At 6.30am, a spotless white tent billows to the right of a two-storey house in Vijaynagar, an unusually quiet neighborhood on the periphery of Patna. On the streets people walk by with newspapers and packets of milk. I spend ten minutes waiting on the verandah while party workers mill around and look at my camera bag and notebook.
Forty-year-old Indu Bhusan Singh arrives buttoning the sleeves of his crisp purple cotton kurta. Bhusan adjusts his numerous finger-rings and slowly settles into a plastic chair. He is contesting for the Pataliputra parliamentary seat in Bihar on a Desi Kisan Party (DKP) ticket. I ask how his campaign is going. He smiles and says, ‘I am meeting people and getting very encouraging feedback. Initially, we wanted to field candidates from all 40 seats of Bihar. But later we reconsidered this as we are a new party and we do not have extensive funds. So we are now contesting only from four seats now. Pataliputra, Aurangabad, Saran and Sitamarhi.”
The morning is still relatively cool and it is easy to pretend Indu Bhusan is just another political hopeful from anywhere in the country. But Indu Bhusan’s legacy and that of his party was built on a very particular history of bloody murder.
Indu Bhusan is the son of Brahmeshwar Singh – popularly known in south Bihar as ‘Mukhiya’ or less fondly, ‘The Butcher of Bihar’. Brahmeshwar Singh was the founder and leader of the infamous ‘upper’ caste militia Ranvir Sena, which conducted mass murders of Dalits across south Bihar in the 1990s. Sixty-six-year-old Singh was killed in June 2012, shot by unknown assailants when he was on his morning walk.
How did his son get from Sena stronghold Ara to Patna? The Pataliputra seat recently shot into the headlines after Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and his closest aide Ram Kripal Yadav fought over it and parted ways. The political battle for this seat intensified last month after Lalu’s eldest daughter Misa Bharti was given the RJD’s Pataliputra ticket. Ram Kripal left the party after two decades of work for the RJD. As Lalu’s oldest aide, Ram Kripal stood by Lalu throughout his political career. But the socialist sent shockers across political circles by announcing that he would now contest elections from the Pataliputra seat on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket.
More than his leaving the RJD, his joining the BJP to contest against Misa Bharti immediately turned Pataliputra into one of 2014’s hot political battles. Fifteen lakh voters will vote in Pataliputra constituency on April 17 in the fifth phase of the elections. Of these, 4 lakh are Yadavs and 1.75 lakh are Bhumihars. The 1.5 lakh Muslim voters will be crucial in this battle. In this uncertain scenario, the news of Indu Bhusan, prince of Bhumihar pride, contesting from Pataliputra immediately led to the onset of a new wave of speculation in Patna’s political circles – whose sock puppet was he?
The Ranvir Sena emerged in much more uncertain times. In 1994, in Belaur village of Bihar’s Bhojpur district, the Sena was born out of panic. The Bhumihars have always had land and power and were feeling more and more threatened by the new social and political assertions of the ‘lower’ castes. Radical left forces like the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) were organizing landless peasants of Bhojpur and a political awakening was taking place in the region.
In Belaur, two middle-aged Bhumihar men, Deep Narayan Chowdhury and Brahmeshwar Singh of Khopira village dreamt of their own army that would put down what they thought of as dangerous rebellion. In his time Brahmeshwar had been a college graduate, but his much stronger identity was one of a young man who grew up with the birthright of property and power. At the time he fuelled the Sena he is said to have been the owner of 100 bighas of land, two houses and a car.
In the 1990s the Sena was a household name with each massacre more barbaric than the last. As Nicolas Jaoul writes in his essay, between 1995 and 2000 the Ranvir Sena perpetrated 27 massacres that left a total of 236 people dead in the districts of Bhojpur and Jehanabad. The most infamous of these massacres was Lakshmanpur Bathe where 58 Dalits were killed in a midnight strike.
The massacres slowed down only after Brahmeshwar was finally arrested in August 2002 in Patna. He had carried a bounty of Rs 5 lakh on his head for years and was proud of what he clearly thought of as his contribution to social order. He was in prison in Ara in his home district of Bhojpur, but was released on bail in July 2011. Later, he was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
In April 2012, Brahmeshwar built an ostensibly non-political platform for the development of farmers, the Akhil Bharatiya Rashtravadi Kisan Sangathan (ABRKS). The DKP is a recently formed political wing of this organization. On the morning of June 1, 2012, Brahmeshwar left his house in the Kataria neighborhood of Ara town for a walk. He was shot immediately. Indu Bhusan accused Janata Dal (United) legislators Sunil Pandey and Hulas Pandey for his father's murder. Insiders say that rivalry over becoming the biggest leader of ‘upper’ caste communities in Bihar is one of the reasons behind the murder. The Bihar government handed over the case to the CBI in July 2013.
After Brahmeshwar’s murder in June 2012, Indu Bhusan became president of the ABRKS and presided over the DKP.
Under a clear April sky in Patna, Indu Bhusan talks about the allegations that he is contesting at the behest of Lalu Prasad Yadav to divide the Bhumihar votes that could have gone to the BJP. From Patna’s political circles to the ‘upper’ caste dominated villages just outside, everywhere there is talk of him taking money from Lalu to contest from Pataliputra and give Misa an easy victory over Ram Kripal.
He is silent for a breath and says, “I know. A lot of rumors are doing the rounds about me. They are all false allegations, cheap badmouthing to discredit me. How can I contest on Lalu’s behest if his party is my main rival? If you take a close look, all three candidates I am contesting have their roots in the RJD. Misa Yadav is Lalu’s daughter; Ram Kripal Yadav has been Lalu’s closest and oldest aide for over two decades. And Ranjan Yadav of the JD(U) was also mentored by Lalu at one time. So all three of them come from the Lalu School of Politics and my real fight in Pataliputra is with the RJD.”
If he was not operating for Lalu, why did he leave Ara, the home of the Ranvir Sena and the DKP and move to Pataliputra in the last hour? His father Brahmeshwar had fought the 2004 Lok Sabha elections from Ara as an independent candidate. That he contested from jail and finished third is a different story altogether.
At this point, Indu Bhusan unexpectedly and openly confesses his love for the BJP. He says, “Yes, earlier I wanted to contest from Ara. But then RK Singh is contesting from BJP there and he is a decent candidate. We have decided long back that we will not contest from a seat where BJP is already contesting. But Pataliputra is a completely different matter. Here they have brought in an imported candidate. Ram Kripal Yadav has spent his life in the RJD. Besides, I moved to Pataliputra because there was a lot of pressure from party workers and elders that I should contest from here.”
Indu Bhusan explains the agenda of the DKP citing the ‘philosophy’ of his father. He says, “Pitaji kehte the ki do hi tarah ke kisaan hote hain – bho dhari aur bhoomiheen. Father used to say there are only two types of farmers – land-owning and landless ones. I want to work for the development of both land-owning farmers and landless farmers. My agenda is to push the daily wage of a landless laborer to Rs 500. I want to open sales and purchase shops for farmers in every village and introduce them to technology to maximize profits in farming. The agenda of Desi Kisan Party is to work for the growth of every farmer of Bihar.”
* * *
Four villages, endless murders
The murders never stop in this part of Bihar, certainly not in Ara. Until Brahmeshwar was killed two years ago, to the end, he rued the changes brought among Dalits in Bhojpur district by political organizations like the CPI (ML).
A few weeks ago, on March 22, CPI(ML) block secretary Budhram Paswan was murdered. He was killed on his way to a meeting to organize the filing of Lok Sabha nominations by CPI (ML) candidates.
In the small CPI (ML) office in Ara, state secretary Kunal says, “He was a full-timer for the party since 1990. That night, he was coming to the block office from his native village Repura when suddenly 5 people captured him on his way. They dragged him to nearby wheat fields, stabbed and then shot him. We believe that this is a political murder. The feudal and communal forces are doing this because they want to threaten the poor so that they do not vote.”
Ara is a stronghold of the CPI(ML) and Paswan was going to attend a small election meeting in the block office that fateful night when he was stabbed and shot. The FIR names five Bhumihar men of whom two men – Bhusan Rai and Arvind Rai – were convicted in the Nagri Bazar massacre case, when 10 Dalits were gunned down by the Ranvir Sena.
In the recent past, the Patna High Court has overturned four lower court judgments that convicted members of the Ranvir Sena for the murders of Dalits and other ‘lower’ caste victims. In April 2012, the High Court acquitted all the 23 accused who had been convicted by the lower court in the Bathani Tola massacre. In 2013, it acquitted all of the accused in the Miyapur, Nagri Bazar and the Lakshmanpur Bathe massacres.
Kunal adds, “Budhram Paswan was instrumental in creating social and political consciousness in the people of Charpokhari. He was the binding force behind Dalits who were fighting the Nagri Bazar massacre case. He stood by the Nagri Bazar victims through the lower court conviction and the High Court acquittal. He himself had recently filed an appeal in Supreme Court against the high court’s acquittal order. His work made him a target.”
It’s 40km from Ara to Paswan’s home in Repura village in Charpokhari block. Of the 100 homes in Repura, 70 belong to Dalit families. In Repura, nearly everyone wants to tell their story about Paswan. The most repeated anecdote is how he worked to acquire land for the landless. His neighbor Ali Hasan says, “The landlord Tuntun Singh of Ayar Bali village had 70 bigha of gairmajarua (non-cultivated) land in Repura. The landlord wanted to sell that land quickly but Budhram Bhaiya fought a long legal battle to acquire that land through the land ceiling law. That land was then distributed among 40 families of our village. Sir, we have spent our lives doing majdoori (labor) everyday. ‘Our own land’ was a dream we never dared to see. But he fought for us and got 40 families their own land. He was our god!”
Paswan’s wife, 42-year-old Shakuntla Devi starts crying almost as soon as I enter her mud hut. She has nothing to say except for the fact her husband was always among his people, working. After 24 years of work among his people, Paswan was killed and his family is nearly penniless. Her 17-year-old son Deepak could not sit for his board exams due to his father’s murder. Their youngest daughter, 18-year-old Reeta was to be married in June. Paswan had wanted to build a pakka room in his mud house for his daughter’s wedding. Now four brick pillars are all that is left of that dream.
After a while Deepak said, “The sarpanch came to give us Rs 1,500 and we refused. The block officer came to give Rs 20,000, saying this is a big amount.” I say nothing but Deepak is in the grip of a wholly explicable bitterness. At 17, his life is deeply marked by the legacy of Brahmeshwar Singh. “You tell me, when Mukhiya was killed, a big lunch was organized in Khopira village. While the food was cooked a gas cylinder exploded. No one was hurt. The District Magistrate came running with a Rs 8 lakh cheque for them. Eight lakh for a cylinder blast and twenty thousand for a human life?”
Deepak doesn’t mention the rest and I am not sure whether he knows. That after Brahmeshwar’s murder a large number of BJP leaders arrived in Ara to mourn his death and pay homage to him. BJP leader Giriraj Singh openly described him as Bihar’s Gandhi.
During his interview Indu Bhusan admitted that all the mourning over his father’s death and backdoor support had led him to hope for a BJP ticket in this general election. “I was expecting to contest from the BJP but I simply got no offer. Although CP Thakur met some of my party workers, I never got any straight offer. I feel disappointed but I would still not say that the BJP has sidelined us.”
Here in Paswan’s village, they don’t know anything about the DKP and they are not interested in Indu Bhusan’s politics. Instead, they tell stories about how on March 31, a week after Paswan was killed, several Dalits were beaten by Bhumihars in nearby Babhan Gama village and another group of Dalits was beaten by Rajputs in the village of Masaad in a neighboring block.
The murders never end here. Neither does the fear. Lal Baburam, a 45-year-old landless farmer in Repura, describes a daily ritual of fear, one they still have not normalized, one they know is strange. “We have a ‘pehra’ system in our village. Every night, for the last seven years a group of men take turns to guard the village. Ten men each night. We take turns.”
Is it paranoia when your worst fears regularly come true? “Repura has been attacked by the Ranvir Sena so many times. Recently, they set fire to the wheat fields near our village. We were about to run to douse the flames and save our grain. But Budhram Bhaiya immediately knew that this was a trap and stopped us. After a few minutes we saw a few masked men standing near the fire. They had come to kill us but we escaped. But they finally killed Budhram Bhaiya! Now we fear that a Bathani Tola may happen here any day.”
A crowd is gathered around the ‘shaheed stambh’ (the ‘martyr’s memorial’ in memory of those killed in the massacre) when I reach Bathani Tola hamlet in Sahar block of Bhojpur district. They’ve seen me approach with my camera, and when they find out why I’m here, they bring in others who were present on the day of the massacre.
A few minutes into the conversation, I am taken to Marwari Mallah’s house. Now a concrete structure, this was a house partly made with mud back in 1996. In its now-empty courtyard, 11 women, six children and three infants were slaughtered in the middle of the day on July 11, 1996. The 21 dead included Dalits and Muslims. On the way to this house, we also crossed Naimuddin’s house. He saw six of his family members being massacred – the youngest was a baby three months old.
Nearly 14 years after the Bathani Tola massacre, the court convicted 23 of the 68 accused, all ‘upper’ caste men, including men who were openly part of the Ranvir Sena. But the Patna High Court soon acquitted all of the murder convicts, citing the prosecution’s failure to prove the involvement of the accused in the crime beyond reasonable doubt.
The Bathani Tola residents have taken their fight to Supreme Court. They are not interested in the general elections or Indu Bhusan’s party. Sixty-year-old Mallah says, “The whole issue we were fighting for? To raise our daily wage from Rs 20 to Rs 22. That’s all. And they slaughtered our families. Most of the attackers were from our own village. When ten of them returned home after being acquitted we saw the celebration in their tola. But we have nothing to lose. What more can they do? Slaughter us again? We want justice for our people.”
Bathani Tola has receded in public memory, no longer charged with the meaning like in Gujarat or Muzaffarnagar. It has been forgotten, as Khairlanji is slowly being forgotten.
But in Bathani Tola the terror of Ranvir Sena is not a distant story of the 1990s, not a lightning bolt that can statistically strike only once.
Paltan Ram, a sadhu in his sixties, says, “It was the wedding day of Indravansh Mallah’s daughter [two months ago, in February] and he was busy fixing the mandap. Just then some members of zamindar Ram Jeet Singh’s family came and asked him to unload their truck. He folded his hands and said, ‘Mai-baap, aaj bitiya ki shaadi hai, aaj nahi chal paunga’ (My lord, today is my daughters’s wedding, I will not be able to come). For this, Indravansh was beaten almost to death. And then he was so scared that he ran away the next morning and has not returned yet. Singh’s family members are Ranvir Sena cadre. Their whole tola are active supporters.”
Naimuddin and Marwari Mallah are among the eyewitnesses of that noonday when infants were slaughtered in 1996. They say they’ve been getting threats for years to withdraw their statements. Naimuddin says, “We think of the future of those who are alive. But first and foremost we want justice. No future, no children, no life can come before justice. We have seen six of our people being cut [down] in front of us. How can we think of anything else?”
Across the Sone river from Bathani Tola lies Batan Bigha Tola of Lakshmanpur Bathe village. In 1997, 58 Dalits including 27 women, 10 children and one infant were slaughtered in this massacre, by most accounts by the Ranvir Sena. On October 9, 2013, the Patna High court acquitted all 26 men convicted of the killings.
The residents of Batan Bigha gather around a large peepal tree just across the extensive sandy banks of the Sone and we settle down on its thick roots to talk.
Thirty-five-year-old Vinod Paswan lost all his family members in the massacre. He was a teenager back then. In the days that followed he filed an FIR. Seventeen years later, he is one of the prime witnesses of the massacre. As the only survivor from Batan Bigha to travel to Ara and Patna at regular intervals to pursue the ongoing court case, most of his time is spent dealing with the case and looking after the paperwork.
Wrapping a gamcha listlessly around his head he says, “Where are we sitting now? This is the way they came that night. Over 100 people crossed the Sone on two boats on that freezing December night. Around 100 upper caste men joined them from our village. They had planned everything. They slaughtered five fishermen right on the banks of the river itself. We were all sleeping when they came in. It was pitch dark and they started firing indiscriminately. I hid inside a large grain pot and kept on hearing my mother, brother and sister scream. And all went silent after some time. After an hour of rioting I heard three whistles. They had all gathered after slaughtering the village to death. They shouted three times – ‘Ranveer Sena ki jai’ and then left.”
Besides living through the humiliation of not being believed by the courts of their own country and the endless wait for justice, Bathe survivors still face threats every day.
Ram Ugrah Raghuvanshi, a 65-year-old survivor, says, “We cannot think of anything till we get justice. After the High Court’s order, 12 of the convicts are living right here in this village. Everyday, they badmouth us. Once, if they saw us sitting on our own cots in front of our own houses, they’d abuse us, push us off the cot and then break the cot into pieces. Now, after 17 years of slaughtering us, they still openly say that they will kill us one day because we dare to give our statements in court. And without any security we are still helpless as ever. We fear that the massacre can happen again any day here.”
With its 9,000 Bhumihar voters, Ambhara is the largest Bhumihar village in Pataliputra constituency.
Sixty-five-year-old Rajendra Singh is one of the oldest voters in the village. He breaks off his daily pooja for a chat. Like other residents here, he says that the whole village is going to vote for NaMo (Narendra Modi).
When I ask about the DKP he says, “Indu Bhaiya and his people are still short of experience. This time we all want to vote for NaMo as we are sick of other parties. This JD(U) is even more dangerous for the upper castes than the RJD.”
Fear and hatred of Dalits drives Rajendra Singh’s political choices in a way that is shorn of any pretense. He says, “The CM [Nitish Kumar] is bringing in ‘Mahadalits’ [a category Kumar created consisting of the poorest Dalits in Bihar]. Every reservation, every benefit is for the lower castes. And the state is going to Supreme Court against the acquittal of Ranvir Sena men in different massacres! What about the upper caste men who were killed? These parties are biased against upper castes, so this time we want to give a clear mandate to NaMo.”
About Indu Bhushan, he is kindly, like a fond uncle about a slow nephew. “As far as Indu Bhaiya is concerned, we are with him. Bhumihars have given a lot of chanda (money) and will continue to give. We want his party to grow. One thing is for sure. Organizations like the Ranvir Sena are very important. They should survive for the security of the upper caste people.”
Tiny communities keeping vigil at night for years, looking over their shoulders for violence for decades, stuck in a cycle of fear and paranoia and honor and insult and status anxiety. While you are there it can seem like an aberration, as if you were a visitor who wandered into an unhappy Brigadoon, a violent Malana. But for young Dalits, ‘getting out’ is no guarantee of breaking away from the violence.
On the morning of June 1, 2012, 22-year-old Rakesh was a first-year MA student, living in the Dr Ambedkar Kalyan Chatrawaas, a government-run Dalit student welfare hostel in Ara town. He was brushing his teeth when he heard loud yells of ‘Ranvir Sena ki jai’. At first he didn’t know what it meant, but soon the hostel was roiling with the news that Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh was murdered early that morning by unknown assailants. Within a few hours the Mukhiya’s supporters rampaged through the town of Ara. Their first target was the Dalit students’ hostel in the heart of town.
On that day, 22 hostel rooms, 100 cycles, 2 motorbikes and 30 laptops were destroyed. Degree certificates, exam admission cards, clothes, tables, fans, books and lamps were burnt. In the gunfire, one student was hit by a bullet in his cheek.
Two years later I am at Ara to meet students who lived through that attack. Dusk has fallen and the students take me to one of their rooms since there are no streetlights on campus. A group of 30 pile into the little room to talk.
Rakesh, now in the final year of his MA, says, “It was a normal morning. But as soon as we got the information Brahmeshwar had been killed, we all panicked. Around 30 to 40 men entered our hostel campus in an SUV and on motorbikes. They had knives, country-made revolvers, axes, swords and big guns. They broke down the statue of Ambedkar, started burning students’ cycles, setting our hostel rooms on fire, pelting big stones at us with full force, beating and verbally abusing us. We kept calling the local police, the SP, the BDO, state chairman of the Scheduled Castes Commission, but all in vain. We were left to be massacred by the Ranvir Sena.”
Even according to the basic tenets of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the students are entitled to Rs 60,000 per head but to date, all they have received is Rs 15,000 each. They have to forget the actual losses, injuries and the enormous disruption to their hard-won lives as students. For the permanent fear struck in their hearts, there can be never any compensation.
This hostel was built to house 250 students but around 500 students are currently housed here. Eight students live in a room meant for two. When asked about Indu Bhusan’s DKP they shrug: they see it as nothing more than a new manifestation of the old Ranvir Sena.
MA student Shabbir Kumar says, “Our hostel is situated in a prime Bhumihar locality. Even Brahmeswar Singh’s house is nearby. All of Ara town gets water from this locality but our hostel has only one hand pump. We don’t have even drinking water. Young upper caste boys don’t like the fact that Dalit boys are studying. Everyday they tease us. If we go to buy something across the road or to get a phone recharge, they boys pass comments. Sometimes they just grab us and start beating us on the road. They say that we are ‘black Dalits’ and that Dalits don’t study. Just a week ago, some of my friends passed the exam for the post of assistant station master. One night they were preparing for their interview on the terrace when upper caste boys from the neighborhood started pelting stones on them.”
Violence, without warning, often for no greater reason than to teach the students a ‘lesson’ about getting ahead.
Back in 2012, these students protested against the attack on their hostel with the help of the All India Student’s Federation (AISF). In early 2013, they even travelled to several Dalit student hostels in Bihar spreading word of the attacks and awareness on how they could protest as well.
BSc student Upendra Kumar sums up their experiences: “Each one of us is the only hope of our families. We have reached here with great difficulty. We feel that in Bihar, upper caste people are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Dalits studying. And so they want to kill us. They massacred our sleeping parents and families deep inside lost villages and now they want to slaughter us. They want to kill the dream that our families saw while sending us to study. We live with the humiliation they throw on us everyday. We always feel threatened.”
They are part of India’s under-25 demographic dividend. But even in this new globalized India these young men don’t have the luxury of forgetting the names of places: Bathani Tola, Lakshmanpur Bathe, Nagri Bazar, Khairlanji. These names that kept their parents awake at night now bleeds into their complicated everyday.
In Pataliputra constituency, every candidate is grappling with the broken, sharp edges of the dreams of the men who came before them. Misa Yadav, named by her whimsical father for a draconian law that Indira Gandhi passed in 1971, is constantly being weighed against his powerful past and his follies. Of all the people in Pataliputra, she is most likely to understand the peculiar compulsions of Indu Bhusan, that lost prince of Bhumihar dreams. I asked what he thought of the serial massacres and unending cycles of violence that are still taking place regularly in south Bihar in the name of the nightmare army his father raised.
Indu Bhusan claims he is interested in doing ‘only politics’ but evades all questions about shutting down the Ranvir Sena. Is the Desi Kisan Party a more institutionalized metamorphosis of the private army? He won’t say.
I ask about the murder of Budhram Paswan. He again breaks into a small pause and then adds, “I was not involved in the massacres. I am here to do pure politics and I am doing that. As far as mass massacres are concerned, they happened because of a certain set of social circumstances and Bhumihars also lost their lives in these massacres. And the retaliation is because for one set of people, the state is ready to go to the Supreme Court. And what about those upper caste men who were killed? No one goes to court for them. Retaliation will be there as long as people feel that the state is biased. And lastly, I have full faith in the wisdom of my people. They know the difference between politics, peace and violence.”
Indu Bhusan laughs, “Bhumihars are clever people. Do you know, even Chanakya was called a Bhumihar because he was a clever Brahmin?”
Priyanka Dubey is an independent journalist. Visit http://www.priyankadubey.in or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.