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Private armies and death squads in Bihar

Private militias

A book review

7 June 2009

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Down to Earth, May 31, 2009

by Ashish Gupta

Community Warriors, State Peasants and Caste Armies in Bihar by Ashwani Kumar

Anthem Press Delhi 2008 Price Rs 450

On April 16, the first day of the general elections, Maoists attacked a polling station in Bihar’s Gaya district killing a homeguard and a trooper of
the state armed police. Two women voters were injured in the attack. In Gumla and Palamu districts in Jharkhand, the insurgents abducted 10
polling officials—all of them were subsequently rescued. The Maoist threat led to a low voter turnout of 46 per cent, almost 12 per cent less than
the voting recorded in the same areas during the 2004 Parliamentary polls.

The Maoists and the state are not the only players in this ugly battle. In the past three decades, Bihar has come to witness increasing violence
between caste-based armies and the Maoists.Ashwani Kumar’s Community Warriors is a study of such militias or senas.

In contemporary Bihar, sena means a violent syndicate comprising neo-rich peasants, mafia politicians and sundry feudal elements
engaged in defending their vested interests. Caste senas have come to be viewed as surrogate arms of the political elite. Initially, they
began as loose mass organizations under locally influential caste leaders and musclemen but gradually converted into mobile death squads,
ideologically motivated to wreak vengeance on their adversaries.

These private armies, notably the Ranvir Sena, exhibit impressive forms of organization, leadership and ideology, but they are not recognized in
the official discourse as subversive. The official discourse fits well into a lot of scholarly explanations of conflict in which caste mobilization is less
dangerous than mobilization by Maoists.

Ashwani Kumar challenges such assumptions. According to him, reducing caste conflicts to the so-called non-dangerous private domain also fits
well with the state’s strategy to depoliticize cases of caste wars. Kumar’s analysis throws new light on the state’s behaviour having categorized
cases of caste riots as private disputes, the Bihar and the union governments have persistently declined to get involved in such organized
political violence. But as Kumar shows the state is almost always complicit in such violence.

The relationship between the ruling party at the centre and the one in power in the state hugely affects outcomes of such massacres. For
example, the bjp- led National Democratic Alliance government at the centre dismissed Bihar’s Rahstriya Janata
Dal-led government after Ranvir Sena’s massacre of Dalits in 1999.

Kumar’s analysis of Bihar’s private armies is nuanced and well-considered. But his reading of Maoist violence is hackneyed. To Kumar, the
Maoists are part of the social justice juggernaut. Maoists, it is true, have mobilized Bihar’s low caste peasantry. But they have also become
centres of power in ways inimical to democracy. Exercising one’s franchise has in recent years become a potent weapon of the Dalits and the
poor in their struggles for a better life. The Maoist disruption of elections betrays a deep contempt for the very people in whose name they claim
to shed blood. But all this does not detract Kumar’s study. Community Warriors is an important contribution to the maddening conundrum
called Bihar.

Ashish Gupta is doing a PhD on caste violence in Bihar from Delhi University