Wednesday, Jun 07, 2023

The Badlands Of Bihar Where Caste Hatred Is Overriding Emotion

Caste Wars

The Badlands Of Bihar Where Caste Hatred Is Overriding Emotion

How the overwhelming emotion of revenge led to a spate of caste wars in the 1980s and ’90s over land, bleeding humanity in the Land of Buddha

The Revenge is Mine: A Ranvir Sena man in Bihar Photo: Getty Images

September 20, 1986. It was full moon. The night sky was clear above Parasdih village in Aurangabad district of Bihar. Winter was setting in. Ram Autar Sao, a Dalit agricultural labourer, was sleeping on a cot in their palani, a hut made of straw, along with his uncle, Jogeshwar. His brothers, Rajaram and Raj Ishwar, were sleeping on another cot. Around 10:30 p.m.,  Sao heard footsteps and removed the blanket from his face. He saw a group of 15–20 armed men, including a landlord called Bangali Singh marching towards their hut.

In a matter of seconds, they started firing indiscriminately on them. Sao jumped from his cot and managed to hide in the adjacent vegetable fields, though not before a bullet injured a finger in his right hand. After a few moments, the murderous lot moved to the next hut, sprayed bullets for some time and left. It was all quiet again.

Returning to his hut, Sao saw his uncle and brothers lying dead in a pool of blood. In the next hut, villagers who gathered soon after the massacre found Rajendra Sao, Binay Sao and Chamaru Sao lying dead on their respective cots. Ten-year-old Shambhu, 12-year-old Binod and another minor, Rajdeo Sao, suffered bullet injuries.

Such massacres of the landless Dalit peasants were not new to Bihar. Rajput landowners had killed 14 Santhal agricultural labourers in Chandwa–Rupaspur in 1971, Bhumihar landlords killed 11 Yadavs at Parasbigha in 1980, Kurmi landlords killed 14 Dalits at Pipra in 1980, upper caste landlords killed five Musahars in Bira in 1980. Similarly, seven Dalits were killed at Gaini in 1982, four Dhanuks were killed by Yadav landlords in Munger in 1983 and the Brahmarshi Sena killed 15 Dalit Naxal activists at Kansara in July 1986.

But this time, the response to the killings was quite different and brutal.

Two weeks after the Parasdih killings, at around 7.30 p.m. on October 7, 1986, a group of people armed with deadly firearms and sharp-edged weapons, entered the village of Darmia, about 30 km from Parasdih, and gathered in front of the house of Ambika Singh, a Rajput landlord and relative of Bangali Singh. As he fled by jumping off the tiled roof, the assailants dragged his wife, two sons, daughter, daughter-in-law, nephew and niece out in the courtyard and slit their throats. Four other Rajputs were killed in the neighbouring house in a similar fashion.

The assailants reportedly shouted ‘MCC zindabaad’ or ‘Long Live the Maoist Communist Centre’, during the operation, and told the residents of the village, shouting at the top of their voice and in no uncertain terms, that it was revenge for what happened at Parasdih.

A huge political uproar followed the massacre, forcing the administration to sit up and take notice of the prospect of a vortex of brutal attacks and counter-attacks between communities engaged in conflict over caste and landholding status. But the situation had gone far beyond the administration’s control.

One of the main bone of contention was gair mazarua or government land that landlords illegally controlled through muscle power.

The next year, after the killing of seven Yadavs at Chechani by Rajput landlords, the MCC struck terror in the villages of Baghuara and Dalelchak. On May 29, 1987, they butchered 41 Rajputs, including women and minors, decapitating some of them, and then torched every Rajput house in both villages. A lower caste person, who worked as a tractor driver for the victims, was tied to the steering wheel of the vehicle and burnt alive. The MCC cadres left leaflets announcing “Chhechani-ka badla liya (We have taken revenge for Chhechani).”

Bihar was staring at a bloody future.

It’s rather ironic that these massacres took place in the land where Gautam Buddha found enlightenment, where Mohandas Gandhi made his first successful implementation of non-violent mode of resolute political action on Indian soil and from where came one of the foremost Gandhians of Independent India, Jayprakash Narayan.

The state has also been one of the heartlands of feudalism with an overwhelming caste discrimination and extremely skewed land ownership pattern. Farmers’ movements repeatedly broke out since the 1930s, but land reforms were paid only lip service. After the apparent failure of the Vinoba Bhave and Narayan-led nonviolent, class-cooperative ‘Bhoodan andolan’ (land donation movement) of the 1950s and ’60s, left-wing extremism rose its head. So did right-wing private armies, who held fast to their caste hegemony and disproportionate landholdings. The Naxals relied on armed actions to redistribute land and break caste hierarchy. The police and paramilitary forces served as the third force.

Reports published by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, People’s Union for Democratic Rights and the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights during the 1980s and ’90s reveal that in central Bihar, now south Bihar, of the time, owners of large tracts of land were mostly from upper castes, Bhumihars, Rajputs, Brahmins and Kayasthas, while those from the Scheduled Castes were mostly landless or marginal farmers. The middle castes—the Yadavs, the Kurmis and the Kuers—were on both sides, as some of them were landlords, while others were landless or marginal farmers.

One of the main bone of contention was gair mazarua or government land that landlords illegally controlled through muscle power or by bribing government officials. The Naxals wanted that land for the landless.

Though the first such private army, the Kuer Sena of the Rajputs, was founded in 1969, their numbers increased from the 1970s end, when the Naxalite movement resurged in Bihar with the emergence of three groups—the CPI(ML) (Party Unity) or the PU, the CPI(ML) or Liberation and the MCC. Kurmi landlords founded the Kisan Suraksha Samiti and Bhumi Sena in 1979 and 1983, respectively; Yadav landlords formed the Lorik Sena in 1984; the Bhumihars launched the Bramharshi Sena in 1984; the Kisan Sangh of Rajput–Brahmin collaboration was formed the same year; and the Rajput-operated Kisan Sewak Samaj came into being in 1985.

The role of the police in dealing with the situation drew criticism, from the press, politicians and even the judiciary, for siding with the upper-caste landlords. While a number of Naxal activists died in clashes with the police during this period, no such clashes between the police and the private armies were reported, not least any resulting in casualties.

After the shocking Baghaura–Dalelchak massacre, there was a lull for a year. Then, the situation was back to ‘normal’, with a series of massacres of Dalits between 1989 and 1991 by both upper caste and backward caste landlords: 19 Dalits massacred at Nonhi–Nagwan in 1989 by Yadav landlords, 14 Dalits killed in Tiskhora in January 1991, seven landless farmers killed by Savarna Liberation Front (SLF) at Sawanbigha in September 1991, seven Dalits gunned down by Kisan Sangh militia at Karkatbigha a week later, seven sharecroppers killed at Tindhia by Sunlight Sena in October 1991, 10 Dalit labourers killed by SLF at Mein–Barsiwan in December 1991.

The Bhumihar–Rajput collaboration was backed by sections of the bureaucracy, politicians and members of the erstwhile private armies weakened by the Naxals.

The Naxals took their revenge in February 1992. At about 9.30 p.m. on February 12 that year, around 500 people, led by the MCC and armed with guns and traditional weapons, entered the village of Bara in search of Ramadhar Singh, the self-styled head of the SLF, who had claimed responsibility for killing seven MCC members at Mein–Barsiwan. Ramadhar and his right-hand man Hardwar Singh lived in the village. Failing to find him, they dragged each and every man out of their homes, let the Brahmins and Dalits go, and killed 34 Bhumihars by slitting their throats. The MCC cadres’ slogan ‘Humse jo takrayega woh chur chur ho jayega’ (Those taking us on will be broken to pieces) rent the air.

Revenge is no revenge if it is not announced. Therefore, in most of these massacres, the perpetrator group would claim responsibility as a proud display of might: if you take an eye, we are going to take a life; if you take one life, we will aim for a dozen.

The caste war entered its next level of intensity in 1994, when the Brahmeshwar Singh-led Ranvir Sena entered the scene and shot to fame, or notoriety, soon after. The Bhumihar–Rajput collaboration was backed by sections of the bureaucracy, politicians and members of the erstwhile private armies weakened by the Naxals. Reputed as the deadliest amog the private armies on this land ever, they adopted massacres as the primary form of action, specifically targeting women and children from Dalit and landless families, so that no Naxal was born in the future. The list of massacres is long and numbing. They rarely took on armed Naxal squads. They instead chose unarmed, soft targets whom the Naxals would identify with.

Here is another example of how revenge unfolded in chapters. In April 1996, about 500 people, mostly Dalits and Yadavs, had gathered under a makeshift tent on an open field for a movie screening on the occasion of a wedding at Nanaur village in Bhojpur. A Ranvir Sena unit operated by a Bhumihar landlord in neighbouring Nadhi village opened fire at the gathering, killing five children. In response, on May 5, groups of armed CPI(ML) supporters entered Nadhi and killed eight Bhumihar men, none of whom were directly involved in the Nanaur killings. In response, on May 19, the Sena supporters opened fire in the ‘Chamar Tola’ of the same village, killing two women and a man.

Then, Bhojpur made global headlines when the Ranveer Sena massacred 21 Dalits and Muslims from families known as CPI(ML) supporters, including 11 women, six children, three infants and one man, at Bathani Tola, about 20 km from Nadhi, in broad daylight in July 1996.

Gorier days were ahead. Apart from the three existing Naxal groups, there was a new entrant, the CPI(ML-PW). The killing of three–seven persons in each Sena attack on supporters of MCC, Liberation, the PU and the PW, and their retaliatory attacks on Sena operatives, became a routine. But the Sena’s spine-chilling action on a chilly December night in 1997 surpassed all previous brutalities: 58 persons were hacked to death at Laxmanpur Bathe in Jehanabad district.

Five minor girls were raped and their breasts cut off. Following the massacre, an article in the Liberation group’s mouthpiece of the same name said, “The massacre… led to the growing realisation that going over to offensive actions is the best way of defence… Thousands of young people were seething with anger and went back with the resolve to take the battle to the enemy’s own ground.”

Following relatively low-intensity conflicts with Naxal groups throughout 1998, the Sena hit the headlines again in January 1999 when they killed 23 Dalit men, women and children at Shankar Bigha and another 12 Dalits in neighbouring Narayanpur, a fortnight later. Most of them were landless labourers and supporters of different Naxal factions. The Sena leadership issued statements announcing potential places for future attacks.

The Naxal retaliation followed soon after. In March the same year, Liberation cadres killed seven upper caste landlords at Usri Bazar and PW cadres killed four upper caste landlords at Bheempura. The big bang came from the MCC. They dragged 34 upper caste men out of their homes at Senari village, lined them up in front of a temple and slit their throats, one by one.

But the vicious cycle of bloodbaths wouldn’t stop. June 2000 turned out to be another month soaked in blood. After an upper caste army killed five landless farmers at Rajebigha on June 3, the Naxals cut short the lives of 12 members of a Bhumihar landlord family at Afsar on June 13, claiming revenge for Rajebigha. Three days later, on June 16, the Sena killed 33 agricultural workers at Miyapur in Aurangabad in revenge for Senari. Avinash Chandra Sharma, a Bhumihar from Senari, was said to have led the massacre.

However, the Miyapur massacre cost the Sena dearly, perhaps also because the victims were Yadavs, the caste to which Laloo Prasad belonged. Laloo’s party, after dominating Bihar politics for most part of the 1990s, had got a fresh mandate in 2000 for another five years. While the administration started tightening the noose around the Sena, the Naxal outfits had mostly resolved their internal conflicts and focused on eliminating Sena militia men in small-scale operations.

When the cycle of massacres was finally broken, more than 600 killings had taken place in attacks where 5–61 persons were massacred. In addition to these killings, there were innumerable incidents in which one–four persons were killed. Several hundred spent years in jail, some convicted, some acquitted, some received death penalties. A generation of widows and orphans were left behind to fend for themselves.

(This appeared in the print edition as "An Eye for an Eye")