The exoneration of all the accused in the Bathani Tola massacre of Bhojpur district in Bihar is a telling commentary on India’s criminal justice system. The hapless victims, a group of dalits and Muslims, were murdered in broad daylight in 1996. Unlike other cases of mass killings where the culprits were mostly unknown bands of criminals, in Batahni Tola all the assailants, belonging to upper castes, were not only known to the victims but also shared village neighbourhood with them.
Yet it took nearly 15 years to pronounce them not guilty, ostensibly due to shoddy investigation by the police. The two-member bench of the Patna high court found the evidence inadequate to convict those arraigned in the massacre. The judgment was critical of the police investigation on the count that it lacked sincerity in collecting and collating evidence against criminals. Now, is this the end of the story?
Perhaps the high court’s verdict must have brought a hearty smile on the faces of all those who were cocksure of getting away with planning and executing one of the worst massacres in Bihar. The Bathani Tola massacre was followed by another massacre at Laxmanpur Bathe where 58 dalits were hacked to death by the infamous caste militia ‘Ranbir Sena’. The same militia was involved in the Bathani Tola massacre. In fact, the nineties were the troubled times in Bihar where killings and counter-killings by upper caste criminals and Maoists were rampant. That these warring groups cared two hoots about the law of the land signified administrative atrophy in the state.
There is no doubt that the last seven years of the Nitish Kumar regime have seen restoration of the state authority. Criminals and lawbreakers were brought to book in hordes without fear and favour, thus giving Bihar the image of a well-governed state. In this context, the high court’s decision to exonerate all the accused of the Bathani Tola massacre stands out like a sore thumb. It has the propensity to re-ignite the dormant rivalries unless the state government takes a determined move to go in appeal against the high court’s decision and doggedly pursue the case to its logical end.
In fact, the Bathani Tola case is not an isolated instance that makes mockery of the criminal justice system in the country. In Bihar alone, there are many such cases where criminals were convicted from the lower judiciary but let off from the superior courts for want of evidence. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the killings in a series of communal violence could not be taken to its logical end. In most cases, justice was not only delayed but also denied to hapless victims. For instance, the killing of Muslims in Maliana and Hashimpura by the UP police in 1986 could not be brought to justice even till now. Similarly, the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Kanpur are still awaiting justice.
There is no doubt that the prosecution of criminals is state’s responsibility. But this points to a larger question about the role of higher judiciary as well. Is this not the responsibility of the higher judiciary to dispense justice in a time-bound manner? The Bathani Tola judgment appears curious in view of the fact that the Patna high court refused to rely on the evidence, on the basis of which the district court had convicted 23 accused in the case. The difference in evaluation of same set of evidence by two courts is an intriguing aspect which needs an elaborate explanation should the state decides to go to the SC. If Batahni Tola case is considered a closed chapter after the Patna HC verdict, it would fuel a mass cynicism of the worst kind in Bihar which will be a grim reminder of dark days of the nineties.