Why a murder convict calls the shots from jail: in new Bihar, meet the old

For both camps, it’s Shahabuddin who matters in Siwan; his former ‘shooter’ faces his current ‘choice’.

12 years since going to jail, ‘Saheb’ continues to cast his shadow on Siwan. 12 years since going to jail, ‘Saheb’ continues to cast his shadow on Siwan.

In this hard-fought election in Bihar, the Narendra Modi-led NDA’s apparently most persuasive pitch invokes the need for parivartan or change. The BJP says to the voter: You gave Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar 25 years, it’s time to ring in the new. On the other side, Nitish talks of how far Bihar has come in his rule, and his nishchay or resolve to bring more development, take it farther away from its past.

You’ve heard the promises. Come to Raghunathpur in Siwan for the reality check.

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Twelve years after he went to jail in 2003, and after having been convicted in eight cases and handed sentences ranging from one year to life imprisonment on charges including murder, former MP and RJD leader Mohammad Shahabuddin still looms as large as ever.

In a district where Shahabuddin was rumoured to be the sole “guardian” of the Muslim vote bank, and where “Saheb’s” writ actually ran over and above the law — on matters ranging from land acquisition to the fee doctors could charge — the return of the state had been the Nitish administration’s most powerful symbol of its achievements in law and order. Since 2009, moreover, Shahabuddin’s candidates, including his wife, have been losing successive elections at various levels — MP, MLA, MLC, municipality. Yet, this election in Siwan unabashedly dials back to an earlier time, places Siwan’s Saheb at its centre. Thanks to both alliances.

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Nitish, in whose regime Shahabuddin’s “durbar” was discontinued in jail, and whose party was seen to have successfully reaped the anti-Shahabuddin vote in 2010, sweeping the district in partnership with the BJP, is now on the same side as Shahabuddin in Siwan. And quite evidently, Nitish is only the face of an alliance in which the shots are still called by Siwan’s jailed strongman: like other maha gathbandhan candidates from Siwan, Hari Shankar Yadav, in Raghunathpur, is widely seen as Shahabuddin’s choice.

If Nitish seems dwarfed in Siwan, the BJP too, appears to have chosen to fight in Shahabuddin’s shadow.

Its Raghunathpur candidate is Manoj Singh — he beat sitting BJP MLA Vikram Kunwar to the party ticket this time, leading Kunwar to loudly second BJP MP R K Singh’s publicly expressed unease about ticket distribution to the allegedly tainted and criminal. Manoj Singh is described in these parts, not just by his political opponents and mostly without any sense of scandal, as one of Shahabuddin’s “shooters” in the past.

Listen in on what the two main candidates in Raghunathpur have to say — about themselves, about each other — to get a disquieting glimpse of the poll conversation in Siwan.

Manoj Singh, BJP

He was on a jan sampark or mass contact programme when The Indian Express caught up with him in Nikhti Khurd village of Raghunathpur. Edited excerpts from an interview:

> I can’t say why R K Singh objected to my candidature. For five years, the sitting MLA of my party had only made money and therefore lost popularity. Before this election, the party conducted a survey and gave me the ticket. I have been accused of buying the ticket. You must ask R K Singh, who was a bureaucrat, if he had to buy own his ticket in the election in 2014.

> My opponent in the RJD is no ladaku yodha, he is 72-75 years old, and has got the ticket because he is the candidate of Shahabuddin Saheb. From 1990 (when Shahabuddin first became an MLA) to 2009, (when he was barred from fighting elections by the court), there was katl-e-aam here. There was nar sanhaar (massacres), so many Yadavs were killed, but Lalu-Rabri came here only when a Muslim was killed. If they think they can reap the M-Y vote now, they are mistaken. People haven’t forgotten the murder of Yadavs. Pakistan gave arms and ammunition. He (Shahabuddin) is an ISI agent. Last year, Srikant Bharti, the spokesperson for the BJP MP, was killed by hired killers from UP. A few months before that, an eyewitness to a deadly acid attack, Rajiv Roshan, was killed.

> I belong to Shahabuddin’s village. I carry three gunmen with me because he can get me killed. He has an apradhiyon ki fauj. Criminals from across the country would come to him.

> I was with Shahabuddin, I studied with him, I studied commerce and he was an arts student. I helped him become an MLA. Then there was an incident. Shahabuddin’s shooter Riyazuddin, who too was from my village and who killed (AISA-CPIML activist and JNU student leader) Chandrashekhar, died, and Shahabuddin thought I had killed him. After that, we had differences. In 2005, he got my brother killed as revenge, during the time he had come out of jail on bail for 10 days to attend the Lok Sabha.

> My opponents say I was Shahabuddin’s shooter, but I don’t know how to shoot. The person who calls me that, the sitting BJP MLA, Vikram Kunwar who was denied the ticket this time, was himself a minister from Shahabuddin’s quota in the Lalu Prasad ministry. Later, as BJP MLA, he would favour Shahabuddin’s people, give tenders, all for the Muslim vote.

> Every village has Shahabuddin’s men, who are still in touch with him, and who still get their way by threatening that they will tell Saheb. We want roads, electricity, health and education, but the main issue in this election in Siwan is security or suraksha. Ham zinda rahenge, tab hi, we have to live, only then.

Hari Shankar Yadav, RJD

The maha gathbandhan candidate too was on a jan sampark tour when The Indian Express met him in village Hasanpurwa. Excerpts from the conversation:

> Manoj Singh has bought the ticket by paying Rs 2.5 crore at the very last minute. I got the ticket after a survey was done in the maha gathbandhan: by Laluji, Nitishji, and Shahabuddin Saheb. In Siwan, Shahabuddin Saheb decides who gets the RJD tickets, Laluji takes his advice.

> Saheb was the MLA earlier, then he became MP. So, the people of this area requested him to make his wife, Heena Shahab (who lost the MP election twice after Shahabuddin was barred), the MLA. But this time, he gave me the ticket.

> I have been mukhiya for 30 years. Now I am an ex-mukhiya and because the seat became a mahila seat, reserved for women, my wife is the mukhiya now.

> There was manthan (consultation) in the party ahead of ticket distribution. Party workers would go to meet Saheb in jail here, and now they go to Bhagalpur jail (where Shahabuddin was shifted by the Election Commission ahead of the election), in groups of two, on Mondays. I have not met him personally because he forbade me to. He told me, you must be in the kshetra (seat).

> Manoj Singh was with Shahabuddin Saheb. There are cases against him, allegations of murder and (involvement in) a fertiliser mafia when he (Singh) was the cooperative chairperson, and a land mafia.

> Shahabuddin Saheb did not know all that others were doing in his name. When he found out, he threw him (Manoj Singh) out. Saheb has been entangled in false cases. Others have done it. Manoj Singh was also part of the conspiracy because Saheb threw him out.

> The issue in this election is vikas. We need improvements in agriculture, roads, electricity. But the main issue is aman chain (peace and calm). We know how the BJP-RSS can stoke tensions.