It is late evening on Day 4 of the release on bail of Mohammad Shahabuddin. From Siwan town, an ill-lit road winds to Pratappur village, about 4 km from the crowded, dusty town centre where you can count at least three welcome arches for “Dr Mohammad Shahabuddin Saheb”.
Once in Pratappur, the road lurches past paddy fields, becomes narrower as it snakes across houses that loom on both sides, green, yellow and brick-coloured, and about 30 minutes after leaving Siwan town, comes to a stop at a large clearing ringed by low-slung buildings. This is the ancestral home of the man known as Siwan’s dreaded don.
Here, the former MLA and four-time MP, who was for 11 years Siwan’s most infamous convict, holds court under a neem tree, with district RJD president Parmatma Ram in attendance. The conversation is hushed, and sporadic. For the most part, the young and middle-aged men in his audience of about 100-150 are content to sit a while on chairs arranged in a circle around Shahabuddin, and then, with a handshake, a greeting, a selfie or a reverential touching of “Saheb’s” feet, they leave, their place quickly taken up by new arrivals.
Shahabuddin, bushy-browed and wiry in a dark T-shirt, trousers and rubber chappals, appears relaxed. He fasts for one day in the week, he tells a visitor, a doctor from Siwan town — “Saheb” seems thinner, the doctor has just remarked. But he keeps changing the day of the fast, Shahabuddin says, “because those who follow me should not read too much into any particular day”.
Ask him about his remark calling Nitish Kumar a “chief minister of circumstance”, and it is evident that Shahabuddin knows well the political storm he has raked up in Patna after his release from jail.
Siwan’s “Saheb” has flung a dare at Bihar’s chief minister and he is not going back on it. On the contrary, he rubs it in. “When different parties came together during the JP movement to unseat Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai became PM. No one knew of him. That was circumstantial. Similarly, after the last Lok Sabha poll, my party took the initiative to make the Mahagathbandhan. We said we are ready to sacrifice though we are the larger party. We said that you (Nitish) can remain CM, because we have to stop the BJP.”
Nitish is not his “neta” or leader, says Shahabuddin. “Nitish is the leader of the House, but I am not a member of any House. He is my CM, but not my neta. Tomorrow, you will say that just because Modi is PM, he is my neta. And if Rahul Gandhi becomes the Mahagathbandhan candidate for PM, will I have to call him my neta as well?”
His neta, says Shahabuddin, is his party’s “mukhiya”, Lalu Prasad. “Vishwas ka rishta hai, it’s a relationship of trust, that has lasted 29 years. We trust each other implicitly. Nobody can come between us, or set us up against each other.” But wasn’t the RJD uncomfortable with his remark on Nitish? “Has Laluji said anything?” he counters. “Baat khatam (end of argument).”
You could say that Shahabuddin’s dare to Nitish started from the moment of his release from Bhagalpur jail on September 10, when he was driven to Pratappur in a flamboyant cavalcade of SUVs that whipped past toll booths, accompanied, by his own count, by two MLAs from the RJD, two from the JD(U).
Now, the man seen to be an unconstitutional authority in his district till he was jailed in 2005, whose very name sparks an undimmed fear 11 years later, and whose continued clout in the RJD is attributed to his custodianship of the Muslim vote in Siwan and its adjoining districts, flings down more gauntlets.
Some are aimed directly at Nitish, others at the State authority Nitish is credited for reinstating and restoring in a Bihar that is seen to have made a turnaround, howsoever imperfect and incomplete.
“You can compare the crime rates in Lalu raj and Nitish government and see for yourself if there is any difference.
The minority vote remains with Lalu; it has not moved to Nitish. He (Nitish) tried to divide it on backward-forward lines, but he got only the pasmanda (backward Muslim) leaders, not voters.
There are high hopes from (Lalu’s son and Nitish’s deputy CM) Tejashwi; he is mature and balanced.
The State works at its own pace, sab ki gati alag hai, you can’t expect a Scorpio to run at the pace of a Pajero. I walked faster (than the State), I wanted people to notice that I can do better than others. Government officials didn’t like it, their ego was hurt.
I am asked why I arbitrated disputes. But I only did what the Supreme Court wants. It wants Lok Adalats and family courts to lessen its burden. I lowered doctors’ fees. We have over 400 doctors, the most after Patna, but koi bhi baagi nahin hua (nobody flouted my regime).
Mujh par toh mera hi prabhav hai, I am the greatest influence on myself… Do I need to change? When god made me, he didn’t put in a reverse gear.”
The next day, Day 5 of his freedom, Shahabuddin makes his first foray outside Pratappur since his release, to his three-storeyed house in Naya Kila Mohalla in Siwan town. Inside, in the high-ceilinged living room, he sits on a sofa under a sumptuous chandelier, dressed for the grander setting in white kurta pyjama and gold-rimmed spectacles. Behind him, as in a Hindi blockbuster of the ’60s-70s, a staircase spirals up from both sides to converge on an upper floor. Next to him sits RJD MLA from Goriyakothi Satyadeo Prasad Singh, who points to the crowd thronging outside the glass doors and fawns: “People have come here to ask, mera Ram kaisa hai (How is my lord)?”
In a room behind the living room, shuttered from the many visitors, is his wife Heena Shahab and his elder daughter, the only one of his three children who has been able to come to Siwan to greet Shahabuddin on his release.
Twenty-year-old Hera Shahab is a student of medicine in Hyderabad. Like Shahabuddin’s other two children — son Osama is doing LLB in England and youngest daughter Tasneem studies in Class 11 — Hera was packed off at an early age away from her father’s fief, to do her schooling in Delhi. Now, she is evidently taken with Hyderabad. “It is such a big city, with so many colleges, there is no comparison with Bihar,” she says. “And it is the safest city for girls”.
The defeat of Heena Shahab in two Lok Sabha elections on an RJD ticket while he was in jail — in 2009 and again in 2014 — is seen as a marker of Shahabuddin’s waning in Siwan. “I got votes, but couldn’t win because I didn’t have a guardian,” says Heena. Will things go back to the days of old now that “Saheb” walks free again in Siwan — the question hangs in the air inside the three-storeyed house in Naya Kila Mohalla and, in a very different way, outside it.
The story of Shahabuddin upends the standard narrative of the bahubali-don in Bihar in at least one crucial way. Generally, apart from striking unadulterated fear in the people, the don cultivates a Robin Hood-like aura, of taking from the rich to give to the poor.
Though there are stories of his patronage and largesse to the poor, Siwan’s “Saheb” was known to thrive on the support of the region’s landed castes, who propped him up to help them in their fight against the CPI (ML). Shahabuddin himself says: “In those days, those whom the CPI(ML) called feudal were with me and the RJD government. At that time, there were only two sides. I gave a political umbrella to those upper castes in Siwan who have now migrated to the BJP.”
For the rest, by all accounts, Shahabuddin hewed to the pattern of the don, except that his depredations and megalomania seemed larger in scale. In a widely reported raid on his Pratappur premises in 2005, police recovered sophisticated arms and ammunition, tiger skin, deer skin, live deer, foreign currency far above the permissible limit and stolen vehicles with number plates audaciously kept unchanged. Among the high-profile cases in which his name has come up are the killings of former JNUSU president and CPI(ML) activist Chandrashekhar Prasad in 1997 and most recently, the killing of Siwan journalist Rajdev Ranjan. The latter’s family has publicly named Shahabuddin.
Stories, real-life and reel-like, and myths feed the Shahabuddin legend. They speak of the vacuum created by an absent, weak or corrupt State and of the strongman seizing the space. But mostly, they speak about fear. So strong is the fear that two top officers who have served in Siwan and who are now posted elsewhere in the state speak about Shahabuddin to The Sunday Express only on condition of anonymity. They describe the “parallel government” Shahabuddin ran in Siwan.
Tenders would be given to wholesale liquor dealers only with his approval, they say, even when he was incarcerated — the collector would take the file to him in jail. Doctors could not take leave and teachers could not be appointed or transferred without his concurrence. Health and education, the two functions of the state, were entirely controlled by the don.
No registration of land could be done without his consent. Traders had to give him hafta. And he held kangaroo courts in which allegedly corrupt officers were punished. The MPLADS funds that Shahabuddin claims he used for development projects in Siwan, it is said, were not even 1 per cent of the story of his clout.
There are stories of Shahabuddin firing at a senior police officer in full public view in Siwan and of the latter being outgunned and forced to flee to safety. Stories, too, of a full-blown armed battle between the police force and Shahabuddin’s men on the other side, firing AK-47s, at Pratappur, which ended only when a UP special task force unit responded to an SOS by the Siwan forces and came to their rescue.
Back in those days, they say, if people had to take a train at night out of Siwan, they would arrive early at the railway station and lie down on the platform to wait. If someone from outside arrived by train in Siwan after sunset, they would also huddle on the platform till the next morning.
By all accounts, this continued till the 2005 arrest of Shahabuddin. The arrest took place before Nitish Kumar became chief minister, when the state was still under President’s Rule, but the Nitish regime could be credited with major achievements in Siwan.
Siwan jail, till then a law unto itself, was brought under control, and Shahabuddin’s darbars curbed. A special designated court only for Shahabuddin’s cases was set up, to minimise the scope for laxity or delay. This gave courage to witnesses to come forward and depose against the don.
More generally, there was an institutionalisation of State action against the law-breaker across Bihar.
Today, with Shahabuddin out on bail, making provocative statements and holding court in Siwan, the Nitish government has been pushed into firefighting mode. On Friday, it moved the Supreme Court seeking cancellation of Shahabuddin’s bail. But questions continue to linger over whether it did enough to keep the don in jail.
Sushil Modi, BJP leader and former deputy chief minister, charges the government with complicity and deliberate inaction in the Shahabuddin matter: “In more than 30 cases, trial has been stayed against Shahabuddin, yet the government made no move to get the stay vacated. The government has been flying in prominent lawyers from outside for other cases, like prohibition, but did not deem it fit to do so in the Shahabuddin case.” Modi claims the government’s lapses have all been in the last three years — or ever since Nitish broke his alliance with the BJP.
In his office in Patna’s Sinchai Bhawan, Lalan Singh, Minister for Water Resources, Planning and Development, says: “The government went by the rule and by the law. It cannot be led by the political hue and cry. After all, it took time to hang Satwant Singh and Beant Singh even though everyone knew they had killed Indira Gandhi.”
But beyond the trading of charges with the Opposition, the Nitish government faces a massive Shahabuddin problem also because his release comes at a very delicate moment.
Less than a year into his current tenure in power, and unlike his previous two terms, when his government was seen to be striding forward visibly, the Mahagathbandhan government is losing the perception game in Bihar. Amid speculation over Lalu’s pressure on Nitish, or about Nitish himself losing any radical impulse he might have had to change the status quo, it is seen to be standing still, even backsliding.
Even though the JD(U)-RJD government has taken action against its own — against JD(U) MLC Manorama Devi, for instance, whose son Rocky Yadav went absconding after allegedly killing a teenager in a fit of road rage in Gaya, or against RJD legislator Raj Ballabh Yadav, booked for allegedly raping a minor — one thing is clear: The onus is now on the Nitish-led government to prove its innocence, case by case.
The prohibition policy is also having unpleasant cascading effects on governance, Bihar government officials say. It has diverted the energies of the police force to chasing bottles of liquor, and severely cramped the funds available for district-level schemes. At the same time, transfers and postings of district officials are said to be held hostage to the RJD-JD(U) tug of war, slowing down the administration crucially.
Against this backdrop, the release of Siwan’s strongman poses a question that ominously dials back to the past for the Nitish government. Is it losing the plot on law and order, its most applauded achievement so far?
Near JP chowk in Siwan, where student leader Chandrashekhar Prasad was shot and killed, allegedly by Shahabuddin’s goons, while addressing a nukkad sabha on March 31, 1997, stands his statue, surrounded by fading red flags. A plaque commemorates his “shahadat” or martyrdom.
Across the road, in the makeshift stalls selling street food, Siwan residents refuse to say anything on the release of Shahabuddin. “For now, he is at his home, meeting people. Let’s wait and see what happens”, is the cautious refrain.
Amid the general reticence, Mithilesh Singh speaks up. “I am a Shahabuddin supporter,” he says. “If you leave aside some things, he did a lot of development work in Siwan. His convoy when he came from Bhagalpur to Pratappur was so long.” Even chief ministers couldn’t match that, he says.
“And then, didn’t Tulsidas say, bina bhaya ke preet nahi (there is no love without fear),” says Mithilesh.
In Tulsidas’s couplet, the “bhaya” refers to respect, or reverence. In Mithilesh’s retelling, however, it may have mutated into something resembling terror of the don.
Cases since 1986: 40
2007: Sentenced to life for 1999 CPI (ML) leader Chhotelal Shukla murder; 2 yrs for 1998 attack on CPI-ML (Liberation) office in Siwan and kidnapping of a party leader; 3-yr RI for keeping stolen vehicle
2008: Awarded 10-yr RI in Arms Act case; 1-yr RI for threatening police officer from Beur Central jail
2010: Sentenced to 10 years for attack on then Siwan SP S K Singhal
2015: Sentenced to life for 2004 murder case involving brothers Girish, Satish Raj
Cases pending: 24