Dalits are fleeing their homes across Jehanabad district after the
private landlord army, Ranbir Sena, and Naxalites matched genocide with genocide in spiralling violence that has claimed 81 lives since January.
Fear stalks the streets of the Dalit tolas � hamlets of the poor and backward castes usually located at the southern end of largish villages � from where most of the men have fled. Every outsider is viewed with suspicion.
In Azadbigha village, a group of eight men sitting under a banyan tree disperses quickly as a car moves into sight. Is it the Ranbir Sena? Is it the police? �We are afraid,� says Ramayan Ram, 70, after being cajoled to speak. �We are panicky.�
Ram and the other men of Azadbigha, a hamlet of 200 Dalit households, have gathered in the afternoon to exchange notes after having spent the night elsewhere. Their women and children were left behind.
The men hope and pray fervently that if the killers attack, they would take pity on the children and their mothers and spare them. There is little possibility of that, given the track record of the Ranbir Sena which believes in
�butchering Naxalites in their mothers� wombs�.
The Azadbigha picture mirrors that of scores of villages in the district. Official sources have identified 292 villages as �sensitive�, of which 73 are �super- sensitive�.
Within shouting distance of Azadbigha is Ganiari, where the chasm between the Dalits and the upper-caste Bhumihars � the main support base of the Ranbir Sena � has widened so much that no work is done in the fields as the harvesting season peaks. The Bhumihars are landholders; the Dalits sharecroppers or agricultural labourers.
Out in the fields, standing crop has ripened to a golden yellow but no one dares to cut stalk with
sickle. The sharecroppers and labourers will not work for the
Bhumihars. They will also not allow Bhumihars to harvest the crop, risking their own livelihood.
�If we do not harvest, we will not get our share,� says Basmatia Devi of a sharecropping family. But the men, who do the bulk of the work in the fields, have fled the village.
At Khatangi, a village close to Senari where the cadre of the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) slit the throats of 34 Bhumihars last week, it is the same story. Khatangi is also high on the list of villages that the administration suspects as Naxalite bases.
Police have raided Dalit-dominated Khatangi several times since the Senari carnage. �Naxalites take shelter in Khatangi,� says Nageshwar Sharma, a Bhumihar of Senari. In their search and arrest raids, the police have picked up Khatangi�s Dalits at random.
�All the men fled after what happened at Senari,� says an elderly woman. �Those who did not were arrested.� Most Khatangi huts are locked. �We are as good as dead,� lamented another woman. �With the men away there is nobody to feed us.�
The police deny that they are persecuting Dalits. �Though it is true that Dalits have fled from some villages for fear of retaliation, the situation is not as serious as is being portrayed by the media,� says Arvind Gupta, sub-divisional police officer of Karpi.
The exodus of Dalits from Jehanabad�s terror-stricken villages is accepted by the administration as a corollary to the violence that continues to rage. It matters little that lives and livelihoods are lost. Indeed it would seem in all structures that represent administration -- like police station houses -- to be such a routine affair that it does not merit mention in official reports, let alone in media briefings. In Kurtha police station at the epicentre of the Jehanabad violence, the police feign ignorance.
But in Pan Bigha, some distance away, the residents are packing up to leave. Despite the presence of a Bihar Military Police picket, more than 25 Harijan families have left. The rest are stuffing their meagre belongings into bundles for the road. Hari Ravidas places some bottles and small wicker baskets into a bucket while his brother Shankar Ravidas ties a blanket and sheet with a rope. They are leaving shortly.
�Only last night we saw men of the Ranbir Sena moving across the village,� says Hari, a farm labourer. �May be they were on a reconnaissance mission. Who can tell when they will turn on us?�
The movement of Sena volunteers has not gone unnoticed by the policemen. They are afraid too. �We have been made to set up camp in one corner of the village. We are afraid of what could happen if there is an attack,� says a constable. Asked what they would do if indeed there was an attack, he said �We will rush to our defences.�
The policemen wanted their picket in the middle of the village. That would make it safer for them and, they argue, safer for the villagers as well. �In a far corner, they could easily attack and snatch our arms.�
The story repeats itself in Jagdishpur and Vaidbigha; in Ramnagar, Sohsa, Kamata, Akpopur and Murgibigha; in Gokupur and Dharna. The police are wary; the Dalits afraid of both the Ranbir Sena and the police.
�Dalits are soft targets,� says Karo Manjhi, a Dalit of Senari who left after the MCC attack. �Dalits are killed and arrested. The Sena men come and kill us and the police come and torture us.�
At his quarters in Jehanabad town, district magistrate Arunish Chawla is readying to leave. He has been served marching orders after the Senari killings. �The chasm between the castes is widening. It is dangerous for society,� he concludes.
Chawla was posted in Jehanabad shortly after Sundar Singh Bhandari took over the administration for a 25-day spell of President�s Rule. His stint here has been for barely a month. The youthful Chawla said he had initiated a process to form peace committees in each village. The committee would comprise representatives of all castes. In several villages, the committees have already been formed.
But this is not the first time such a step has been taken. In the past, the administration had raised village protection forces in 321 villages. But they were mostly stillborn because the conflict within the villages did not leave them with scope to function.
There were also instances of the upper castes cornering weapon licences issued to some members of these forces as have there been instances of the upper castes and the Dalits raising rival outfits in the same village.
Jehanabad has its own rules.