Rammurti Singh Verma, 64, the minister of state who has been accused in the murder of a journalist in Uttar Pradesh, has cultivated two contrasting images over the years. In Shahjahanpur, the poor look up to him as the leader who stands up for them, the host who never sends any visitor back without a meal. His rivals would rather call him a muscleman who can turn the police on them when his party is in power. They also note his fickleness as a politician — his six victories in 10 elections have come over a career during which he has hopped no less than six parties.
Jagendra Singh, the murdered journalist, had run a Facebook page called Shahjahanpur Samachar and accused Verma of land grabbing and illegal mining. Verma allegedly assaulted him on April 28 and set him on fire on June 1. In one post on May 22, Jagendra had accused Verma of conspiring to eliminate him. The FIR alleges that Verma’s close aides were present when Jagendra was set on fire.
“We had tried to arrange a meeting between Verma and Jagendra to broker peace but that did not happen,” said Sardar Sharma, a local journalist who worked with Jagendra.
Since coming to power in 2012, CM Akhilesh Yadav has temporarily dropped a number of ministers facing charges of assault or murder. Verma remains in the cabinet, with the government’s action so far having been restricted to suspending five policemen including station house officer Prakash Rai.
Minister Shivpal Yadav has made it clear Verma’s job is safe for now. “Without an inquiry, we will not remove the minister. Earlier too, charges were levelled against our ministers… In Raja Bhaiyya’s case, he was proved not guilty by the CBI,” Shivpal said on Monday.
In fact, after Verma had blamed former MLA Devendra Pratap Singh for supporting Jagendra against him, the Samajwadi Party expelled Devendra three days ago.
The government, however, is immense pressure. Opposition parties and social activists have demanded a CBI inquiry, a PIL with this demand has been filed with the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court, and former Union minister Jitin Prasada visited the journalist’s family while Congress members went on a march in Lucknow. Days earlier, former SP MP from Shahjahanpur Mithilesh Kumar was sent back when he went to console the bereaved family. On Monday, district magistrate Shubhra Saxena and SSP Bablu Kumar did visit the family, whose members are sitting on a dharna outside their house at Khutar in Shahjahanpur.
Verma has built his mass base by championing the cause of the poor and challenging the upper castes in the region, backed by his own community the Lodh Kisans. He switched his loyalties among the Lok Dal (B), the Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Janata Party, the SP, the Congress and the BSP.
Hailing from a family that owns a large agricultural properties in Harguraiyya village, Verma has opened a free food and lodging facility at his house in Shahjahanpur. “Even today, if you visit his house, you will find several poor people he wouldn’t have met before. If they have to come to the city, they will spend the night at his home, knowing they will get a meal and a place to rest,” said Tanveer Ahmed, chairman of the Shahjahanpur Municipal Board.
Verma, once a village pradhan and block pramukh, later became district president of the Lok Dal (B). He won his first assembly election from Jalalabad in 1989 as a Janata Dal candidate, the second as a Samajwadi Janata Party in 1991; the third as an SP nominee in 1993. His two stints as Shahjahanpur MP were as a member of the Congress the first time and then as one of the SP in 2001. In between, he lost three parliamentary elections, all as an SP candidate. When he lost the assembly poll in 2007, he joined the BSP, but returned to the SP, won from Dadraul in 2012, and was given his current position as MoS, Backward Class Welfare, in 2013.
In his election affidavit of 2012, he declared one criminal case, relating to criminal assault and breach of peace.”
“Verma ended the era of Thakurs and Brahmins in Shahjahanpur. He never accepted invitations from rich people but always attended weddings of the poor. His supporters believe the allegation of murder is the handiwork of the upper-caste lobby,” says a block pramukh in Shahjahanpur.