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Mainstream, VOL LX No 4, New Delhi, January 15, 2022

Remembering the Rupaspur-Chandwa Massacre | Anand Chakravarti

Friday 14 January 2022, by Anand Chakravarti

On this day (November 22, 1971), 50 years ago, a mob led by the dominant Rajput landowners (henceforth referred to as ’maliks’) massacred 14 Santhals (Adivasis) in the village Rupaspur-Chandwa, in Purnea district (in north Bihar). The massacre was a ghastly response of the maliks to the assertion by their Santhal bataidars (sharecroppers) of their long-standing tenancy rights. The outrage was a bloody climax to several decades of struggle by Santhal bataidars in Dhamdaha revenue circle (in which Rupaspur-Chandwa is located) to resist dispossession from the lands they had cultivated for several generations (Chakravarti 1986). Significantly, due to their unique talent as agriculturists, they are the ones who cleared vast tracts of jungle land in the area and made it fit for cultivation. The struggle began in 1938, and continued unabated until 1942, when the Quit India movement dampened its momentum. Commenting on this phenomenon, Bhola Paswan Shastri, the Chief Minister of Bihar at the time of the carnage, said, "Bada andolan jab chalta hai, to chhota andolan dab jata hai" (when a big movement occurs, a small movement gets suppressed) (Shastri 1984). However, the tensions generated by the contradictory interests of the maliks and their bataidars continued to dominate the agrarian scene in the area even after 1942, and the massacre in Rupaspur-Chandwa was a gruesome reiteration of this fact.

Bhola Paswan Shastri described the incident as "simply inhuman, brutal and ghastly" (The Searchlight 1971a). In the course of a debate on the massacre in the Lok Sabha, even the Prime Minister admitted that, "Those who are strong do get away with these things" (The Searchlight 1971b). Based on this statement, emanating from the highest member of the executive in the country, I wish to show that the contradiction between the strong and the weak is endemic in the Bihar countryside even today. Arguably, therefore, the grievances that motivated the struggle of the Santhal bataidars between 1938 and 1942 remain unresolved, and hence the agenda of their struggle remains unfinished to this date. I believe that this is a consequence of the nature of state power in Bihar. However, at the end, I shall argue that the contradiction between the strong and the weak is not unique to Bihar, and underlies the character of the Indian state as well.

There can be little doubt that in Bihar the state has consistently failed, perhaps even deliberately, to address the interests of the landless in the countryside, who include landless cultivators (such as the Santhal bataidars, and also bataidars belonging to low-ranking castes) as well as landless agricultural labourers. Indeed, the carnage in Rupaspur-Chandwa was a grim precursor to a string of massacres perpetrated by dominant caste militias (the ’strong’) against landless labourers (the ’weak’) who were simply demanding their constitutional rights to fair wages and dignity, which included resisting the sexual exploitation of their women by the maliks. According to authoritative sources, there were as many as 90 recorded massacres between 1976 and 2001 in various districts in the south Bihar plains, resulting in the deaths of 860 persons, including women and children (Bhattacharya 2014: 35n).

The above-mentioned representation of the contradiction between dominant castes and landless cultivators and labourers as one between the ’strong’ and the ’weak’ should be viewed more specifically as one rooted in opposing class interests. In fact, the contradiction has both a class and a caste dimension, because those who possess the capacity to lease out land or to hire labourers belong either to the traditional dominant castes (Brahmin, Bhumihar, Rajput, and Kayasth) or to the upper stratum of the Other Backward Classes (OBC [Yadav, Kurmi, and Koeri]); and the landless tenants and labourers are drawn from the ranks of the lower OBC, Dalits, and, in specific areas, Adivasis, such as the Santhals. To a significant extent the violence of the landed against the landless was a reaction to the assertions of the latter, which questioned the deeply embedded structure of superordination and subordination based on a hierarchical caste order.

The contrast between the quality of life of those in possession of land, on the one hand, and the landless, on the other, brings out the full significance of the contradiction between the two categories. In principle, land, as an instrument of production, secures a person from depending on others for a livelihood. Arguably, such a person enjoys a state of ’autonomy’ with respect to his life chances. Of course, this statement covers only those who own viable landholdings, and excludes those who possess only an acre or two of land, or even less. In contrast, a landless person in the agrarian context, whose only asset is raw labour power, survives by either leasing in land or working for wages. In both cases, the person is subject to exploitation. The insecure lives of the Santhal bataidars is a striking example of the life and death existence of a cultivator with no land rights; and the history of massacres of landless labourers in Bihar is a blatant testimony of the contempt with which dominant caste and class interests view their demands for better living conditions and dignity. Here, I must refer in passing to my field study of Dalit landless labourers in Rohtas district, whose focus was precisely on the quality of their lives (Chakravarti 2018). The study shows that the abysmal living conditions of the labourers fall below ’a threshold of well-being’ (Chakravarti 2018: 3). Those falling below the threshold suffer from multiple deprivations, that include (i) poor livelihood chances, which makes it difficult for them to access basic material needs; (ii) lack of access to competent health care; (iii) lack of education; and (iv) a life shorn of dignity because their poor material circumstances compel them to depend on the landed for a livelihood, which, as pointed out earlier, is fraught with exploitation. The stigma attached to being landless, compelling a humiliating existence marked by indebtedness and a sense of dependency, was powerfully conveyed to me in the following words by a landless person:

Ours is a miserable life. We have no kheth-badhar [land for cultivation]. If we purchase a kurta, then we cannot afford a dhoti. Or, if we possess both, then we can’t afford chappal. If we had land, we would be human. Our lives are worse than the lives of insects, for even insects can take care of their needs (Chakravarti 2018:11, emphasis added).

It is impossible to explain the plight of the landless in rural Bihar without pointing to the elements that drive state power to favour the strong over the weak. From the very beginning, when the first Congress government was constituted in Bihar in July 1937 under the Government of India Act, 1935, it became clear that state power was tilted in favour of the status quo, and was antagonistic to the interests of the landless. Thus, in spite of specific amendments to the Bihar Tenancy Act, 1885 (BTA) that unambiguously entitled bataidars of 12 years standing to occupancy rights (Chakravarti 1986:1855-56), their insecure status remained unchanged because the maliks refused to accept the amendments. Bhola Paswan Shastri’s observation on the composition of the Congress party in Purnea in the 1930s gives an insight into the caste and class interests underlying this phenomenon. According to him, the maliks were the backbone of the Congress in the district, and dominated its leadership. Another statement of his made it abundantly clear that these landholders were deeply antagonistic to the poor. Indeed, he had no doubt in his mind regarding the class of persons who dominated not just the district Congress, but the Congress across Bihar. Thus, he said, "Dekhte the ki ye reactionary leaders hain" (one could see that these leaders were reactionary) (Shastri 1984). There can be no other explanation for the non-implementation by the then Congress ministry of the crucial sections of the BTA that favoured the land rights of the bataidars.

It is indeed ironical that swaraj from colonial rule, with its grand promise to eliminate the sufferings of the poor, has made no substantial impact on the plight of the landless in Bihar, even after nearly 75 years. This is precisely because the structural contradictions based on caste and class have persisted unabated in the countryside. Bhola Paswan Shastri understood these ground realities very well, because he anticipated perceptively that, "Agar swaraj hoga, to garibo ka nahin hoga" (if swaraj is achieved, it will not be for the poor) (Shastri 1984). The massacres of bataidars and landless labourers, referred to earlier, testifies to this profound truth.

The fact that the land question in Bihar remains unresolved even today is borne out by the sad fate of the Bandyopadhyay Commission, appointed in 2006 by the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance government headed by Nitish Kumar (Govt of Bihar 2008). Significantly, the committee recommended, among other issues, that tenants-at-will (bataidars) should have security of tenure; it also recommended the imposition of a ceiling of 15 acres per household to generate a pool of land for re-distribution among the landless. Clearly, with due diligence, the committee had addressed the crucial concerns of the most vulnerable sections of the agrarian population in Bihar. It should not be surprising, given the configuration of caste and class forces, that the Nitish Kumar government rejected these recommendations in 2009. The chief minister’s categorical statement, "Nobody is going to lose his ownership over land," is symptomatic of the power of the landed belonging to dominant castes, whose representatives were entrenched in the corridors of power (Jha 2009). Indeed, Nitish Kumar’s statement reiterated quite plainly the stand taken by his predecessor Lalu Yadav on the question of land reform. As land reform in the present context implies that the landed will lose some land, and the landless will gain some land, it obviously alters the skewed equation between the two categories, which he opposed. Therefore, on the ground that, to use his inimitable words, "Balancwa bigad jayega" ([land reform] will upset the balance of social forces), he quite blatantly upheld the status quo of land control (Bhattacharya 2014: 28).

A question that needs to be asked at this point is whether the judiciary, in spite of being an organ of state power, is capable of acting independently of the social forces that otherwise underlie the state. Regrettably, with special reference to Bihar, the verdicts in some cases pertaining to the massacres perpetrated by dominant caste landowners suggest rather unambiguously that justice eludes the victims and the perpetrators are able to walk free. Complicated judicial proceedings demonstrate the apparent operation of the rule of law, but, ironically, the substantive delivery of justice to the victims of mass murder stands aborted.

The High Court judgement in the Rupaspur-Chandwa case (9 December 1987), setting aside the conviction of the accused in the trial court, is a major instance of a monumental failure of the criminal-justice system in post-Independence Bihar to compel the strong to be accountable for a mass crime against the weak. [1] The judgement, while admitting that, "a very barbarous and heinous crime was committed," indicts the prosecution because its "conduct … in the present case cannot be said to be above board" (para.62). Arguably, in a social milieu where the executive arm of the state is under the sway of caste and class forces, it is not surprising that the police, who spearhead the prosecution, reflect the same biases. Therefore, the logic of ’due process,’ based on the evidence produced by the prosecution, somehow failed to unravel the roots of such a horrendous crime. Indeed, the judgement admits this in the following words:

In a criminal trial the prosecution is not bound to prove the motive in every case. But in a case like the present one, the natural question arises as to why such [a] barbarous and heinous crime was committed against poor Santhals. This question remains unanswered in the present case (para.50).

To my mind, this statement, while censuring the prosecution for implicitly suggesting that the reasons for the attack on the Santhals of Rupaspur-Chandwa are unclear, also obliterates in one stroke the entire history of struggle by their fellow Adivasi bataidars against the maliks in Dhamdaha for their land rights.

The judgement in the Rupaspur-Chandwa case was a precursor to several similar judgements in criminal cases arising from massacres of landless labourers in Bihar. In a letter to the Economic & Political Weekly (February 14, 2015) the secretaries of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) listed five massacres that occurred between 1996 and 2000, claiming the lives of 143 persons, including women and children (Purkayastha & Bahl 2015: 4-5). These include Bathani Tola (1996), Laxmanpur Bathe (1997), Nagari Bazaar (1998), Shankar Bigha (1999), and Miyanpur (2000). In four of the five cases, the Bihar High Court set aside the conviction of the accused in the trial courts on the ground that the evidence was faulty or unreliable. Only in the fifth case, the trial court itself acquitted the accused. In the light of the material presented here, it would be difficult to deny that the criminal-justice system in Bihar is unable to act against the forces that dominate its countryside, thereby perpetuating the injustices suffered by the landless.

At this point, I am prompted to ask: is Bihar a unique instance of the operation of state power to perpetuate the iniquities against the marginalized, or is this phenomenon replicated elsewhere in India? It is not possible here to examine this question state (province) by state, but some broad observations are possible on how the Indian state as whole handles the issue of the equitable distribution of productive resources. Shifting my attention from agricultural land, which is, no doubt, a crucial resource, I shall confine myself very briefly to another category of land, falling in the mineral belt of India, covering states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha. Adivasi communities prominently inhabit these states. It is well known that these areas are marked by bitter conflicts between, on the hand, the holders of mega-capital (such as Tatas, Jindal, Vedanta), who are driven by the exploitation of the natural resources of the region for profit, and, on the other, the Adivasi communities for whom the land is critical for their survival (Chakravarti 2012: 33-34). For the latter, the land is crucial not only for cultivation, but also because of its forests and water.

The nature of the intervention of the Indian state in this conflict of interests is a major test of its commitment to its own Constitution, which, in principle, is a blueprint of an egalitarian social order (Sankaranarayanan 2014). Thus, Articles 39b and 39c of the Constitution, under the Directive Principles of State Policy, oblige the State to ensure that the distribution of material resources serves the common good, and that the economic system does not lead to the concentration of wealth. Further, Article 46 calls upon the State to promote the educational and economic interests of "weaker sections of the people," including in particular Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis), and to protect them from "social injustice and all forms of exploitation." The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution implicitly acknowledges the deeply vulnerable character of the lives and livelihood of Adivasis, especially because of the massive encroachments on their lands, and the resultant land alienation and loss of livelihood. Conforming to the spirit of the Fifth Schedule, the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) is designed to empower Adivasi gram sabhas to stem land alienation. [2] However, it is deeply disappointing, perhaps even tragic, that the Indian state in practice totally disregards the intent of the Constitution to protect Adivasi interests, and is guilty of collaborating with exploitative, profit-driven companies. Indeed, the act of collaboration is reinforced by the brutal exercise of coercive power. From time to time we read of the killing of innocent Adivasis by the security forces on the presumption that they are Maoists. The Adivasi activist Soni Sori, who is associated with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Chhattisgarh, has played a leading role in uncovering such fake encounters. The grim truth is that for the Indian state Adivasi lives can be extinguished with impunity because their lives do not matter.

The tragic story of another Adivasi rights activist in Jharkhand, the late Father Stan Swamy, is a horrendous instance of the use of state power against a person who struggled for the constitutional rights of Adivasis (People’s Union for Democratic Rights 2021). I mention here his involvement in the formation of a coalition of organisations (Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan) to resist land acquisition by corporate interests. Its call, "Jan denge par zameen nahin denge" (we will give up our lives, but not our land), sums up the odds against the Adivasis. He also supported the Pathalgadi movement against land alienation. That a person like Stan Swamy, who embodied Constitutional values, was branded a Maoist by the authorities, and eventually died in judicial custody, speaks volumes about the class character of the Indian state and its antagonism towards the marginalized.

To conclude, I argue that the unresolved land question in Bihar, affecting in particular landless bataidars and labourers, is a reflection of the devalued importance given to the marginalized by the Indian state. Fundamentally, the problem revolves round the question of access and entitlement to the productive resources of the country. The Indian state, as the paramount source of power, is the supreme guardian of these resources, and therefore, in principle, the Constitution should govern their distribution. As mentioned earlier, Articles such as 39b, 39c, and 46 quite unambiguously demand an egalitarian thrust from the state. However, state policy in practice flies in the face of constitutional principles. The contradiction between the mandate of the Constitution and state policy has sharpened especially since 1991, the year of liberalization. The year marks the beginning of the full-scale encouragement by the state to the growth of private capital, a phenomenon that has spawned a huge increase in the gap between the rich and the poor, in terms of both income and wealth. To quote the economist Thomas Piketty, "Capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities" (2014). The reality of this observation may be brought out by just one example. According to Professor Maitreesh Ghatak of the London School of Economics, the share of the total wealth of the top one percent of Indians was around 12 percent in 1961, and that of the bottom 50 percent was roughly the same percentage; but in 2020, the share of wealth of the top one percent increased to around 43 percent, and that of the bottom 50 percent was a miserable three percent (Ghatak 2021). It is important to mention that the spectacular increase in this gap started in 1991, the year liberalization began. The capitalist thrust of the Indian state has indeed sharpened the contradiction between the few who control productive resources and the many that live by raw labour power. To return to Bihar, those who were marginalized before the attainment of swaraj continue to be marginalized even today, bearing out Bhola Paswan Shastri’s prognosis of the national movement. I can confirm this with certainty from my first-hand study of the living conditions of Dalit labourers, which I mentioned earlier. With much regret I conclude that the descendants of the Santhals who were killed in Rupaspur-Chandwa, or those of the labourers who were massacred elsewhere in Bihar, are not living in better times. The Indian state has betrayed them.

Afterword

The sense of despair in my concluding remarks reflects, undoubtedly, my own understanding of the betrayal of the marginalized by the Indian state. However, the testimonies of a few Santhal residents of Rupaspur-Chandwa, recorded on January 28, 2019, which were included in the seminar proceedings, made it abundantly clear that the trauma of the carnage in 1971 continues to ravage their psyche down to the present day. Thus, Lakhanlal Murmu expressed outrage that the Santhals had been denied justice, and that the killers were roaming free. Perhaps even more poignant was Anita Hansda’s deep sense of betrayal by the "sarkar" (government). She regarded the victims of the massacre as "shaheed" (martyrs), and, accordingly, she expected the sarkar to settle land ("bandobast") on the survivors, which it had failed to do. In her climactic observation, she indicted the sarkar for its indifference to their plight, because of which they would continue to rot and die ("marenge-sadenge") as in earlier times. 

(Author: Anand Chakravarti, Former Professor of Sociology, University of Delhi)

References

  • Bhattacharya, Dipankar (2014), "The Challenge of Land Reforms and Social Transformation in Bihar," in Manish K. Jha and Pushpendra (eds.), Traversing Bihar: The Politics of Development and Social Justice, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan: 23-36.
  • Chakravarti, Anand (1986), "The Unfinished Struggle of Santhal Bataidars in Purnea District, 1938-42," Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 21, Nos. 42 & 43: 1847-65, 1897-1909.
  • (2012), "Conscience of the Constitution and Violence of the Indian State," Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 47, Nos. 47 & 48: 33-38.
  • (2018), Is this Azaadi? Everyday Lives of Dalit Agricultural Labourers in a Bihar Village, New Delhi: Tulika Books.
  • Ghatak, Maitreesh (2021), "India’s Inequality Problem," theindiaforum.in/article/does-india-have-inequality-problem, accessed on November 16, 2021.
  • Government of Bihar (2008), Report of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission (2006-2008), Volume I, Patna.
  • Jha, Giridhar (2009), "Bypolls Rout Scuttles Government Move for Land Reforms," Mail Today, Delhi, November 17.
  • People’s Union for Democratic Rights (2021), Framed to Die: The Case of Stan Swamy, pudr.org/sites/default/files/2021-08/FramedtoDie.pdf, accessed on November 16, 2021.
  • Piketty, Thomas (2014), Capital in the Twenty-first Century, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, quoted in Arindam Sen, "Marx was Right: Capitalism is Concentration of Wealth in Ever Fewer Hands," Liberation (New Series), Vol. 20, June 2014: 20-25.
  • Purkayastha, Sharmila and Megha Bahl (2015), "Justice Delayed, Denied and Lopsided," Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 50, No. 7: 4-5.
  • Sankaranarayanan, Gopal (2014), The Constitution of India, Lucknow: Eastern Book Company.
  • Shastri, Bhola Paswan: Interview, Delhi, April 10, 1984.
  • The Searchlight (1971a), Patna, November 29, 1971.
  • (1971b), Patna, December 24, 1971.

[1Shankar Kumar Singh v. State of Bihar, legitquest.com/case/shankar-kumar-singh-v-state-of-bihar/F1EA1, 09-12-1987, accessed on November 19, 2021.

[2Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, wikipedia.org/wiki/Panchayats_(Extension_to_Scheduled_Areas)_Act_

1996, accessed on November 16, 2021.

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