No one killed Jessica: the single headline propelled an avalanche of nationwide protests in February 2006. The Jessica murder case is now part of our folklore. Led by an aggressive civil society and an equally supportive media, the case laid bare how justice can be denied at will; how the law of the land, particularly, the criminal justice system, runs the risk of being turned into a sham.
The recent judgment by the Patna High Court, involving Dalit victims of the Lakshmanpur-Bathe village in central Bihar, reinforces such anxieties. Fifty eight Dalits were brutally murdered by Ranvir Sena a private militia led by the upper caste landowners on the night of December 1, 1997. The dead included 27 women and 10 children. The cold-blooded massacre sparked outrage and severe criticism across the country.
The then President Dr KR Narayanan even described the incident as a ‘national shame’. That night of brutality led to a long wait of 16 years as the victims awaited the deliverance of justice. On October 9, 2013, setting aside the judgment of the trial court, by citing ‘lack of evidence’, the Patna High Court set free all the accused due to ‘benefit of doubt’. No one had killed those 58 Dalits! Earlier, on April 1, 2010, the trial court had convicted 26 of the accused. Sixteen of them were served capital punishment and 10, life term.
Amazingly, the judgment failed to evoke any public, civil society or media outcry; not a single candle march to India Gate took place denouncing such a travesty of justice. Largely bereft of a representative voice on regional or national platform, the Dalits’ cry for justice was ignored by most newspapers and news channels. Never mind that the same media organisations are never too shy to discuss even the most mundane non-issues of the day. During this period, newspapers and television channels were in ‘national mourning’ running stories on the retirement of the ‘God’ of cricket. But it’s not that only the media was indifferent to the plight of Lakshmanpur-Bathe victims. It can be reasonably argued that the system as a whole has failed to address this ‘national shame’ in the last few years.
The judgment of the Patna High Court is a sad reflection of our nation’s commitment to uphold the values of the republic, as well as the justice system adopted by the Constitution. The cold response of mainstream media to this entire issue is intriguing. Perhaps, we need (late) KR Narayanan’s exhortation to break this code of silence and jolt an indifferent national conscience.
This certainly is not the first instance when Dalits have been denied justice. Bihar has a long history of organised crime against Dalits planned and executed by the powerful landowning upper castes. Countless carnages have taken place during the Congress rule. But hardly any of the accused have been convicted. The Congress-led governments routinely ducked their Constitutional responsibility to safeguard the Dalits, vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
Significantly, such organised attacks were aimed at muzzling Dalit aspirations and their genuine demands for land, proper wages and dignity (izzat). The mass murder trail starts from Rupaspur Chandwa case (1971) and continues till today. The two decades between 1971 and 1989 witnessed more than three dozen attacks and bloodbath of Dalits in Parasbigha, Nonahi-Nagwan, Arwal, Chechani and Kansara. Despite such blatant human rights violations, none of the state governments of the day showed courage to take even cursory steps against these illegal upper caste militias, which emboldened them further. The violence also manifested in political ramifications. Dalits abandoned the Congress in the 1990s, leading to the party’s decimation in the state. Even the troika of Lalu-Rabri and Nitish failed to address the contentious issue of land reforms, which remain at the core of the problem.
The Nitish government had appointed D Bandyopadhyay of Operation Barga fame in West Bengal to lead a commission on land reforms in Bihar. But the initiative lost steam in no time. The Bandyopadhyay Commission submitted its report in April 2008, which, the government, pushed to the back-burner. Surprisingly, Nitish Kumar, who rode to power on the plank of ‘good governance’, has also dissolved the Amir Das Inquiry Commission on the advice of his political allies (then BJP) and officials. The Commission was formed by the erstwhile Rabri Devi regime to investigate the criminal antecedents of Ranvir Sena and the Lakshamanpur-Bathe case. According to reports, the Commission had several leaders of the Congress, BJP, RJD and JD(U) on its radar, triggering uneasiness in the JD (U)-BJP ruling dispensation. The dissolution of the Commission may have seriously impacted the collection of evidence, eventually weakening the Lakshmanpur-Bathe case in the Patna High Court.
Under heavy criticism, the Nitish government has now decided to challenge the Patna judgment in the Supreme Court. But the question is: will that lead to justice for the victims? How will the wheels of justice roll given that government officials actively collaborate with the private army of the landowning class? Recall that while giving the historic Parasbigha judgment on July 3, 1986, the Patna High Court acidly commented that ‘an entire lobby of ministers, MLAs, doctors, DIG and IAS officers connived to save the killers’. This judgment came during Congress regime but the same rings true even today. Dalits still have to struggle to be accepted as equal citizens. Even after 67 years of freedom, the yawning chasm between the Constitutional mandate and the ground reality continues to widen. The Lakshmanpur-Bathe verdict is yet one more testimony to the nation’s failure.
The author is a senior journalist