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Land dispute carnage in Khagaria district of Bihar

Hours before dawn broke on the 140th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, suspected Maoist guerrillas gunned down 16 people, including five children, after dragging them out of their homes here in Bihar's Khagaria district, 190 km from Patna. The killings were apparently over a land dispute between Musahars, who are mostly landless Dalits, and Kurmis, who come under Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

 

"Land dispute was the cause of carnage," Khagaria SP Indranand Mishra said. In a sign of assertion, possibly egged on by the Maoists, Musahars were demanding the Kurmis vacate their land for them. Another senior police officer, who did not wish to be named, said the killings could be the work of Naxalites. "The extremists took up the cause of Musahars who are Maoist sympathisers," he said.

 

Some time after Thursday midnight, at least 24 gunmen descended on Amousi village, where 21 villagers were asleep, guarding their farmland and cattle. They were woken up, dragged out of their homes and their hands tied up. The children who were killed in this carnage were all between 10 and 15 years of age.

 

However, before the bloodbath began, four of the 21 captives managed to escape under the cover of darkness. Of the 17, one Paro Singh survived as he lay pretending to be dead even after the killers' bullet -- they were shooting indiscriminately -- missed him.

 

As the assailants left, Paro Singh ran to the village and informed the villagers. The police reached five hours later, and recorded the statement of Singh who said he could identify 10 of the killers as they were local Musahars.

 

Paro told TOI that local Musahars four months back had threatened him and his family with dire consequences if he did not vacate his farmland. "We had petitioned district officials, but it was useless," he said, and added that he never expected Musahars to resort to such an extreme step for grabbing his land.

 

Musahars, the poorest among poor Dalits in Bihar, are so named for their rat-catching skills. Many of them eat rodents. While 14 of the victims belonged to backward Kurmi caste, two were Kushwahas, also OBCs.

 

Khagaria has not witnessed caste clashes before. In fact, Bihar, too, hasn't seen caste war for years -- the last one taking place in 2000 when at least 34 OBC Yadavs were killed in Aurangabad's Miapur village in retaliation of the killing of an equal number of upper caste Bhumihars in Jehanabad's Senari village in 1999.

 

The attack amounts to a political setback for CM Nitish Kumar, who has been trying to build a grand alliance between non-Yadav OBCs and the Maha-Dalits -- that is all Dalits except Chamaars and Paswans. The assault on Kurmis hits at Kumar's core constituency.

 

Not surprisingly, Lok Janshakti Party's Ramvilas Paswan has said, "Nitish has a lot to explain... He should take moral resonsibility and resign."

 

Alauli block, under which Icharwa falls, has seen Maoist violence in the past also. Two policemen were killed, a farm house and a brick kiln blown and six tractors of a road construction company burnt by Maoists in different incidents during the last three years in the area.

 

At the time of going to the press, cops claimed to have arrested eight of the 10 named accused besides four suspects. A massive combing operation was on to nab others, the SP said, and added that the police are probing if it was a Maoist operation.