Crime, politics, and religion in a Bihar village

By Dr. Mohammad Sajjad

This is a tale of the pursuit of political power by a Muslim law-breaker with the whole-hearted support of the local village for the cause of glory of the community. This may be happening anywhere in Bihar but what is unfolding in this narrative involves a criminal in an economically and educationally backward village in Muzaffarpur District in the northern part of the State.

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The story is being told to enable thinking sections of the community and the larger society to appreciate how marginalized groups can be induced to endow petty criminals with charisma with the fond hope that thereby a dis-empowered group could be empowered.

Democracy under the gun. [TCN Photo]

In the remembered history (collective memory) of this village, no youth appeared to have taken to crime i.e. resort to violence for livelihood and personal gain on a ‘continuing basis’. Born in 1971, he comes from a poor Shaikh Muslim family with negligible land-holding. His poverty does not explain anything for boys with identical background who tend to migrate to earn livelihood, after completing their school education. The villain of this piece did not conform to this pattern as he pursued no education beyond a smattering of Hindi-Urdu. He joined his father who works in a small town Serampore near Calcutta in the 1990s, ostensibly to supplement the meager income to run his family. Soon, however, he decamped his new home after robbing his first murder victim of a few thousand rupees. Since then he has been living in the village leading life of a ‘career criminal’!

The Laloo-Rabri era (1990-2005), saw emergence of a new genre of criminal enterprise in Bihar countryside viz vehicle snatching and kidnapping. The talented and by now trained protagonist joined a group of similarly motivated ‘entrepreneurs’ in a small market town, Chakiya, in the East Champaran on the Motihari-Muzaffarpur highway which happens to be an important life-line of the region. Those in the know aver that his gang robbed a truck loaded with Hero Honda bikes, and sold off the loot in the adjoining areas at throw away prices. The enterprise and resourcefulness of this group is evident from the fact that managing forged documentation of the stolen goods posed no problem as they could reportedly enlist willing cooperation of the relevant government functionaries. Like all successful entrepreneurs our criminal friend has the innate ability to counterbalance daring with moderation of risks. He decided to shift the base back to the village so as to facilitate ‘safe and remunerative’ disposal of the looted property.

The village sources assure us that his first ‘customers’ were two government school teachers, counted among the village gentry. One of the gentlemanly duo was not so lucky as once he paid Rs 15000 as advance he neither saw the money nor blessed with the much aspired two-wheeler; the other gentleman had better luck as he was blessed with the vehicle which found way to his son-in-law as dowry. This transaction drew the attention of the village community for the teacher who managed to acquire the bike was a role model of sorts what with his stature as a government employee supplementing his income with private tuitions. His modicum of wealth coupled with the social prestige that still attaches to the guru or ustad in the rural hinterland drew attention to the returning criminal prodigal.

Thus ‘motivated’ our criminal decides to stay put in the village to lay the foundation of a local enterprise hitherto unknown to the village – vehicle snatching and kidnapping for ransom. He enlisted the cooperation of the like-minded if somewhat less gifted and experienced young men of the adjoining villages. The strategic location of his humble abode right on the highway and adjacent to the mosque proved a boon for his ‘business’ as it served as a hide-out for his associates and the ‘tools of their trade’. That this arrangement was not exactly a secret is borne by the fact that more than once the Police raided his house, recovered a bike which was looted after killing the bike-rider/owner. [In one such police raid, he put the arms (AK-47) under the bed on which his sister was lying with labour pain, and this is how he could dodge the police. The police reportedly hurled abuses on his sister, and in disgust she decided not to visit her maayka (parents’ home) ever again. As a mark of the appreciation of his shrewdness, this anecdote circulates in/ through casual gossips of the gentlemen of the village]. These minor inconveniences notwithstanding, no major harm came to him except brief imprisonment under trial.
Meanwhile, another criminal of an adjacent village, and a Rajput crony of ‘our criminal’ was killed by a Special Task Force (STF), in an “encounter”. The “encounter” took place in broad daylight in the midst of the highway village, and was a big relief to the common people. Simultaneously, however the killing added to the notoriety [and stature] of this criminal. Why? Because criminals survive through generating fear among the public which is what our man managed to do as the episode not only demonstrated his capacity to get an important fellow criminal liquidated but his clout with the Police was also brought home to all. It was widely believed that this criminal along with his friend was involved in the kidnapping; was picked up by the police and in interrogation he not only admitted to the crime but (a) led to the recovery of the victim and (b) got his Rajput colleague killed in the encounter. Since then he enjoys the luxury of being a more feared criminal. It however also created a complex and uneasy social relation in that the clansmen of the deceased became hostile to the ‘turncoat’.

In the elections of three-tier local bodies (Panchayati Raj Institutions) and legislative bodies, this young criminal came to be seen as a useful person by the politicians. In the Panchayat elections of 2001 and 2006 this criminal gained much prominence. Politicians started hiring him to “manage the booth” [a euphemism for poll-rigging].
Welfare schemes of the government like providing shelter to the poor under the Indira Awas Yojana, and Red Card Scheme for highly subsidised foodgrains for the poorest of the poor etc could benefit the illiterate poor only when a share of the scheme was routed by the elected village headman (Mukhia) through the man we are writing about. For example, the Indira Awas Yojana awards Rs 35000 to each person. It is a standard practice that Rs 10 to 15 thousand is pocketed by the Mukhia and the broker (in this case, the criminal). The managers of the nationalized banks are also the co-sharers; otherwise opening a bank account is made almost impossible for the illiterate poor, mostly women, as the male members are away in Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore, Bombay, Punjab, working mostly as taxi-drivers, electricians, and masons etc. Thus, it is a story of Mukhia-Criminal/Broker-Bank Manager nexus.

The emergence of this scenario evoked mixed responses. While some were aghast that their village had degenerated from its earlier poverty stricken but placid state to the bad world of crime, many more found comfort in strange rationalizations. The larger group found solace in explanations like “now the Bhumihar, Rajput, Yadav hegemons and politicians can’t ignore us; the Muslims, they have to bargain with us and share their loot with a Muslim”. These ‘rationalists’ found it fit to laud our hero-criminal on the plea that only someone as resourceful as him could make the Muslims of the village a political force to reckon with. With this new-found popularity, the man decided to rise up to the expectations of his admirers; He dared to plot [and assist in execution] the killing of an influential person [Bhumihar], who was an aspirant for the position of Mukhia. The criminal had earlier extended substantial electoral help to the deceased aspirant in his unsuccessful electoral bid in the Panchayat elections of 2006. In return, the deceased had helped and financed him to bribe the police to ensure that his police record remained without blemishes.

Like many criminal-entrepreneur our subject realized that greater gains awaited him if instead of enabling others to assume the overlordship of the Panchayat why not he don the mantle of the overlord himself. Administrative crackdown against criminals by the Nitish Kumar led government (who had promised his electorates to end the Lalo-Rabri’s “jungle raj” and give good governance, sushasan) was another factor behind this change of role contemplated by the criminal of this story. Back from a brief spell of incarceration (as a suspect in a murder investigation) he got down to the task of achieving the goal he had set for himself. At this stage we have to bring back to our narrative the two village worthies – the teachers who were his first two customers when he had decided to return to his roots to more efficiently hawk his looted merchandise. The two imparters of education used their persuasive skills to make the villagers realize the high degree of eligibility of their own daredevil to the elected office of the Panchayat Chief. In this campaign for public education they employed a substantial dose of anti-Hindu/ pro-Muslim communalism. Of course they also did all in their power to boost the morale and massage the ego of their putative idol.

Meanwhile, moving ahead with his political enterprise and with an eye on the Panchayat Polls of 2011, around the year 2009, he recruited 5-6 young boys of the village mostly in the under 15 age group. One of the important tasks assigned to these boys was to visit village households to sniff out petty disputes and problem in which the ‘budding leader’ could intervene. As a majority of adult males of this village are working as migrants, the poor illiterate or semi-literate women soon became dependent on him not only for resolution of minor domestic discords but for sorting out problems like accessing the local quacks, opening/ operating Bank accounts, similar errands in Community Development Block, police thana etc. There were other ‘benefits’ also; For instance, the subsidized Fair Price Shop owner (called “Dealer”) will give ‘adequate’ kerosene, sugar etc to the poor women only with the intervention of the tough turned champion of the poor. Similarly, finding brides and negotiation of dowry will take place with his ‘able’ intervention. Post marital dowry disputes will also be similarly resolved. On such occasions, the little land-holders also go for distress-sales, and such transactions too will be brokered by him. All these services would of course come at a price. The women know it, but they also realize that they have limited options. This arrangement supplements his ‘popularity’, ‘influence’, or ‘charisma’ apart from being a remunerative enterprise.

But as the Panchayat elections of April 2011 started coming closer some more electoral management had to be done. Intra-Muslim social diversities had to be managed. Rayeen and Dhuniya i.e. Muslims at the lowest rung of a borrowed hierarchy had to be mobilized in favour of the newly discovered champion of the Muslim cause. Whipping up the religious passion was the best way that the two dedicated teachers thought of. An issue of land of the mosque was discovered so as to be used as a vote-yielding machine. The two God fearing educators suddenly discovered that only half the land donated for the Masjid was actually occupied by the place of worship with the other half being still occupied by the descendents of the donor. What belonged to the God had to be reclaimed to construct a grand edifice which could display their assertive religious-political identity. The descendent of the donor claimed with the help of papers that what the donor had gifted was already with the mosque. All this was to no avail as the two teachers had tutored their ambitious pupil not to let go this opportunity and to keep the issue alive by means totally foul. Of course such counsel was music to the ears of someone so well schooled in the discipline of violence and lawlessness. In the midst of the ensuing bedlam there was an unexpected impediment – a simple resident of the village of modest personal standing but from a prominent Shaikh family of the village appears to have seen through the alliance between the educators and law breaker and started asking uncomfortable questions; what is worse, the doubts of this person started making sense to the people much to the consternation of the schemers.

Voters in the recent panchayat elections in Bihar. [TCN Photo]

The expose of this dirty political game would have obviously spoilt the electoral prospects of the criminal. So, this simple minded man, otherwise quite harmless, had to be eliminated immediately, to preempt the expose’. He was therefore done to death. But the murder had to be shrouded in mystery. While on way to the mosque for the Maghrib (sunset) prayers and was just about to enter into the mosque, he was grabbed by two people including the criminal (on 19th January 2011); his head was dashed against a wooden window in the house of the aspiring Panchayat chief (adjacent to the mosque). Liquor was then sprinkled on his body, a short while later in the silent chilling winter night, this unconscious man was carried to his home where his wife was told that having imbibed the prohibited brew to his heart’s content he had fallen into a stupor and that he will come around after a good night’s rest. Early next morning he was found dead.

The whole village was intimidated to circulate the reason of death: he died of overdose of alcohol. The influential, and ‘gentlemen’ were among the conspirators, and they succeeded in covering it up. They could even succeed in hiding the truth of the venue- the criminal’s house. They claimed that deceased was found lying unconscious on the road from where they lifted him up to carry up to his home as good citizens. By the time the mystery of the murder unraveled to the migrant/overseas survivors of the deceased, it was too late. The criminal and his aides, the ‘gentlemen’ of the village, had the last laugh.

Not long before this, a girl of the adjacent village, in the same Panchayat, was killed by this criminal, with sanction of the members of her family and the body was thrown into the river Gandak. Her ‘crime’ was that this upper caste Bhumihar girl had fallen in love with a lower caste (Kahaar- the palanquin carriers) boy. In exchange of this favour of “honour-killing”, the criminal was promised some Bhumihar votes in the forthcoming Panchayat elections of April 2011.

Given his criminal past, the police picked up the protagonist of this narrative for interrogation (on 3 March 2011), only to face protests of the villagers defying the cold night. The protestors included the two eminent teachers. The crowd championing the cause of their newfound hero consisted of all manner of humanity including many frail in body for reasons of age or ill health. They shouted against the police that a Muslim is not being allowed to emerge as a political leader. The next of kin of the Muslim deceased were condemned for approaching police and damaging the political prospect of the Muslim aspirant. Thus, even the survivor of the Muslim victim was subjected to harshest possible lamentation. Perhaps, in the perception of these “gentlemen”, the political rise of a Muslim criminal had to be facilitated even if the criminal did not spare even a Muslim of his own village. Of course, crime has no religious/caste identity. For these “noble” acts of trying to retrieving the land of the Masjid, and so many killings justified on one or the other pretexts, the villagers stood firm in support of this criminal, they admittedly voted for him with fervor and enthusiasm, in the Panchayat elections of 27 April 2011. After all, what does the life of an innocent man matter if it facilitates the rise of a Muslim muscleman up the local political ladder?

Grass-root democracy and devolution of power to the local people and the desire of a religious minority relegated to the margins of the political process indeed extract a strange price – particularly in the State of Bihar!

Dr. Mohammad Sajjad is Asstt. Prof. in Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University. This article was first published in