Citing lack of evidence against those accused of killing 22 Dalits in Shankar Bigha of Jehanabad, the district civil court acquitted all of the suspects. Coming a full 15 years after the massacre on the eve of 26 January 1999 – ironically the Republic Day – the verdict is not a standalone case of justice being first delayed for the Dalits and then altogether denied to them. The denial did not come from the lower judiciary alone, the higher judiciary has also acquitted many of the accused as well; often by setting aside the convictions by lower judiciary.
In October 2013, Patna High Court had set aside the convictions of all 26 accused of killing 58 Dalits in Laxamanpur Bathe massacre in 1997. The accused were convicted and sentenced by a lower court in 2010. Vijay Prakash Mishra, additional district and sessions judge, Patna, had given sentences of capital punishment to 16 convicts and life imprisonment to 10 others (while acquitting 19). The High Court found the prosecution witnesses unreliable and the appellants deserved the benefit of doubt. It went on to order their immediate release if they were not wanted in any other case.
In July of the same year, the Court had reversed the conviction and sentencing of 9 out of 10 accused of perpetrating the Miyapur Massacre. All of them had been convicted and sentenced to life by a court in Aurangabad in 2007. The High Court upheld the conviction of only one accused who was identified by an eyewitness while letting all the others go.
A few months before, in March 2013, the same High Court acquitted all 11 persons accused of Nagari Bazaar massacre case in which 10 Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) supporters were killed in Bihar’s Bhojpur district in 1998. Previously, a court in Ara, Bhojpur had found them guilty of committing the massacre and handed a death sentence to three while handing down life sentence to the remaining eight. The acquittals came on the ground of “lack of adequate evidence” and absence of any eyewitnesses. That verdict also ordered immediate release if the accused were not wanted in any other case.
A year before, in 2012, the same high court had acquitted all the 23 persons accused of killing 21 Dalits at Bathani Tola in Bhojpur in 1996. All of the accused were originally convicted and sentenced by the sessions court in Ara in 2010 with three of them getting death sentence and remaining received life. The reason behind acquittals in this case was “defective evidence”.
A noteworthy point in all these acquittals is that they were all booked under the stringent provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 and the lower courts have found sufficient evidence to sentence the accused. The High Court acquittals, on the other hand, are a practical claim that no one killed hundreds of massacred Dalits. It neither asked the prosecution to investigate who killed the victims; nor did it ask how this impunity for the murderers of the Dalits, oppressed by the system for thousands of years, perpetuates itself. It may never ask, as the impunity for the perpetrators of atrocities against Dalits is not limited to Bihar but runs across the judicial structure of the country. One may recall the horrendous murder of a Dalit family in Khairlanji, Maharashtra in which the prosecution has not pressed the Prevention Act at all! That shows how systematic and institutionalised casteism functions to deny the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the victims.
The citizenry of the country deserves to know who killed the Dalits. It deserves to see the perpetrators of such hate crime serve their sentences. A country allowing the murderers of a section of its citizens to go free is merely a delinquent democracy after all, not a republic.