At 3.30 am, on 1 June, Brahmeshwar Singh, the chief of Bihar’s notorious upper-caste militia group, Ranvir Sena, stepped out of his home for a walk in Bhojpur district’s Ara town, around 70 kilometres from Patna. Twenty minutes later, people in the town’s Katira locality woke up startled by the sound of multiple gunshots. They rushed out and found the 63-year-old Singh lying in a pool of blood close to his house. Unidentified gunmen—someone said there were six of them in a car—had fired at him, hitting him in the chest four times. The bloody end of Singh, better known as Mukhiaji among members of his upper-caste community of Bhumihars, came as no surprise to those who are aware of Bihar’s murky caste calculus. For two decades, Brahmeshwar Singh himself had masterminded a series of massacres against Dalits and people from other backward communities. Between 1995 and 2000, the Ranvir Sena carried out more than 20 such attacks, resulting in the brutal death of hundreds of innocent people, including women and children.
For decades, Bihar has been mired in a complex web of feudalism. In a predominantly agrarian society (74 per cent of the state’s workforce is involved in agriculture), most of the land remained with upper-caste landlords. According to surveys conducted as recently as a decade ago, 75 per cent of the poor in Bihar own no land or next to no land. Ironically, Bihar was the first state after Independence to create a law for land reforms. But the political class always bowed to the upper-caste vote bank, stalling such reforms. The first leader to fail the landless of Bihar was its most revered chief minister, Karpoori Thakur, who was re-elected on the plank of ‘azadi aur roti’ in 1977 (His first stint in 1970-71 lasted just over six months). Thirteen years later, in 1990, when Lalu Prasad Yadav emerged as the face of the backward castes, the poor and landless had similar expectations from him. But he too failed them.
India became free, but the poor and landless Dalits had no option but to continue working the fields of Bihar’s upper castes for a pittance. There was rampant exploitation. Their womenfolk were raped at will and they couldn’t even sit on a khatia (cot) outside their sparse huts. They were denied access to the village pond, and the freedom to cast a vote was a distant dream. All this began to gradually change from the late 60s, when leftwing extremist parties, including Naxalites, entered the picture. As scholar Bela Bhatia writes in a paper, based on fieldwork in 50 villages of central Bihar in 1995-96: ‘Perception of poverty as a matter of naseeb (fate) has changed. Now they (the poor and the landless) often see it as a matter of injustice.’ Many joined the Naxal movement because they thought of it as the only way to change their circumstances.
In the 80s, the radical CPI (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation started mobilising people on issues of land and better wages. Landlords who refused to toe the line had to face economic blockades, resulting in an inability to grow anything on their land. Often a red flag would be planted on surplus land (above the legal ceiling) and gairmajurwa (common land, often occupied illegally by upper-caste landlords) to indicate its transfer to a landless family. Those who got some land legally from the government could not wrest its control from the landlords. In some cases, people were killed by the henchmen of upper castes once they got possession of land.
Upper castes just couldn’t stomach that the poor were trying to rise for their rights. And, as always, the political administration was with them. In 1975, the Bihar government issued licences for firearms to landowners in Bhojpur and Patna districts to enable them to fight the growing leftwing influence. In the mid-80s, Bhumihars formed a militia group, called Brahmrishi Sena, to counter the growing influence of the left. Other upper- and middle-caste communities raised similar militias, prominent among them being the Sunlight Sena. In 1994, Bhumihars created the Ranvir Sena, of which Brahmeshwar Singh was the mastermind. It was named after a retired army man revered by Bhumihars. Initially, its cadre was armed with crude firearms but later, as money came along with increasing political patronage, the Ranvir Sena got access to modern arms such as AK-47 rifles. It also offered an insurance cover of Rs 3 lakh to its active members, whose numbers ran into thousands.
In 1967, Ramnaresh Prasad, who contested assembly elections from Bhojpur on a CPM ticket, was badly beaten up along with his comrades by feudal landlords. In 1995, Prasad and another leader ran the state assembly election on CPI(ML) tickets, and won. This prompted the Ranvir Sena to carry out a brutal massacre, in July 1996, of 21 Dalits and poor landless Muslims (including three infants) in Bathani Tola. This was followed by many other massacres including one in Laxmanpur Bathe in December 1997, where 58 Dalits, including 27 women and 10 children were done to death. The Maoist Communist Centre (MCC)—it later merged with another Naxal group, PWG, to form the CPI (Maoist) in 2004—also made retaliatory strikes on upper castes. Prominent among them is the Senari massacre of March 1999, where 34 men were dragged by a 100-man MCC squad and beheaded. The Naxal groups usually spared women and children, but the Ranvir Sena spared none. In an interview to The Times of India in June 1999, Brahmeshwar Singh said: “Hanuman in his fights against Ravana set fire to the whole of Lanka. It is fair if the fight against the demons involves destroying the wombs.”
In 1998, the PWG merged with another Naxal group, Party Unity (PU), active in many parts of Bihar. Concomitant with the political mobilisation of the landless by the CPI(ML)-Liberation, the might of the Ranvir Sena began to decline. Also, around this time, differences arose between the Bhumihar and Brahmin members of the group, resulting in the exit of Sunil Pandey, who is now a member of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) party.
On 29 August 2002, Brahmeshwar Singh was arrested, curiously on Patna’s busy Exhibition Road, leading to speculation that he had surrendered owing to threats to his life from within the party. He was released on bail in July last year. This happened after the police failed to produce him in a Patna court from Ara jail in April 2010 during the Laxmanpur Bathe case trial.
Towards the end of 2005, Bihar’s current Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, rode to power on the promise of clean governance. He held Janata durbars and the media lavished praise for the ‘social reforms’ he promised to initiate. But soon after taking over, he disbanded the Amir Das commission—set up by Lalu’s RJD after the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre to probe the politico-administrative links of the Ranvir Sena—even before it could submit its report. This came as a huge relief to many leaders in the JD-U, BJP, Congress and RJD. In 2006, Nitish Kumar set up a Land Reforms Commission under the chairmanship of D Bandopadhyay, the architect of Operation Barga, India’s most successful land reforms in West Bengal. But its recommendations were left untouched because Nitish feared that many upper-caste landowners would desert him for Lalu. In the course of campaigning for the 2010 assembly elections, his party had to issue clarifications that the government would never take away any land. Says Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary, CPI(ML)-Liberation: “Governance is not a class-neutral word. Nitish Kumar’s gospel of good governance has always revolved around freedom for feudal-communal and pro-corporate forces and curbs on all legitimate struggles of the people. Now, with crime in general once again on the rise and the police and bureaucracy behaving in an increasingly autocratic manner, more and more people are getting a taste of the Nitish model of good governance.”
Earlier this year in April, all 23 convicts in the Bathani Tola massacre were acquitted by the Patna High Court. It was after immense pressure that Nitish Kumar said his government would appeal against the verdict in the Supreme Court. Clearly, it is just a face-saving exercise. In May, Brahmeshwar Singh held a press conference at a premier hotel in Patna, where he announced the formation of an organisation for the welfare of peasants and agricultural workers. He also praised Lalu Prasad Yadav, and said his government had been better than Nitish’s. Under the banner of the new organisation, Brahmeshwar Singh had been holding many meetings to mobilise people. It is because of this that Lalu wore such a mournful look on television after Brahmeshwar Singh’s death, referring to him as ‘Mukhiaji’. In the aftermath of Brahmeshwar Singh’s death, Lalu is hoping to make inroads into the upper-caste vote bank in the state. Nitish, on his part, sent Director General of Police Abhayanand to the spot as his government’s Bhumihar face. He was heckled and abused by Brahmeshwar’s supporters, who also resorted to violence. But no action was taken. “Vote-bank considerations apart, it’s the fear of facilitating the independent assertion of the poor and a consequent resurgence of the communist movement that has been the main reason. Feudal forces still have a dominating presence in Bihar and weigh quite heavily on the overall balance—legislative, judicial and, of course, bureaucratic,” says Bhattacharya.
Today, in Bathani Tola, residents still continue to labour in the fields owned by landlords who were perhaps a party to the massacre of 1996. Elsewhere, even Naxalites in Bihar have not been able to erase caste divisions in the state, with some squads consisting entirely of Yadavs.
Many years ago, a young Bhumihar student from Bihar narrated an incident to this correspondent. In one of the Bhumihar families, an old servant, his back bent over, perhaps serving the family for generations, was offered a rasgulla by his master on the occasion of the marriage of the master’s grandson. The old man had never tasted it before, and obviously had not expected it from his master’s hands. Tears streamed from his eyes in a mix of joy and shock.
The so-called leaders of Bihar had failed this old man. They continue to fail him. And millions of such faceless, marginalised people.