On the overcast morning of 22 October, 60-year-old Kailo Sada sat wistfully beside the ashes of his burnt house. Kailo resides in the Chhamasia village in Bihar’s Khagaria district. Like most others in the village, he is a member of the Musahar community—a Dalit sub-caste that is one of the lowest castes in the traditional hierarchy, and the members of which are identified as Mahadalits in Bihar. In the midst of open marshlands, paddy fields and river streams, the village of Chhamasia appeared out of place—black tarpaulin sheets covered destroyed homes, household belongings lay scattered in the open, and the residents wore similar looks of helplessness and despair. Kailo, a father to four children, was one among several villagers sitting and mourning amid the rubble that remained of their homes.
Two attacks on Chhamasia on consecutive days had forced many of its residents to flee and lent the village, which comprised over 200 households only a week earlier, the appearance of a desolate refugee camp. On 17 October, the residents told me, a large group comprising members of the dominant-caste Yadav community, and jawans of the Special Task Force—a specialised force of the Bihar police that deals with organised crime and Maoist extremism—threatened them, asked them to leave the village, and then raided and looted their houses. The next night, the residents said, the Yadav mob returned to the village and set fire to at least 80 houses belonging to those of the Mahadalit community.
“Charo taraf se gher liya, chapamari kar liya”—They surrounded us, raided our homes, Kailo told me, crying and fumbling for breath as he spoke. Omprakash Sada, his neighbour, who appeared to be in his fifties, was sitting next to him. He described the attack: “At around 9 pm, firing their guns, they came from that side,” he said, pointing east. “They came and set our homes on fire.” Omprakash continued:“Kaha ki madarchod Musahars ko sabko beeg denge. Jo milega usko beeg do behenchod ko”—They said, “We’ll get rid of all the motherfucker Musahars. Whoever we find, get rid of them, the sisterfuckers.
Every single resident I spoke to—at least 50 people—referred to the attackers as “Yadavs” and also identified them individually by their names. In fact, even the police officers at the Morkahi thana identified the attackers as Yadavs. They also admitted that the STF jawans had raided the Chhamasia households. Though the Khagaria district administration has not released any details about the amount of damage caused during the alleged looting and arson, each villager claimed that they had suffered a loss of between Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh, because of the money, household articles, food and jewellery that they lost in the attacks. That would place the minimum losses at around Rs 40 lakh.
The Chhamasia village is a part of a diara, or an island created in a river due to the deposition of sediments over decades, which is located in the Koshi River, one of several tributaries of the Ganges that flow through Khagaria. The riverine villages of Bihar, from Buxar in the east to Bhagalpur in the west, which are situated along these tributaries, such as Koshi, Gandak, Ghaghra, and Sone, are notorious for their lawlessness and caste violence. Kundan Krishnan, the inspector general of the STF, told me that in all the diaras of these tributaries, criminal gangs comprising members of Thakur, Yadav or other dominant-caste communities, control crop harvesting, fishing and sand mining. In the clashes between rival gangs of the region, the landless labourers working on the fields controlled by the opposing gangs, most of whom are Dalits, often become the victims of the violence. As a result, caste remains an important factor in determining who is killed amid gang violence.
Chhamasia is a Musahar tola—an enclave in the diara that is classified by caste, and occupied only by residents belonging to the community. The Musahars in the region are a landless community who earn their living by working as labourers in Yadav-controlled fields in the Koshi river belt. During the zamindari period, the riverine lands were controlled by dominant-caste gangsters who traditionally served as knights to the zamindars, while members of the Dalit community worked as labourers who toiled over the cultivation of the land. After the abolition of the system in the 1950s, even though the law mandated that the land be distributed among the landless labourers, the gangsters belonging to the dominant-castes, such as the Yadav, Kurmi, Thakur and Babhan communities, became the de-facto owners.
Since the lands are estranged from the mainland, these gangs are able to exercise near unchecked control over them—the police station with jurisdiction over Chhamasia, in the village of Morkahi, is more than eight kilometres away, and requires at least a three-hour journey. Till date, like the other villages on the diara, Chhamasia does not have any developed roads, nor state-run supply of drinking water, nor electricity connections. The nearest mainland village is Sonmankhi, which is also about eight kilometres away, and does not have any supply of drinking water or electricity either. The journey to Chhamasia from Sonmankhi is arduous and requires traversing through roadless green fields, difficult muddy terrain, and streams, before finally crossing a river on a boat. Though most residents travel within the region on horses, Lalan Kumar, the village head in Sonmankhi, had agreed to take me to Chhamasia on his motorcycle.
Among the residents, there was a clear consensus that the alleged raid on their houses by the security forces and the Yadav mob was more frightening than the arson. According to the STF inspector general Krishnan, the security forces had raided Chhamasia to arrest Manoj Sada, a resident of the village whom Krishnan called “a Naxal,” and Angad Sada, who he claimed was “the right-hand man of Manoj Sada.” Though the villagers told me that both Manoj and Angad were not in the village at the time and were not arrested, the STF arrested six men—four residents and two outsiders—from the village, claiming that they were either Maoists themselves or accomplices.
Seema Devi, a resident of the village who appeared to be in her fifties, told me that, on 17 October, at dawn, a group of between 35 to 50 Yadavs and STF jawans came to the village and surrounded it. Devi said the attackers warned the residents to leave their homes immediately. She recalled their threats: “Next time we visit, we will chop off your heads and throw them into the nearby pond.” “Aaj ta marad ko kheech ke le gaya, ab le jayenge mahila ke. Aisa aisa sundar sundar mahila hai. Kheech ke le jayenge”—Today, we are dragging out your men and taking them. Next time we will take the women—there are so many beautiful women; we will haul them out.
All the residents identified Munna Yadav, a gangster in the area, as the leader of the Yadav mob that attacked their village. They said Munna and the members of his gang stayed at Kamathan, a village that was barely one kilometre from Chhamasia, at a house that also operates as a cow shelter and a godown for crops. The family of the gangsters, the villagers said, stayed at Raghunathpur, a mainland village at least 20 kilometres away from Chhamasia.
The villagers fearfully recalled Munna and his men firing their guns in the air before looting the money and jewellery from their homes. “They fired from that side and this side and from everywhere,” Panma Devi, a resident of the village, recalled. She continued, “People escaped from small holes in their houses. Some of them fainted along the way while escaping.” Karan Kumar, an eight-year-old boy, told me that his aunt woke him up that morning. He recalled, “I fell and staggered several times while running away.”
Panma said that the fleeing residents took shelter in Saaro—another Musahar tola, around 4 kilometres away from Chhamasia. According to her, the Yadavs returned to the village the next night at around 9 pm and “started setting our houses on fire, one after another.” At the time, she said, few men were present, as they had left the village after the previous day’s raid, and mostly only women and children were sleeping in the houses, before they heard the Yadav mob coming and began fleeing from the area as well.
The residents spoke of multiple reasons that could have led to the attacks. Several families told me that over the past decade, young men from Chhamasia had steadily stopped working in the fields of the Yadav community, and instead moved to do agricultural work in Punjab and Haryana to earn their livelihood. “Munna did not like the fact that most of the villagers had stopped working as labourer in his field,” Babita Devi, a young resident of Chhamasia, told me. Babita was crying, even as she made rotis over a mud stove. She added, “The Yadavs have already driven the residents of five other Musahars tolas—Dharahara, Natunia, Kathmara, Kothi, Serhathiya—out of their homes.”
Many residents claimed that Munna Yadav had become aggressive towards them after Angad Sada, a resident of the village, shot Munna last year, who survived the attack. The village residents also identified Manoj as Munna’s rival. AK Yaduvendu, the station house officer at Morkahi police station, told me that Manoj was chargesheeted in several cases for “Naxal activities.” However, the villagers denied the allegations that he was a Maoist rebel. According to Sita Devi, a woman whose house had been burnt down, “Manoj was just a gangster who wanted to put up a resistance against Munna.”
Several villagers stated that they were not associated with either Manoj or Angad in any way. Meena Devi, a resident who lost her house in the attacks, said, “Jisko se ladai hai usko pakde na”—They should catch the ones with whom they’re fighting. “Hum log gareeb ko kyun satate hai”—Why do they torture us poor people?
After the arson, the police officers reached the village at around midnight on the intervening night between 18 and 19 October. Yaduvendu, the SHO, told me that the villagers gave a written complaint to the police, on the basis of which a first information report was registered. However, the residents said that the police had recorded their statements, but that they had not given a written complaint. Kusumlal Sada, one of the residents who gave a statement to the police, told me that he signed the statement recorded by the police. In the FIR registered by the police, Kusumlal is noted as the complainant. The residents told me that they named 15 members of the Yadav community in their statements—only Munna has been arrested.
On the other hand, the STF jawans had arrested six men from the village during the raid and booked them under the Arms Act. Though none of the residents spoke of any firing by the villagers, Krishnan said that the six arrested men had thrown their weapons into the river, and that the STF had later fished these weapons out. The four residents who were arrested, the villagers told me, were teenagers from the village who had nothing to do with any criminal activities. According to Bhola Pandit, a resident whose son was among the arrested men, the STF only arrested his son on Munna’s instructions. “Khaali Munna Yadav jekar jekar naam batabe rahe, okar okar pakde rahe”—Whoever Munna Yadav named, the police caught.
When I asked Yaduvendu about Munna’s arrest, he became defensive—he sounded almost like a lawyer, rather than a police officer. “Munna Yadav ke yahan se kahan hatiyar mila tha”—We did not recover any weapons from Munna Yadav, Yaduvendu said. He continued, “It was also dark at night, so it would be difficult to identify anyone.” Although Munna was arrested on the basis of the complaints, Yaduvendu claimed that Munna was at a hospital clinic in Raghunathpur village the arson.
Although Krishnan admitted to me that his “boys” had raided the Chhamasia village on 17 October, he denied that they had looted or raided the houses, and also denied that they were accompanied by Munna Yadav or his men. When I told him that all the victims of the raid and arsons had stated otherwise, he called the villagers a “biased group of people.” According to the Krishnan, Munna was in Raghunathpur at the time of the raid.
However, Yaduvendu contradicted the inspector general, and stated that Munna Yadav and the STF team had, in fact, raided the village together. “Woh toh STF ke saath hi tha, who wanted nahi tha”—He was with the STF itself, he was not wanted person, Yaduvendu said. He continued, “They had taken Munna Yadav with them for information. Only a criminal can provide information about a criminal.” When I asked if it was correct for a law agency to take the help of a criminal and fight alongside them, Yaduvendu told me that the STF functions independently from the regular state police. “Unka apna tarika hai … uske barey mein hum log koi comment nahi kar saktey hain”—They have their own method of working … we cannot comment on that.
During my conversation with Krishnan, his bias against the Mahadalit community became evident. “My allegation is that they burnt their houses themselves,” Krishnan said. He continued, “It became out of control. It has happened several times earlier also, setting your own house on fire and filing a case.” I told him I had visited the houses and asked why he thought the villagers would burn their own bed, blanket, food, utensils, stove, and clothes, and chose to sleep in the open on empty stomachs. However, Krishnan dismissed my query, stating that he had seen more such incidents of houses being burnt down than me. When I asked him again, he responded: “Because they are Mahadalit.” He continued, “Muavza milega hi. Ghar mein kya tha aap dekh hi liyen”—They will get compensation. You already saw what little they had inside their homes.
I told Krishnan that his statements made it appear that he was on the side of one particular community. He told me that he did not want any gangster group to become “formidable” in the diara. The Sada group, he said, was becoming too powerful and needed to be subdued. “Agar yeh gang majboot hoga, ek do Yadav ka murder hoga toh kitne Sada ke gaon mein khaali jhopdi nahi jalegi, laashein bichengi,laashein”—If this gang becomes powerful, if one or two Yadavs are killed, then in all the villages of the Sadas, not only will the houses be burnt, corpses will fall everywhere. According to Krishnan, the STF was helping the Sadas in the region community by going after Angad and Manoj.
I also spoke to Manish Yadav, the mukhiya of the Yadav community in the region, who resides in Raghunathpur village. Manish told me that Munna and the other members of the Yadav community named in the victims’ statements were with him in Raghunathpur at the time of the incident. According to Manish, the dispute between Angad, Manoj and Munna was “bhai bhai ke beech chota mota jhagda”—a small fight between brothers. Manish continued, “Jameen jayedad ke liye toh chota chota jhagda hota rehta hai. Taali ek hath se thode bajta hai”—Small fights over land property keep happening. You can’t clap with one hand.
Several times during our conversations, Yaduvendu and Krishnan argued that the main fight between Angad, Manoj and Munna was over a land dispute. According to Krishnan, Angad and Manoj were aligned with a Yadav gang that rivaled Munna’s, and had not been letting Munna farm on his land. Both suggested that there was some land dispute between Munna and his rival gang and Sada villages are only being used to arm-twist Manoj and Angad.
However, Naushad Alam, a circle officer in Khagaria’s land revenue department, disputed this account. Alam told me that there was no land dispute as most of the diara land was categorised as “gair mazarua,” or land that belonged to the government, after the abolition of the zamindari system. He said that even though it was legally government-owned land, the zamindars distributed the land among their “bataidar,” who were the dominant-caste crop sharers responsible for supervising the cultivation of the land.
Alam explained: “Basically, there is no land dispute there—the situation is that the owner gave the land to the bataidars, who exploit the labourers and collect extortion money to allow the labourers to enter and work on the land.” He said these bataidars had raised some grievances regarding the ownership of land, and that after these were resolved by the government, the land would be awarded to the landless labourers.
The villagers, too, disputed the claim that the attacks were in relation to a land dispute. Madan Sada, another resident of the village, told me that the attack was a “barchasv ki ladai”—a show of strength—by the Yadavs against their rival gang. Madan continued, “We come in the line of fire, we have to take the wrath of either of the parties.”
Despite the scale of the losses, the consensus on the identification of the attackers as belonging to the Yadav community, and the gravity of the allegations against the STF jawans—the incident largely escaped the notice of the national media. Even the few media organisations that reported the incident, such as the The Wire, failed to identify the attackers as Yadavs. Prominent Hindi newspapers such as the Dainik Jagran, and Hindustan, as well as the news channels Zee News, and News18, identified the attackers as “dabang,” or hooligans, in their reports. Moreover, the media organisations reported only the arson, but not the alleged looting of the Mahadalit homes on the previous day, when the Yadav mob was allegedly accompanied by the STF jawans—which, the villagers had told me, was the more frightening ordeal.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the situation for the residents of Chhamasia had become desperate. On 29 October, Kusumlal, the complainant in the police case, called me and told me that he had received a death threat. “A man, who had his face hidden behind a scarf, chased me near the river yesterday morning,” he said. Kusumlal added: “He screamed at me that he will kill me if I didn't withdraw the case.” I called the SHO Yaduvendu to ask about the incident, but he told me that there was enough security stationed at the village already. “If he was threatened, he should have come to us,” the SHO said.
The residents are struggling with food and shelter as well. A resident of the village who appeared to be in his forties, who was the local dealer under the public distribution system and had been cooking khichdi for the entire village since 19 October, told me that he might run out of food within a week. On the day of my visit, there were no facilities for drinking water or shelter that had been provided to the villagers, except for the black plastic sheets that were being used to cover the ashes of the houses, rather than providing any sort of shelter.
As a result, the residents whose houses were burnt told me, they were forced to sleep in the open with nothing with which they could cover themselves. “At night, there is no place to sleep,” Seema told me. She added: “When it gets cold, I ask my husband to give his lungi, I’m fighting the cold by covering myself with a lungi.”
For some residents, the despair was compounded by their frustration and fear. From the rubble of his house, Sudhir Ram fished out a burnt iron box and opened it to reveal a bunch of corroding shovels. Crying as he spoke, Ram told me, “See, these are my rifles. The STF says that we are Naxals. See for yourself, here are my rifles.”