Acquittals in massacre case kindle new fear in Bihar's caste battleground

Rita DeviRita Devi, wife of Bimlesh Rajbansi, who was injured

Baudh Ram paused while laying out clothes to dry, to spew expletives. Then he said, "Go look at the memorial. That is all that is left now."

Anger and frustration provide a not-so subtle cover for fear in Subash Nagar of Laxmanpur Bathe village of Arwal district — site of the December 1, 1997 killing of 58 people by upper-caste men — after the 26 convicted in that case were acquitted by the Patna High Court.

Seven of Ram's relatives were among those killed by the now-defunct Bhumihar caste militia, Ranvir Sena. And nearly 20 of the acquitted are from the upper-caste hamlet of Bathe. "They killed even infants. Now they will come back. We all have to die some time. I am 80 now, it is a good time as any," said Ram.

The martyrs' memorial says 19 of the 58 were aged 15 or under. The youngest was Chhotelal, a year old. Keeping in line with the Ranvir Sena tradition of targeting women and children, 34 victims were women. Eighteen people were witnesses to the Bathe incident. They ran away into the night, scampered up the roof, and hid under cots. What adds to the hurt is the observation by the high court that the witnesses were not up to scratch.

"I remember everything," said Munni Rajbansi, witness number 12. Munni watched as his wife, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and grandson, the infant Chhotelal, were murdered. "I saw them all clearly - they were carrying five-cell torches. I remember every detail," he said.

The High Court thought his evidence was "quite improbable" as it was unlikely he would have left his hiding place and also because there was no light. The court also junked the testimony of Binod Paswan, on whose complaint the whole case is based. Binod, the only witness to identify all 26 acquitted, lost seven of his family.

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