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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

When Dalits Took Up Arms In Bihar

Patna High Court in 2013 acquitted all 26 convicts of the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre due to lack of evidence. “What evidence is needed?  I saw everything with my own eyes. I even identified the killers in court,” Laxman Rajvanshi, perhaps the only eyewitness to the killing, who lost his wife, daughter and daughter-in-law.

The massacre was the fallout of an armed struggle started by Dalits against the zamindars in the early eighties in Ekwari village of Bhojpur district. Ekwari has busts of Master Jagdish Mahto, Rameshwar Ahir and others—all from backward communities, whom CPI (ML)-Liberation hails as first-line ‘revolutionaries’. They stood against the tyranny of the zamindars and influenced thousands of Dalits to take up arms and fight against upper-caste landlords. In turn, the upper castes formed their own militia groups. The era witnessed many incidents of caste-based violence and massacres in Bihar. 

“Violence was widespread and people were so afraid that marriage ceremonies were stopped. People would not go to their fields to work,” Lallan Kumar Chandravanshi, resident of Ekwari, who is in his sixties, remembers.

Ekwari village, located about 83 km from the State capital Patna, is known as the ‘Naxalbari’ of Bihar. Naxalbari movement in West Bengal which began in 1967, was about to die in the early eighties, but in Bhojpur, the ground was being prepared for an armed revolution similar to the Naxalbari one. Tired of the tyranny of landlords, people of Bhojpur joined CPI (ML). In 1971, three landlords were attacked in Ekwari village. Two among them had died and one was badly injured.  Chandravanshi recalls the first murder of a landlord in Ekwari village. “The landlord was killed when he was out grazing his buffaloes. After the murder, the situation was so tense that people would not venture out after 5 pm.”  

Master Jagdish Mahato, Ram Naresh Ram and Rameshwar Ahir, among others were accused of the attacks on the landlords. They were associated with CPI (ML). However, till then there was no unit of CPI (ML) in Bhojpur. Prasanna Kumar Choudhary writes in his book Bihar Mein Samajik Parivartan Ke Kuch Ayam (Some Dimensions of Social Change in Bihar), “At the end of 1971, when the nationwide Naxalbari movement was facing a serious setback, their (Ekwari leaders’) contact with the party was established. The party unit was set up in Bhojpur in 1972.”

The Naxalbari Movement In West Bengal, Which Began In 1967, Was About To Die In The Early Eighties, But In Bhojpur, The Ground Was Being Prepared For An Armed Revolution.

After this, gupt dasta (secret squads) of landless Dalits were formed. They were given arms. These squads mounted murderous attacks on landowners. Mahendra Suman, who had closely observed the Naxalites, says, “Gupt dasta had so much impact that Dalit and backward people from every village used to contact CPI (ML) and appeal to form an armed squad in their villages.” In 1974, CPI (ML) split and CPI (ML)-Liberation came into being.

To counter the armed squads, landlords who were mostly from the upper castes,  started raising their own private armies. The first such private army, Kisan Suraksha Samiti, was formed in 1978. The Bhoomi Sena was formed in 1982 and it carried out the first massacre in Punpun area of rural Patna in 1980. After this, many more private armies were formed and they carried out a dozen attacks on Dalits and backwards till 1994.  Then came the era of the Ranvir Sena—the most violent and ruthless militia of upper-caste Bhumihars. It was formed in Bhojpur by Brahmeshwar Singh in 1994.  The Ranvir Sena carried out 30 massacres between 1995 to 2000, in which 321 people were killed. In counter attacks, upper-caste people too were murdered.  Lallan Kumar Chandravanshi recalls, “The era was so tumultuous that all Dalits would be seen as Naxals and all upper-caste people as tyrant landlords. Their other identities were diluted.”

Lord Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement

The bulk of the armed revolution in Bihar may have played out in 1971, but its roots go back to British rule.  In 1786, Lord Cornwallis was appointed Governor General of India. At that time, the only source of income was land revenue. But farmers would not get enough produce to pay the heavy land revenue to the British.  Lord Cornwallis introduced the land tenure system or permanent settlement and made the dominant sections of the Indian society landlords. The British government gave them the ownership rights of the land and increased the land revenue. These landlords gave land to landless farmers, who mainly came from backward castes, for cultivation and started collecting high lagaan (rent) from them. They used to give a major part of this rent to the British as land revenue and put the remaining amount in their treasury.

Whenever the British government increased the land revenue, the landlords used to collect more rent from the farmers in the same proportion.  The permanent settlement made landless Dalits and backward communities’ life miserable.  When the British left the country, these landlords became landowners. The Central government’s efforts to reform land distribution did not work.  Meanwhile, the Naxalbari movement took place, which gave an opportunity to the landless Dalits to  express their anger against landlords. Prasanna Kumar Chowdhary mentions in his book that this movement was a militant one of poor landless peasants mainly from the Dalit castes against the oppression of the feudal upper-caste landlords.

CPI (ML)-Liberation at the Crossroads?

Due to administrative repression, the Naxalite movement gradually weakened and after 2000, the massacres by private armies also stopped. After this the functioning of CPI (ML)-Liberation changed. The party continued to raise the issues of Dalits in a democratic manner. But, in recent times, the party is being criticised for compromising its ideology and supporting the current Grand Alliance 

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