Behmai killings: A massacre and decades-old wait for justice
The dacoits fired 150 rounds to kill 20 people, mostly upper-caste Thakurs, sharpened social fault lines, and brought in the limelight Phoolan Devi, their leader.
A group of dacoits took Behmai in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur Dehat by surprise on February 14, 1981, when they stormed the village, dragged out all the men from their houses, lined them up and shot them dead. The dacoits fired 150 rounds to kill 20 people, mostly upper-caste Thakurs, sharpened social fault lines, and brought in the limelight Phoolan Devi, their leader.
It was first time that lower-caste dacoits, mostly Mallahs, had joined hands to take on the Thakurs of 84 villages, who allegedly supported the upper-caste dacoit gang of Shriram and Lalaram, and to avenge Phoolan Devi’s “loss of honour”. Phoolan Devi accused the Thakurs of supporting her rival gang, which had allegedly abducted and gang-raped her at Behmai, and forced her to take up arms.
Almost 39 years later, the families of the 20 men await justice. They expected it to be finally delivered in a local court that was scheduled to pronounce its verdict in the Behmai massacre case on January 6. The families of the 20 gathered around the memorial to the slain men braving chilly weather in anticipation of an end to their almost four-decade-long battle for justice.
But it was not to be as the verdict was deferred again to January 18 (Saturday) much to the disappointment of the families of the slain men. “It is nothing new. We have faced such disappointments over the years,” said Sri Devi, (AGE) the widow of one of the men killed in 1981. She had been married for XX years when her husband, XXX, was killed.
Raju Porwal, district government counsel, said the defence counsel Raghunandan Singh and Girish Narayan Dubey sought time to file citations of judgments of superior courts that will support their case before the verdict is delivered. “The court directed them to complete the process by January 16 and fixed January 18 as the next date for delivering the verdict.”
Porwal said 17 of the 28 accused named in the case have died. “Five were never arrested and only four have faced the trial. The charges against the four could be framed only 32 years after the carnage on August 24, 2012. The trial took eight years to conclude,” said Porwal.
The four--Posa, 80, Bheekha, 70, Shyam Babu, 65, and Vishwanath, 65, were present in the court on January 6.
Porwal said he took over the matter in 2011 and added this is the oldest pending case in the district. “Nothing had happened in all these years. I requested the court to reopen the case and begin the trial with the two accused on the record. Later, two more accused were arrested in 2017. That was the only way in which the oldest case could have been settled,” he said.
Four of the five eye-witnesses have also passed away.
Phoolan Devi surrendered in 1983 and she was released in 1994. She successfully contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket in 1996 when the Mulayam Singh Yadav government filed an application seeking withdrawal of the case against her.
Munni Devi became the face of the protests against the move. She led a protest in Mirzapur, where Phoolan Devi was contesting elections from, as well. Their effort, Munni Devi said, rekindled hopes but the public and media‘s interest in the case was lost after Phoolan Devi was murdered in 2001.
“Everyone forgot Behmai and our plight. What did we get apart from the ₹7,000 from the government as compensation? The money was spent on the cremation...”
The families of the slain men have threatened to stage a sit-in if the verdict is deferred again.
“We will not leave the court premises unless justice is given. We, as of now are keeping our fingers crossed, as none of us know which way the verdict may go,” said Genter Singh, who survived the massacre.
Sumitra Devi, 85, the oldest surviving of the widows in the village, has lost her vision but continues to follow the case. She has petitioned successive governments seeking help. “At this stage, we need pension and support. Are we asking for too much? ”
Munni Devi was just 11 and had been barely married off to 13-year-old Lal Singh four months earlier when he became the youngest person to be killed in the massacre. She said they rushed from her parents’ home to Behmai, where she saw Lal Singh’s body. “I asked my father who was he and why was he lying dead? My father wept... I later learnt he was my husband,” she said. It was the first and the last time she had seen him.
Munni Devi never remarried as per local customs that bar widows from doing so. She has spent 39 years since then awaiting justice.
Hardeyi Devi, 73, a mother of five who lost her husband Dashrath Singh in the massacre, regularly attended the court proceedings till 1990 when she gave up. “It used to be an arduous journey to Rajpur, which is 17 km from Behmai. From there, I would take a bus to get to the Kanpur court where the case was heard...” She also had to raise her children without any support and work in the fields to feed them.
Her son, Kalloo Singh, said the accused and lawyers exploited the legal system to stall the trial. The charges could not be framed as the police could never produce all the accused required to frame them.
“Man Singh, one of the accused, had even opened a dhaba. Yet police never arrested him,” said Kalloo Singh. He added his mother finally gave up.
Raja Ram Singh, a local resident, said special judge (anti-dacoity) S K Saxena took a year to reject the government’s application to withdraw the case against Phoolan Devi and delayed the trial. The rejection was challenged in the high court and the Supreme Court, which further delayed the proceedings.
Munni Devi wondered where will she go after her 70-year-old brother-in-law, Balister Singh, passes away. “I am living with him but his son may not allow me to continue here in this house. I wear a sari of ₹100 and I borrowed this sweater...” she said. “I did not get justice. I did not get any of the benefits of government schemes like a house or widow pension.”