Twenty-four hours after a local court in Gopalganj district of northwest Bihar convicted 13 accused persons — sentencing nine of them to death and four women to life imprisonment — in the Khajurbanni hooch tragedy, tears have refused to fall from the vacant eyes of Sarita Devi. She has been wailing since Friday evening, with her three bemused children looking up to her, at a total loss. Her 13-year-old sister-in-law is the only person by her side to console her.
“For the last four years, I have been dying each day. Death has many faces for me. Now, after the court verdict on Friday, it has come as a full stop in my life,” she said. After a long, haunting pause, she looked at her three children and added: “What will happen to them? Does the court care and consider such innocent lives?”
Ms. Devi is the wife of Sanjay Pasi, 23, who, along with his two younger brothers, Ranjay and Munna Pasi, has been sentenced to death by the Gopalganj court of Additional District Judge-2 Luvkush Kumar. Their mother, Indu Devi, too, has been awarded a life sentence in the case. Their father, Shiv Narayan Paswan, died long ago, and now, only Sarita Devi, her three sons, and a sister-in-law, are left to be haunted by their absence, and to earn a living.
“My husband Sanjay Pasi, and his brother Ranjay Pasi, were working as painters in Bengaluru while the second brother-in-law Munna Pasi was driving an auto-rickshaw to run the family,” Ms. Devi said, sitting in the verandah of her ramshackle house which had earlier been attached by the police and locked — a house with broken windows, fading blue wall paint and torn calendars, and her vacant eyes. “I don’t know what else fate has in store for me,” she said.
A few yards away is the house of Rita Devi, who too has been sentenced to life, and her two sons Sanoj and Rajesh Pasi, have been sentenced to death. Rita Devi’s husband Nandji Pasi also died a long while back, and both her convicted sons are married men with small children. A group of neighbours gathered at their home on Saturday evening and they all wailed together to mourn the court verdict.
“No male member is left in our house to go anywhere to take further legal course. It seems like a death warrant for us as well,” said Sharda and Guddia Devi, wives of Sanoj and Rajesh Pasi, respectively, while crying inconsolably with a group of gathered women.
Similarly, Maya Devi, along with her four daughters and one son, Rajan Pasi, 17, has been sitting outside the locked iron gate of her house for past 24 hours, ever since the court verdict was delivered. Her husband Chhatu Pasi, 50, too, had been awarded a death sentence in the case. “My father used to sell sattu (gram flour) on a wheel cart near the railway crossing, earning about ₹2,000 every month to run the family. But the police made him the accused in the hooch tragedy case, and now he has been served a death sentence for no fault,” rues her son, who does odd jobs to feed the family of six members.
Their story repeats itself at the household of Laljhari Devi and her son Kanhaiya Pasi, both sentenced to life imprisonment and death sentences, respectively. Kanhaiya Pasi, 40, has seven children — six daughters and one son. He and his wife Manju Devi live in a dilapidated asbestos-roofed home to fend for themselves. “He was a rickshaw puller but police accused him in the case along with his mother. Even if we believe for a moment that they were engaged in local liquor brewing, can they serve poison to their customers to die and harm their business?” asked Vinod Pasi, a relative of Kanhaiya Pasi.
Outside the house of the prime accused in the case, Nagian Pasi, his son Kundan Pasi and his mother Ramavati Devi, too, have similar tales of woes to tell. Toddy tapper Lalbabu Pasi, who too was awarded the death sentence, has seven daughters, four of them married, and one younger son, Virat Kumar, to be looked after along with their distraught mother, Kiran Devi.
Out of 14 accused persons in the case, one of them, Grahan Pasi died on May 4, 2020. Of the 13 sentenced on March 5, nine (all male) were awarded death while, four (all women) were served life sentences in the hooch tragedy, which had struck the Khajurbanni locality of the Gopalganj town on August 16, 2016, in which as many as 19 people had died after consuming illegal country-made liquor in dry Bihar. Four months before the tragedy, in April 2016, the Bihar government had effected a new Excise and Prohibition Act to ban sale and consumption of liquor in the State, with stringent punishment for violators.
“There is a provision for death sentences and lifer [life imprisonment] under section 34B(1) of the new Act,” Special Public Prosecutor in the Gopalganj court, Ravi Bhushan Srivastva, told The Hindu on Saturday. “Cognisance in over 5,000 such cases has been taken in Gopalganj district alone, and in over 150 cases, judgment will be delivered soon,” he added further.
“We will approach the Patna High Court against the judgment,” said lawyer Ved Prakash Tiwari, who is representing the accused.
Among six persons who had lost their eyesight in the tragedy, Bandhu Ram was working as a gatekeeper at the Shyam cinema hall in the town, and earning ₹3,000 every month.
“On August 16, 2016, I, along with some others, had gone to Khajurbanni to drink desi (countrymade) liquor, and the morning after, I lost my eyesight. Since then, I’ve been bed-ridden, having spent all my savings on my treatment at Gorakhpur, Nepal, Muzaffarpur, Patna, Siwan and other places,” he said, while his wife Rambha Devi and daughter Gunja Kumari look at him with grim faces.
In an adjacent room in a dank alley lives Amrita Devi with her four children, and Nagendra Ram, her rickshaw-puller father. Her husband, Anil Ram, was one among the 19 persons who lost their lives in the hooch tragedy. After the tragedy struck her family, Ms. Amrita Devi shifted to her parents’ home.
“Life has become a nightmare. He [Anil Ram] died once but we’re dying every day. Death has many faces,” she said while sitting on an unplastered staircase.