Shocking setback

Shocking setback

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. All massacres are shocking but the one at Bathani Tola that was carried out by the Ranvir Sena was particularly horrific. Some 21 people were slaughtered with swords. Their bodies were ripped apart. Some of the victims were not even a year old.  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. Although 40 were declared not guilty, 23 others were convicted. Of these, three were given the death sentence and the rest life imprisonment. The Patna court’s ruling overturning the earlier judgment means that the 23 will now walk free. Of course, there is room for appeal. The Bihar government has said it will appeal against the Patna court verdict in the Supreme Court. Still, 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. Police claim that since its proscription the Ranvir Sena is a weakened force. Yet its capacity to strike terror in the hearts of people, to force witnesses to retract statements and to bend Bihar’s law and order and judicial institutions to do its bidding remains strong. 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.

In the circumstances and in the wake of the Patna verdict, it is not surprising that Bihar’s Dalits have little faith in the courts. Our higher judiciary has played a stellar role in ensuring justice to India’s most exploited people. Bathani Tola will be waiting for the apex court to right the wrongs done to them. A failure of our justice system will encourage people to engage in vigilantism.
 

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