have met and spoken to the slain Ranvir Sena chief.
While rumours abound about the running feud between them, Pande was quick to rebut everything. “Mukhiyaji and I are distant relatives. I went to attend a marriage and we exchanged a few words” is all Pande has been maintaining. He’s also categorical that caste wars have no place in Bihar today. “I am firmly with the NDA and share their vision for Bihar. If people are unhappy with the court’s verdict, they can always knock at the doors of the Supreme Court,” he says.
But there are others, like Pavan Srivastava from Ara, who believe “it was a fight for the assets of the Ranvir Sena, which had amassed a lot of money over the years. Mukhiya’s death has nothing to do with caste politics”.
That said, for targets of the Ranvir Sena, Mukhiya’s death and the acquittal of the massacre accused are firm setbacks—ones that threaten to turn the clock back. Kishan, one of the two witnesses to the Bathani Tola massacre, recalls how he jumped into a pit and watched his family being mowed down before his eyes. He lost two daughters and wife. A Class IV employee at the government health centre in Badhara block, 25 kms from the Ara district HQ, and the sole bread-winner of a family of four (he has re-married since), Srikishan fears for his life again.
Professor Ram Bali Singh of Patna University has more horror stories: “In front of my eyes, I saw my caste people being identified first and then beaten up mercilessly. They attacked men and women alike, not even sparing the children. One young boy was asked if he was a Bhumihar and when he said, ‘no’ they kept hitting him on his legs with sticks.”
How best to manage the Bhumihar backlash? That’s the question now playing on everyone’s mind in Patna, even more than who was behind Mukhiya’s killing. It may be an inside job by disgruntled sections of the Sena, but with elections on everyone’s mind, playing up caste issues is always a win-win thing. Even as we write, attempts are on to turn a marginalised, has-been Brahmeshwar Singh into a a larger-than-life martyr. His supporters’ grief has even found expression on social networking sites like Facebook, where attempts are being made to create fresh schisms in an already caste-riven state. For Nitish Kumar, it’s a litmus test—his handling of the situation will either cement his claim to be a natural leader or tear up his ambitions to be a national player.
By Panini Anand and Anuradha Raman in Delhi and Dola Mitra in Ara