Bihar: Upper-castes bitter and angry, his backward bastion confused

Dalit MassacreFile photo of relatives mourning following the 1997 Laxmanpur Bathe Dalit Massacre. (Reuters)

The rage has not ebbed here. A group of villagers gather around the memorial to those killed on the night of December 1, 1997- on a marble slab set in a brick wall is etched the name and age of every one of the massacre's 58 victims, from the youngest, Chhote Lal, aged one, to Chhakiya Devi, 60. All the victims belonged to the lower castes, mostly Dalits. In October, the Patna High Court acquitted all 26 accused, Bhumihars and Rajputs.

"Fifty eight died and yet this government says there was no murder. Why not let all the poor be killed, thrown into the river?" asks Bodh Paswan. "If the massacre happened in Lalu's time, justice has been killed in Nitish's regime", he says. "We had high hopes from Nitish. But this court decision has destroyed it all", says ex-mukhiya Ram Saroop.

Barely half a kilometer away, questions about the 1997 massacre are met with stony silence in the upper caste side of the village. Jitender Yadav is the only one willing to talk: "It's a court decision. What can we say? It was a dark winter night, so cold and rainy that nobody could step out of their homes". But when the conversation veers to the Nitish government, others join in, angrily. "There is only the road in the name of development", says Sahib Singh. "No hospital, and no clean water." "Our part of the village has no water tank, or solar light. Our lane is unpaved, while theirs (lower castes') is paved. It's all because of the backward-forward divide", says Alok Singh.

And then he puts into words an old upper caste discomfort that is increasingly rearing its head again in the aftermath of the BJP-JD(U) breakup: "Mukhiya seats have been reserved for lower castes, even where the forward castes are large in number". In the changing Bihar landscape after the political divorce in Patna, Laxmanpur Bathe is different from, and similar to, other villages. Different, because here the memory of caste violence has been stoked in a state where caste-killings and violent reprisals are now a mercifully fading remembrance. Yet, the similarity is this: even as the gains made by the Nitish government in the backward caste groups through targeted programmes for SC groups renamed as Mahadalit, or reservations in panchayats for extremely backward castes (EBCs) are still fragile, vulnerable to the court verdict in Bathe or to an incomplete empowerment elsewhere, an aggressive upper caste consolidation against Nitish has begun.

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