Bathani Tola Verdict: A Good Witness Is A Dead Witness
By Kavita Krishnan
23 April, 2012
The Bihar HC verdict of 16 April acquitted all accused in the Bathani Tola massacre of 1996.
At Bathani Tola in Bhojpur (Bihar), on 11 July 1996, Dalit and Muslim agricultural labourers, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by the feudal-communal ‘army’ – the Ranveer Sena – as punishment and warning against their temerity in asserting themselves economically, socially, and politically, and voting the CPI(ML) to win two Assembly seats in Bhojpur. Though the Ranveer Sena was backed by the BJP mainly, it also enjoyed the covert support of the then JD Government headed by Laloo Yadav. The police, and SP and DM of the district had refused to respond to repeated pleas of people who had anticipated the massacre. The actual bloodbath and arson took place in broad daylight, for three hours beginning 2 pm, and yet the police stayed well away. The only three police eyewitnesses deposed as defence witnesses in Court.
An Ara sessions court in 2010 convicted 23 for the massacre, sentencing 3 to death and 20 to life. And in April 2012, the Bihar High Court acquitted all 23. What was the verdict’s reasoning?
The verdict repeatedly holds that the witnesses (survivors) are ‘lying’ and ‘spinning tales’ and being ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘totally unreliable.’
The verdict says:
“In the present case, we find it quite conflicting that the allegation and the act are such that the miscreants had come to eliminate everyone in the village. After killing, they set fire to the houses. How could they did not bother to look for people in hiding in close vicinity of the village itself? The witnesses and the accused are neighbours and of neighbouring Tola. They would not be exposing their identity in broad day light giving people opportunity to identify them. Some prosecution witnesses say they hid in a ditch. IO says no ditch was shown nor was it there which could show a hiding place. Ahar (irrigation channel) is conspicuous place but surprisingly the witnesses hide there and, from time to time, were able to peep out unconcerned of their safety which is quite unnatural. Some witnesses are said to have hidden in bushes like jungle but on objective finding of the IO, there was no such place. People, who were intent to liquidate everybody, naturally would have seen that there were no male members, they would have searched for male members who were all hiding in very close proximity to the village itself. This is unnatural for the prosecution witnesses. Because of these reasons, we have found the identifications made by the prosecution witnesses not worthy of reliance for the purposes of this extreme punishment of either death or life imprisonment.”
In the excerpt above, the verdict observes that the witnesses claim to have run away and hidden in bushes or ditches. But the IO, according to the verdict, did not find any bushes or ditches. The verdict asks that if we accept that the assailants had come to liquidate everybody, would they not have found and killed these men too?
What is the verdict telling us? That since these people are alive, we must assume they are lying about being eyewitnesses? That in any massacre, the only truthful witness can be a dead witness? Dead men and women, (un)fortunately, tell no tales, and cannot give evidence in court.
The ones who survive a carnage alive, according to the verdict, are by definition, dubious and suspicious witnesses, since if they were indeed present to witness the carnage, how come they are alive to tell the tale? Only if they were killed could they have been credible and trustworthy.
Going by this impeccable logic, can anyone ever be convicted for a carnage?
The verdict does say, “thanks to the investigating agency and the administration the true culprits have escaped.” But the verdict does not contain a breath of uncertainty about the innocence of the accused who have been named by the eyewitnesses!
Says the verdict, “People suffered, their families obliterated with no solace as to the punishment to the perpetuators. Thanks to the misguided investigation and prosecution.” But the verdict itself seems to wilfully forget that those suffering families are the ones who bore witness. By branding these sufferers and anguished survivors as “witnesses who were totally unreliable”, the verdict has rubbed salt into their wounds, and has rendered them terribly vulnerable to retribution from those it set free.
The verdict has held that the prosecution and eyewitnesses were both equally malafide, and that both conspired to frame innocents. The witnesses have been spoken of as though they are the ones in the dock.
In fact, the verdict goes to the extent of apologising to three of those accused by eyewitnesses of some of the most heinous crimes – on the claim that they were juveniles at the time of the incident, and yet have spent time in jail and been sentenced to death and life imprisonment.
What will be the impact of such a verdict on the ground in Bathani Tola?
Are the accused who have just been acquitted, being emboldened by the verdict’s implied message: that they are now free to avenge the injustice done to them by the witnesses who helped send them to jail?
The Nitish Kumar-led Bihar State Government has announced that it will challenge the acquittal in the Supreme Court. But its real intentions behind this formal posture can be gauged by the comments of one of its Ministers Giriraj Singh, who has opined that the “Bathani Tola massacre case should be nipped in the bud. The issue should not be discussed any more as it could vitiate the atmosphere.” The Government that allowed Ranveer Sena chief, the ‘Butcher of Bathani Tola’, to go free because it did not oppose his bail plea and did not file any FIR against him in the massacre cases; the Government that disbanded the Justice Amir Das Commission which was set up to enquire into the political patrons of the Ranveer Sena, can hardly be expected to pursue justice for the Bathani Tola victims.
Kavita Krishnan is National Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, AIPWA; email: email@example.com
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