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India Today, April 5, 1999
April 5, 1999



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BIHAR
Inside the Bloodland

Politics, casteism and deprivation have made Jehanabad fertile armies of the landed and the landless.The result: 80 killed in 10 weeks this year. An India Today team's report .

By Harinder Baweja and Sanjay Kumar Jha

I cremated my brother and nephew. will Sonia Gandhi come here only when Dalits are killed? Abhay Kishore; Bhumihar resident of SenariThe sun glints on fragments of red and green glass bangles strewn on the kuchha track. It is the only flicker of light in a village deep in mourning, steeped in grief. The sobs wracking Mrinal Manjari's frail frame can be heard from the dark depths of a room. The sound of despair.

A ray of light glints again, bouncing over Abhay Kishore's tonsured head. It's despair again, locked in his face as he sits on a wooden cot draped in metres of stark, unstitched white. It's a common sight -- shaven men in flowing white sitting listlessly across the porch of every third home -- till you reach the end of the village to what the residents call "the spot". A patch of scrub land strewn with torn, bloodstained clothes. A mute testimony to the Thursday night when death visited Senari.

We can't sit back like Gandhi. so we have decided to be like Subhas Chandra Bose.Senari, yet another village in the battle zone called Jehanabad in Bihar. Yet another victim of the death game; of the fight between the landed and the landless. Of a war in which the opposing sides -- the ultra-left private armies and the Bhumihar-backed Ranbir Sena -- have put their prestige at stake. Where victory is now signalled through numbers and battles fought on the gory principle of khoon se khoon, blood for blood.

So it was on the night of March 18 when the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) left Senari after slitting the throats of 34 Bhumihars. The toll in Jehanabad, where killing and retribution move neck and neck, touched 80 in the first 10 weeks of 1999. But it was not a case of chilling statistics alone.

We can't sit back like Gandhi. so we have decided to be like Subhas Chandra Bose.Some 50 km away in Barhaita village -- you are lucky to cover 15 km an hour in a district where 600 of the 898 villages are not linked by what are considered roads -- Lala Sharma stroked his licensed rifle as the setting sun told him it was time to move to the roof. Time for a night patrol, lest the "party", the "Naxals" come calling. Like other Bhumihars, Sharma smells another attack. If not today, certainly tomorrow. That is the law of Jehanabad.

It was time too for the Dalits of the same village to bring out their torches and retreat into the fields. Ramnath, a poor Dalit, knows the Ranbir Sena is plotting bloody revenge. He is worried for himself and his family of 11. The administration has been trying for two weeks now to organise a joint patrol but the divide is too sharp and hostility too deep.

I paid Rs 20,000 but the blockade continues. there is a police picket now but i am too scared. Baleshwar SharmaBarhaita, like Ganyari village, is one of the 72 flash points where the Naxalites have imposed an economic blockade. They have reason to fear. After Senari, no one is sure. Bordering Gaya and Aurangabad districts -- with a police picket only a kilometre away -- the administration had no reason to include Senari in the list of 292 "extra sensitive" villages. Neither warring group had tried to use it as a base nor was there any social tension. In this village of 300 homes, the 70 Bhumihar families lived in peace with its "mazdoor" neighbours, helping them out at times of need.

That's why it seems to have been chosen for attack. "A soft target,'' says district magistrate Arunish Chawla, "Jehanabad is the ultimate catastrophe where senseless caste politics and killings have taken the shape of a communal clash.'' That is the reality of Jehanabad 1999. Eight-year-old Chittaranjan Kumar of Senari describes the MCC as a group which "chops heads" and for whom the Sena is a "majboori sena". For Phulinder Kumar, the 14-year-old survivor of the Shankar Bigha massacre -- he lost his parents and two sisters -- the Sena ''kills us only because we are harijans".

The divide is deep and wounding. So is the panic. With only 20 police stations and outposts and 30 pickets and the Rabri Devi Government still blaming the killings on the Centre's withdrawal of paramilitary forces, the villagers wait for first light to break. In their quest for security, most are just helplessly throwing their lot behind private armies, adding a lethal dimension to a grave problem.

For the Bhumihars, who haven't had a chief minister since Sri Krishna Sinha and who even today have only two MPs, the Sena is providing just the balm they need. To contest their political irrelevance and their economic marginalisation. According to revenue records, revised in the mid-'80s, only a dozen Bhumihars own more than 50 bighas of land. Some 75 per cent of the community, though nominally landlords, have holdings below five bighas. Hence their constant refrain: How can you call us feudal? Look at us, the clothes we are wearing? Are we rich?

"It's a struggle for power. In villages, the meetings are now being held on harijan premises and this rankles,'' says state Home Secretary Raj Kumar Singh. It does. Ask a Bhumihar villager how many homes there are and they will only count their own. They echo another age. "We were giving them 3 kg of rice a day and half a kg of food but they don't want to work and they want to wear slippers and walk past our homes without lowering their heads."

Naturally there is the flip-side. The angry Harijan voices. "We had to sell our land only because we are poor and they don't pay us because we are poor. We are forced to steal the crop from land which is not theirs. They even want control over disputed land." In an effort to bridge this gap, the Rabri Devi Government -- embarrassed by the Senari massacre which followed its reinstallation -- is now planning to distribute 400 acres of government land amongst an equal number of Dalits. It's a move, district officials feel that could fuel the fire and reinforce the image of a government that is only concerned about the non-Bhumihars. Especially since the Rabri-Laloo duo kept away from Senari, the chief minister going to the extent of saying that the Bhumihars were not "our voters".

It's not merely a caste war. Says Ravindra Chaudhary, vice-president, Rashtrawadi Kisan Mahasangh, the overground version of the Sena: "It has also become Rabri rule versus President's rule.'' He makes no bones about the fact that they support candidates who can effectively weaken the "Naxal armies", a euphemism for Laloo's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). When Leader of the Opposition Sushil Modi says "the RJD cadres are political workers by day and mcc hitmen by night'', he is echoing a common sentiment. Says Saibal Gupta, secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute: "I won't say they are hand in hand. Because the social base of the RJD and MCC is the same, there is a natural coalition.''

The Congress with whose help Rabri returned is bearing the brunt of the people's anger. Asks Surendra Kumar Singh who lost his brother and a nephew: "Will Sonia come to Senari only when the Dalits are killed?'' A sentiment shared, ironically, by the Dalits who, fearing revenge, believe that President's rule is a safer option. "I didn't lock my doors for the 23 days that Bihar was under President's rule,'' says Rajkumar Paswan of Roopsagar Bigha. Yet, there are others who silently appreciate Rabri's absence from Senari.

The potent mix of politics, casteism and deprivation has made the district a fertile ground for the private armies. The Dalits who saw a chance out of servitude through these armies are only too willing to give them shelter. The same applies to the Bhumihars who see the Ranbir Sena as their only saviour. "To some it is also an employment opportunity for it pays each person up to Rs 3,500 per month,'' says Rameshwar Oraon, IG (CID). More than that, membership of an outlawed group comes packaged with pride and self-respect. "We only retaliate,'' says Ravindra Chaudhary adding, "We can't sit like Gandhi so we have decided to be like Subhas Chandra Bose. They eat our food and give shelter to the Naxals. Senari will be avenged soon. Jahan par rog hai, wahin par dawa bhi hai (where there is disease, there is also a cure)." The Sena is itching to retaliate and it's the thought that makes every Dalit seek the refuge of the fields at night.

Villages have emptied out, over 70 per cent of them moving to towns. Each massacre triggers a migration because the accused who figure in the firs are members of the rival caste from the same village. Senari's Dalits are named in the fir, just as the Bhumihars are in Shankar Bigha. The threats are the same. Lakhee Devi, one of four Dalits who hasn't fled Senari, says the Bhumihars plan to set their mohalla on fire. And in Shankar Bigha, Aitwarya Devi who lost her husband and son says the Bhumihars keep threatening they will finish them as soon as their men return from jail. Lalita Kumari, whose husband escaped one massacre, lives in permanent dread.

The competitive terror sends both sides scurrying to the private armies. Blessed by social sanction, there are youth willing to be recruited and guns to be had. The Sena has easy access to the 17,000 licensed weapons in the possession of Bhumihars. The mcc terrorises the police and snatches weapons in ambushes. "It's a case of both sides believing that they have proved a point only if it is within Jehanabad,'' says Chawla. Which is why the battle has escalated since both sides are numerically matched. The MCC has a grudge -- it was neutralised in Bhojpur. The Ranbir Sena wants to prove that its writ runs here too.

That's why Lalita hopes it won't be her bangles next. When sobs wrack her frame and despair her insides ...

 

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