THE NIGHT OF 9 September was one of the longest for jailed RJD leader Mohammad Shahabuddin, and the impatience was visible on his face. The man who had spent more than a decade behind bars was to be released the next morning. The medical ward in the third block of Bhagalpur Central Jail, Bihar, where Shahabuddin had been lodged for the last three months, was lit up all night. Saheb, as locals in his ‘hometown’ Siwan call him, could hear his supporters raise slogans outside the jail. A restless Saheb could not sleep a wink. Finally, at 7 am, he appeared at the gate. By his side was a policeman, carrying two bags of books that Shahabuddin had kept with him during his incarceration.
Saheb’s convoy had more than 500 vehicles as it began its 340- km journey. From Bhagalpur to Siwan, it usually takes around seven hours; it took the convoy 14. After all, Saheb was back after 13 long years and he had to halt many times to greet supporters gathered by the roadside. On reaching his Pratappur village home—about 10 km from Siwan proper—he first met his father, SM Hasibullah, and wife Heena, and then went inside to greet his mother. Even here, his supporters had assembled from all corners of the district to catch a glimpse of him. “Some have come from nearby districts,” says Irfan Khan, a Pratappur resident. The crowd is a mixed one, with Muslims as well as Hindus of various castes.
The festive mood continues in Pratappur even days later as we visit the village on Eid-ul-Zuha, 13 September. Is it fear of the strongman that has forced them to make a beeline for Pratappur, or are they really excited about his release? Behind every loud cheer, one can sense a veiled silence. Many refuse to answer the question. Some turn grim. “Why are you asking me?” asks a young businessman, “Don’t you know the answer?”
It was not the same Pratappur that Open visited three months ago. The road from Siwan town to the village is almost jammed with SUVs and motorbikes. The barren land between Shahabuddin’s three houses is filled with people sitting on red plastic chairs provided by a local tent house. There is many a dense gathering under the shade of a Neem or Banyan tree. Shahabuddin’s ‘White House’, which wore a deserted look till recently, now has no further space for anyone to stand. Young men on the first floor balcony keep a vigil on the area. An unwell Saheb has been meeting people since 7 in the morning and has gone in to get some rest. The crowd swells minute by minute even as we wait for him to make an appearance. Sewaeen, an Eid dessert, is served to everyone.
Suddenly, the crowd perks up, alert. Saheb is back. People jostle to shake his hand or touch his feet. Youngsters take selfies with him. He recognises almost everyone and greets them with a smile before sitting down. After a formal exchange of greetings, he asks me to take a seat next to him.
“I could only sleep for six hours in the last four days,” he says. “I have been requesting people not to come here every day, as I will go and meet them, but they don’t listen.” He looks sleep deprived but once he starts speaking, there is no sign of tiredness. A fitness freak, he takes his exercise regimen seriously, but everything has gone haywire since 10 September. In jail, he would run 10 km every day, undeterred by a spinal surgery he underwent in 2006. He also loves reading. “It is my passion,” he says, “I read everyone, even Savarkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya.” He has just finished A Prisoner’s Scrap-Book by LK Advani. Then he turns away to talk to the crowd, including a local leader, Baban Yadav, Block pramukh of Guthani, who hands Saheb a bouquet of red roses. “The media says that I am a terror in Siwan. Look at these faces—the elderly, the women, girls and boys. Had I been so dreaded, would they come to me? You can see there is no security cover, as I don’t fear anyone,” says Shahabuddin. “I have become indifferent to allegations.”
COMPLETELY DETACHED FROM what is happening in Pratappur is a family near Sadar Hospital in Siwan. Chandrakeshwar Prasad or Chanda Babu, whose three sons Shahabuddin had got killed, is not surprised at the turn of events. “I saw the power show on the day he was released,” he says. “It felt like a funeral procession for my family.” Chanda Babu cannot forget 16 August 2004, when his three sons, Girish, Satish and Rajeev were abducted by Shahabuddin’s men and taken to Pratappur for a dispute over a shop in his newly acquired house. “Girish and Satish were given an acid bath and their bodies disposed in a jute sack with salt,” says Chanda Babu. His elder son Rajeev managed to escape and decided to testify in court for the case. Shahabuddin was in Siwan jail at that time, but Chanda Babu says that he used to come out every evening and go back in the morning. “All of Siwan knows he attended marriages and other functions while in jail.” According to him, Shahabuddin was in Pratappur when his sons were killed. Chanda Babu was in Patna and didn’t dare to return to Siwan for four months. Ten years after the murders, on 16 June 2014, his elder son Rajeev was riding a bike in Siwan when he was shot dead by three men. He was to appear as a witness in his brothers’ murder case on 19 June. “I was on another bike and saw Saheb’s son Osama with two others ride past me to kill my son,” says Chanda Babu. A physically challenged son, Nitish Raj, and a paralysed wife are all who are left of his family. He looks at the photos of his three sons and wipes away tears. “I had even talked to Saheb over the phone and begged him to leave my children alone. [But] he threatened to destroy my entire family,” he says.
Shahabuddin refutes Chanda Babu’s claims. “They implicated my son Osama in the case [of killing Rajeev] and due to that, his studies were delayed by two years,” he says. Osama is currently studying Law at Preston in the UK . On Chanda Babu’s claim of having spoken to him, he says, “There is no mention of my name even in the statement before the magistrate. He had only said he called me and asked for help in the release of his sons. In reply, I said that those who have kidnapped his sons for more than three months would have already killed them by now.”
I have come to my village after 13 years. Let me enjoy my time here with my people who are happy to see me back
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The Rajeev murder case was the only one in which Shahabuddin needed bail. On 3 February this year, the Patna High Court had rejected his bail plea in the case and ordered the state government to complete the trial in nine months for a speedy conviction. On 20 May, Shahabuddin was transferred from Siwan to Bhagalpur Central Jail after the murder of journalist Rajdeo Ranjan and amid reports that he held darbars within the jail premises. For the trial to begin, he needed to be present at the Siwan sessions court. But that didn’t happen. On 3 September, he applied for bail again on the grounds that the trial has not begun and was not likely to begin soon. “It was a fair argument and the judge granted bail to my client,” says YV Giri, Shahabuddin’s lawyer. But senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi accuses the state government of arranging this bail. “The government didn’t start the trial as per the time given by the High Court and then left the bail argument to be defended by the assistant public prosecutor when they should have involved the advocate general or another senior lawyer.”
Shahabuddin is currently accused of various crimes in 39 cases, and trials are yet to begin for 11 of them. A special team of the Bihar Police had arrested him from Delhi in November 2005 when he had come to attend Parliament as an MP. Just before his arrest, the police had seized several illegal weapons, night vision equipment and arms and ammunition made in Pakistan’s ordnance factories from his village. The court sentenced him to a life term in dozens of cases related to murder, kidnappings, bombing, possession of illegal weapons and extortion. In October 2013, the Patna High Court had issued him a notice to appear before the High Court and had stayed further proceedings in the 11 cases till his appearance. With the government not making any effort to see that happen, the trials haven’t begun.
The tremors of Shahabuddin’s release could be felt in the state capital, Patna. Minutes after he was released, he mocked JD-U chief Nitish Kumar, calling him a circumstantial Chief Minister. “All the parties came together after 1977 to defeat Congress, and Morarji Desai became PM due to the circumstances,” he explains, citing history. “This time, our parties united to defeat BJP, and with no other option, Nitishji became CM. He is my CM too, but not my leader. My leader is Laluji.” But Shahabuddin has not called on Lalu yet, nor has the RJD chief called him up after his release. Some insiders believe it is a strategic ploy of his to praise Lalu and criticise Nitish. “He is angry with both Lalu and Nitish and they won’t say anything because of his Muslim support,” says a senior RJD leader. “Laluji’s sons are ministers, his daughter is an MP and his wife is an MLC. All this while Shahabuddin was in jail. Now he will wait for both Lalu and Nitish to fall back on him.” Shahabuddin was elected four times as an RJD MP from Siwan and twice as an MLA. After being convicted, he was debarred from contesting the 2009 General Election.
With Shahabuddin receiving support from other senior leaders like Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the cracks in Bihar’s ruling alliance are widening. Lalu Prasad has kept noticeably quiet on Shahabuddin. There are some in his family who fear the man. His brothers-in-law Sadhu and Subhash do not travel via Siwan to reach their native place Gopalganj, instead taking the longer Motihari route. “Why would I stop anyone from coming to Siwan?” asks Shahabuddin with a laugh. “If you have made up your mind to pronounce me a criminal, I can’t do anything about it.” According to him, there should be a motive for every crime. “I am not a property dealer or a builder. What should I kill people for? My ego? Isn’t that too much of an accusation?” He names other criminal-turned-politicians of the state and accuses them of amassing huge property in Bihar and elsewhere. “They all came after me and built huge apartments and malls in Patna and other places. I am staying in the same house as I was earlier,” he says, and adds, “that too without air-conditioners.”
Perhaps sensing trouble, the state’s Nitish government plans to file an appeal in the Supreme Court for the cancellation of Shahabuddin’s bail. After all, he has taken the limelight from Nitish’s schemes, like liquor prohibition, and is even trying to dictate the political discourse. It has also given the BJP ammunition to attack the government over law and order. “Even if they plan to act [against the strongman], it is not by choice, but because of constant pressure from us,” claims Sushil Kumar Modi.
Senior JD-U leader and party spokesperson Niraj Kumar denies the allegation. “We are not here to defend the guilty. I can assure you that the state government will make the strongest appeal against Shahabuddin,” he says. The BJP, meanwhile, is holding state-wide protests against Shahabuddin’s release.
The criminal-turned-politician is unperturbed by such news. “If you had come a little earlier, you would have seen some local BJP leaders who had come here to greet me for Eid. Ideologically, they might be against me, but there is no personal animosity with anyone.” When asked about the state government’s decision to approach the Supreme Court, he says, “I have come to my village after 13 years. I am not worried about what will happen tomorrow. Let me enjoy my time here with my people who are happy to see me back.” Remind him of Chanda Babu, pat comes the reply: “If one or two people are unhappy in all of Siwan, I can’t do anything about it.”
He gets up and goes inside, only to reappear for a fresh batch of visitors. Jail has not diminished the don’s popularity.