Bhagalpur Riots Revisited : A Quarter Century of Deception and Injustice

On the concluding day of the last session of the Bihar Assembly before the forthcoming elections, the Nitish Kumar government tabled the report of Justice NN Singh commission on the 1989-90 Bhagalpur riots. The government had received the report in February, but it evidently waited till the final day of the Assembly to prevent any discussion in Assembly over the report and over the continuing apathy and inaction of successive governments in ensuring justice and rehabilitation for the hapless riot-affected families.

The Justice NN Singh commission was set up in February 2006 soon after Nitish Kumar had come to power with the support of BJP. The terms of reference of the commission included inquiry into ‘the conduct and performance of the investigating and prosecuting agencies of cases arising out of Bhagalpur Riot 1989-90’ and suggestion of relief and rehabilitation measures for the riot survivors. The commission was required to submit its report within six months of its first sitting. As it happened, the commission submitted an interim report on 28 August 2007 and the full report only in February 2015.

Twenty years before the NN Singh commission submitted its report we had the report of the first commission on Bhagalpur riots set up under the chairmanship of Justice Ramanandan Prasad in December 1989 and reconstituted in September 1993. The first report had effectively absolved the district administration of all culpability, blaming only the ‘inexperience’ of the then DM Arun Jha and SP KS Dwivedi. The second commission has taken the same line, saying “I refrain from making any comment on the conduct” of the DM and SP, even as it compares the Bhagalpur riot to the November 1984 anti-Sikh riot in terms of “their enormity, extent, barbarism, devastation and loss of life and property.” Indeed, the only new point made by the second commission is recommendation of compensation to Bhagalpur victims on the lines of the 2006 package announced by the UPA government for 1984 riot victims.

The reports of the two commissions not only refuse to fix administrative responsibilities for the riots that claimed hundreds of lives and ruined thousands of families, they are also shockingly oblivious of the specific context of the vicious and aggressive communal mobilisation by the Sangh Parivar which resulted in a veritable communal bloodbath that began in Bhagalpur and went on through the demolition of Babri Masjid till the post-demolition riots in Surat and Mumbai. The commissions go back to the history of Partition to explain the context of the riots, and effectively accuse Muslim organisations and leaders of virtually ‘inviting’ the riots, but give a clean chit to the BJP despite noting the involvement of members of VHP and RSS. The 1995 commission report even sanctifies the Sangh Parivar’s scheme of ‘division of labour’: “the political wing cannot be blamed for any misdeed of the social wing,”

Bhagalpur was the most decisive turning point that triggered the downfall of the Congress in Bihar and catapulted Lalu Prasad to the seat of power. Both VP Singh in Delhi and Lalu Prasad in Patna then enjoyed the support of the BJP, and Lalu Prasad never showed any urgency to expedite the cause of justice for the riot survivors of Bhagalpur or even to expose the BJP and Sangh brigade’s sinister role in the massacres of Muslims in Bhagalpur. Kameswar Yadav, one of the key accused of Bhagalpur riots who contested the 1990 Assembly elections on Hindu Mahasabha ticket from Nathnagar in Bhagalpur district, went on to receive the political patronage of Lalu Prasad in later years. Arun Jha and KS Dwivedi, the then DM and SP of Bhagalpur who are held centrally responsible by many in Bhagalpur for the scale of violence and killings, went on to secure promotions and plum postings. When Nitish Kumar came to power with a changed social equation, his government reopened the case against Kameswar Yadav only to reward another key accused of Bhagalpur riots, Ratan Mandal, with the position of the chairperson of the Bihar Extreme Backward Castes Commission.

The survivors of Bhagalpur have also been subjected to tremendous hardship on the economic front. Systematic ruin, and not rehabilitation, has been the bitter real life experience for most of them. Under distress and duress, thousands of Muslim families from more than two hundred villages/mohallas have had to sell their houses and plots of land at nominal rates, leading to enforced displacement and ghettoization. Effective rehabilitation in all these cases must include compensation at current market rate. Many in Bhagalpur who got some initial financial assistance to resume their business and other occupational activities were later charged with non-repayment of ‘loans’ and even sent to prison. The enhanced compensation and monthly pension recommended by Justice NN Singh commission in its 2007 interim report remain just another promise on paper for most riot survivors in Bhagalpur.

Several senior journalists and officials in the know of the actual scale and events of Bhagalpur riots have all along maintained that had the government acted immediately on the basis of the findings reported by Ajit Dutt, DIG of Bhagalpur (rural), the guilty could have been punished and survivors rehabiltated without much delay. The commissions have not only delayed justice by consuming crucial time but also ended up understating the scale of killings and devastation - it is popularly believed in Bhagalpur that more than 2,000 people had perished in the massacres as opposed to the figures of 900 Muslims and 100 Hindus put out in the 1995 commission report - and cushioning the guilty.

Of the twenty five years that have elapsed since Bhagalpur, the first fifteen saw Lalu Prasad at the helm of Bihar with his slogan of social justice and secularism, while the last ten have been the Nitish era of ‘good governance’ and ‘development with justice’. For the victims of Bhagalpur, the entire period has been a period of protracted betrayal and injustice. And the feelings of the Bhagalpur survivors are shared equally by victims of injustice elsewhere in Bihar, most notably the oppressed rural poor in today’s south Bihar who suffered dozens of massacres by the infamous Ranveer Sena. In the latter case, the culprits have all been acquitted by the High Court and the commission which was asked to probe the political patronage behind Ranveer Sena was disbanded by Nitish Kumar before it could submit its report. This was around the same time Nitish Kumar set up the Justice NN Singh commission on Bhagalpur!

Evidently, the battle for justice can win victory by defeating not just the perpetrators of riots and massacres but also the forces that deceive, delay and deny justice in the name of delivering it.

Box Matter

Court Rejects CBI Claim of Teesta Being 'Threat To National Security'

    • The Bombay High Court, granting anticipatory bail to Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, dismissed the CBI’s absurd claim that these two activists were a “threat to national security.” In a blow to the Modi Government’s malafide attempt to arrest Teesta and Javed, Justice Mridula Bhatkar strongly asserted citizens’ right to dissent that cannot be branded as disloyalty: “A citizen may conduct social activities and may have a different point of view which may not be liked by the government. However, in a democratic State, a citizen may have his or her own point of view and rather it is the duty of the State to protect that right to have a different view. A dissenting view cannot be said to be against the sovereignty of the nation. It may be against the policy of the government. [Being] against the government and [being] against the sovereignty of the nation are two different concepts.”

The CBI, citing a Gujarat Government letter, had claimed that the Sabrang Communications and Publishing Pvt. Ltd (SCPPL) run by Teesta and Javed is a “proxy organisation” funded by the Ford Foundation with “some long-term plan” of “stoking religious tensions” and keeping the “2002 riot incidents alive.” Such a claim itself exposes the fact that for the CBI and the Modi Government, anyone who seeks justice for the 2002 pogrom and challenges the Government’s attempts to kill its memory, is to be branded “anti-national”!

Justice Bhatkar in no uncertain terms rejected this claim: “After going through the papers and the submissions, prima facie I am unable to find out any threat to sovereignty, integrity and security of the State or to the strategic, economic or public interest. The submission that it [offence] is harmful to the State cannot be appreciated at this stage.”

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