Laxman Rajbanshi lost three members of his family when an upper-caste militia attacked his village on December 1, 1997, and massacred 58 Dalits in a matter of hours.
Eighteen years on, the wounds haven’t healed at Laxmanpur Bathe and the hurly-burly of elections barely hides simmering caste tensions that may decide the winner in a close contest for the Arwal assembly seat that votes on Friday in the 2nd phase of Bihar assembly polls.
“Whatever the upper caste says is law. They still threaten to kill us,” said 65-year-old Rajbanshi, a landless man who works as farmhand for a Bhumihar, the land-owning caste.
Little progress has come to the village since that tragedy despite promises made by successive government and politicians.
A dirt track leads to Dalit settlements, separated from the upper caste neighbourhood by a temple. There’s no electricity, an irrigation canal runs almost dry and villagers pay up to Rs 1,000 to private doctors in the absence of a government health centre.
But injustice rankles more than poverty. In 2013, the Patna high court cited insufficient evidence to acquit 22 accused in the case where a third of the victims were minors, the youngest a year-old baby.
“There is law for the Brahmin and Rajput but no one for the Dalit. The court is Brahmin, the judge is Brahmin, the lawyer is Brahmin,” Rajbanshi said.
The Bathe carnage was the most shocking in a series of similar massacres in the ’90s by the Ranbir Sena, formed as a response to the Left movement that was sympathetic to Dalits.
Dalits make up 16% of the state’s population and have traditionally stayed away from the BJP but the tide turned in 2014, when the saffron alliance swept all six reserved constituencies in the state.
The BJP is now banking on Jitan Ram Manjhi and the Lok Janshakti Party for Dalit votes while chief minister Nitish Kumar relies on Mahadalit support that swept him to power in 2005.
Older residents said they will never vote for a Bhumihar party, the BJP’s sitting MLA Chitranjan Kumar.
There’s anger against Kumar, blamed by Bathe Dalits for the 2013 acquittal. “If you kill one man, you get hanged but if you kill 60, you walk free,” said septuagenarian Ram Naresh Ram, a massacre survivor.
Violence in the area has abated, partly because of the decline of the Ranbir Sena, the upper caste militia. Left forces sympathetic to Dalits have also lost ground in the area.
Land is at the heart of this conflict in southern Bihar that has seen over 90% of caste violence, says state data. The zamindari system was never completely uprooted and the 1950 land reform law was enfeebled repeatedly, and a weak government never institutionalized subsidies, said Shaibal Gupta, chief of the Asian Development Research Institute.