Mohammad Shahabuddin: The Jail Superintendent

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How the RJD don Shahabuddin made Siwan jail his political headquarters

ON 18 MAY, Mahendra Kumar, district magistrate of Siwan in Bihar, and Superintendent of Police Saurabha Sah decided, over a phone call, to review the security of the district jail. A police team was assembled in no time. What they found was a group of people trying to cross a bamboo barricade to reach the main gate of the jail. When the policemen demanded their identities, the crowd of about 50 fled the scene. In the visitors’ corridor inside the jail, there were 10 more people. Kumar quickly checked the visitors’ register kept outside the gate, it had just 20 entries for the day. How could so many people come in without making an entry, Kumar asked the superintendent of the jail, Vibhu Bhardwaj. “They have all come to meet former MP Shahabuddin. They were permitted to enter after their identity cards were checked,” came the reply. The police detained some of the visitors while allowing others to leave, but only after they had deposited their mobile phones. “Some of them have criminal records,” says Sah. “We are still verifying their details.” Krishna Devi, former District Panchayat chairman of Siwan, was among those whose mobile phone was taken by the police. “I was there to meet our leader Shahabuddin,” she says. “What is wrong with that?”

Kumar and Sah had interrupted what was a bi-weekly ritual at Siwan jail. “I am the king, my word is law,” Shahabuddin is fond of saying. Mondays and Wednesdays are when the king grants an audience to his subjects. People queue up to meet him as he stands behind the iron grill in the visitors’ area, listening patiently to their requests for four to five hours. A bevy of his men, present among the visitors, take down his instructions. Among those who have benefitted from Shahabuddin’s interventions is a widow in her 40s who tried to open a small shop after her husband’s death but was thwarted by a local henchman who demanded money. When she went to the police, they told her to meet Shahabuddin. “I was surprised but met him anyway. The next day, the man who had demanded money came to me and said that I should open the shop as soon as possible,” she says, not wanting to be identified. For RJD leaders and MLAs, Shahabuddin is available 24x7. RJD MLA Harishankar Yadav, the party’s district president Parmatma Ram and JD-U MLA Ramesh Singh Kushwaha are regulars at the prison. “We follow jail manuals. Visitors are allowed as they would be for a normal prisoner,” says Vibhu Bhardwaj, who took charge as jail superintendent a month ago.

Except, 49-year-old Mohammed Shahabuddin is anything but a regular prisoner. A dreaded criminal, four-time MP and RJD leader, he has been lodged in Siwan jail for over a decade now. On two occasions, he was briefly transferred to Bhagalpur Central Jail and Gaya Jail, only to return to his hometown. He has been transferred once again to Bhagalpur after the opposition raised the issue after the killing of journalist Rajdeo Ranjan on 13 May in Siwan. And whenever there is a murder in Siwan, the first thing the police do is raid the jail situated in the heart of the small town. For it is widely believed that the orders to kill come from someone inside the jail. The security review on 18 May was done in response to the murder of Ranjan. Shahabuddin has not been named in the case yet, but some of his close associates have been taken into custody. Upender Singh, a confidant of Shahabuddin’s who was released on bail a few months ago, has been detained in connection with the case. As per reports, he has confessed that someone from inside the jail had planned Ranjan’s murder some months ago.

There is an unstated decree in Siwan. Everyone knows of the activities of ‘Sahab’, as the locals refer to Shahabuddin, but they dare not speak up against him. Those who voice their opposition are dealt with by his goons, some even murdered. Back when Sahab was a free man, every shop would have a picture of him—out of necessity, not reverence. It was an act of pledging allegiance.

When he was convicted, the people of Siwan almost heaved a sigh of relief. But despite being in jail, Shahabuddin’s control over the town has not slackened. He has been in jail since his arrest in mid 2003 on charges of abducting a CPI(ML) worker in 1999 who was never seen again. In May 2007, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in the same case. Subsequently he has been convicted in a number of other criminal cases including 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for trying to kill a police officer in 1996. For almost 10 years during the NDA’s reign in Bihar, it looked like Shahabuddin’s star was on the wane. The government tightened the noose on gangsters across the state and Siwan was no different. Regular raids inside the jail ensured Shahabuddin doesn’t get to talk to the people outside. But he became active again in 2014 post JD-U BJP split in Bihar. In the present state government, his party has the most MLAs—80 in the 243-seat Assembly. Ministers and MLAs regularly visit him. He has every reason to feel powerful again.

Thanks to political backing, prison has become the safe house from where he can have his associates do his bidding without his direct involvement. It is from here that he is said to have ordered a spate of merciless killings in 2014. In June 2014, Rajiv Roshan, a resident of Siwan, was killed a month after his marriage. Rajiv’s two older brothers, Girish and Satish, had been sent to their graves in 2004. Their father, Chandra Babu, says Shahabuddin’s men had kidnapped his three sons after a scuffle and poured acid on Girish and Satish. Rajiv had managed to escape and was the sole eyewitness in the case, which was in progress at a fast-track court in Patna. “Three days before he was to appear before the court, Shahabuddin’s son Osama killed Rajiv in front of my eyes,” says Chandra Babu. “This was two years ago and police have not managed to arrest him. Where should I go now, with all my sons butchered and no help from the administration?” He has only one son left who is physically challenged. Twenty-three-year-old Osama Shahab, the prime accused in the murder case, is absconding.

A month after Roshan was murdered, property dealer Tabrez Alam alias Mastaan was shot dead at a tea stall in Siwan. Mastaan’s acceptability among local Muslims was growing by leaps and bounds. “He was an emerging leader among Muslims. No one had any reason to dislike him other than ‘Sahab’,” says a source close to Alam, requesting anonymity. “He has not been named in the FIR but we know who has done it.”

Prison has become the safe house from where Shahabuddin can have his associates do his bidding without his direct involvement

Shahabudin had a personal assistant named Srikant Bharti who helped him deal with the media. They parted ways in 2008 and Bharti joined the rival BJP, becoming personal assistant as well as spokesperson for Siwan BJP MP Om Prakash Yadav. In November 2014, Bharti was gunned down in Siwan.

ON 6 MARCH THIS YEAR, state Minority Affairs Minister Abdul Gafoor and RJD MLA Harishankar Yadav paid a visit to Shahabuddin in jail. A picture of their meeting in the jail superintendent’s office went viral on social media and the story was widely published in newspapers. Superintendent Radhe Shyam was suspended with immediate effect. The journalist Rajdeo Ranjan is believed to have first received the picture and distributed it. Though police have not pinned his murder on this, his friends have little doubt. “Shahabuddin’s people are everywhere and they pass on information to him. Some even attend press conferences to observe who asks what questions,” says a local journalist.

Shahabuddin has now been transferred to Bhagalpur Central Jail, but how he has managed to stay put in Siwan Jail for so long is a mystery. In December last year, the district court of Siwan sentenced Shahabuddin and his three aides to life imprisonment for the murder of Girish and Satish. As a rule, any prisoner serving more than five years is lodged in a central jail and transferred to the district jail only when he has to appear before a court in the same district. There have been no court appearances for Shahabuddin since the judgment. But everyone draws a blank when this question is posed.

With 541 prisoners, the district jail in Siwan is small. It is located right behind the road leading to the district court. It has 24 cells with a capacity of 50 prisoners each. Shahabuddin is allotted a small cell with a bed, a TV set and a shelf full of books. “He reads a lot on communism, religion and current affairs,” says a former inmate. Shahabuddin wakes up early and offers all five namaaz of the day. He takes a walk in the morning along with his close associates who are lodged in the same jail. He doesn’t speak to other inmates and only smiles. He has a spinal problem and does some exercise after walking. His breakfast includes gram and boiled egg followed by a cup of black tea. An inmate cooks his meals of choice. Should he feel like ordering in, however, no one would stop him. Once, late on a winter night, he asked for a packet of namkeen and a battery for his torch. A call was made from inside the jail. Two stores—Apoorva Sweets and Jyoti Electrics—in town were asked to open their shutters in the middle of the night. And Sahab got his wish.

Every time police raid the jail premises, almost a dozen cellphones would be recovered from Shahabuddin and his associates. “He never hides anything. When police start raiding the cells, he presents his phones and cash in front of them,” says a senior police officer who was part of several raids. An hour before Rajdeo Ranjan’s murder, 36 calls were made from a number inside the jail to a person near the crime scene.

“He is a political leader and a member of our national executive. We come to discuss party issues and there are people who come for his help,” says Parmatma Ram. “Every leader meets his supporters but if it is Shahabuddin, it becomes an issue.” Shahabuddin’s sway over all 12 Assembly seats in Siwan and nearby Gopalganj is undeniable. The party gives tickets only to those who have his blessings. His wife, Heena Shahab has contested the Siwan Lok Sabha seat twice and lost to the BJP.

Questions have been raised within the RJD over the embarrassment caused by Shahabuddin. But RJD leaders put the blame on Nitish Kumar. “If Shahabuddin was holding janata darbars in jail, it only shows the administrative weakness of the government. If darbars were being held regularly, what were the officials doing?” asks senior RJD leader Prabhunath Singh. Another leader and MP, Mohd Taslimuddin, doesn’t attack Shahabuddin directly but terms Nitish Kumar a weak Chief Minister for failing to control crime. Taslimuddin has been served a show cause notice by RJD President Lalu Prasad in a clear indication that anyone speaking against Shahabuddin will not be spared. In the early 90s, Shahabuddin came into the limelight after he joined the Janata Dal Youth Wing. In 1997, when Lalu Prasad formed the RJD, Shahabuddin went with him and his influence increased dramatically. With a state government in full support, there was no one who could challenge him as he turned Siwan district into his fiefdom.

A narrow road winds south of Siwan towards Pratappur village. This is where the Sahab of Siwan hails from. Barren fields flank the serpentine road on either side throughout the 10-km drive. We cross three villages to reach Pratappur and ask around for Shahabuddin’s house. It is white and old, next to a stately mosque. The first thing I notice when I enter his home is a painting of Shahabuddin emerging from an oyster—like a pearl—with Mecca and a Qur’an drawn next to him. Heena Shahab is here from Siwan to be with the family on Shab-e-Baraat, a festival to commemorate ones’ ancestors. She refuses to speak with us, as she has been instructed not to talk to the media. But the old man sitting on a cot in the verandah wants to know why we are here. He is Shahabuddin’s 83-year-old father, SM Hasibullah. “Whenever we think Shahabu will be released, they implicate him in another case,” he says. “I haven’t seen him in years. He respects me so much that he doesn’t speak much in front of me.” For the villagers, he is a messiah who helps everyone in need. “When he was an MP, no doctor in Siwan would charge anyone more than Rs 50 per visit. The hospital functioned like a private hospital and we got free medicines,” says 61-year-old Alimullah. “In the last ten years, the doctors have hiked their rates to Rs 500.” Yusuf Ali, a 23-year-old driver, visits Shahabuddin in jail every fortnight. “Whether it is good news or bad, we share it with him and he helps us,” he says. “I will go to meet him in Bhagalpur jail.” Ask about his absconding son Osama and no one knows anything except that he is innocent. “If Shahabuddin wanted to kill Rajiv, he could have got it done by anyone. Why would a father send his young son to kill someone? It is all lies spread by the BJP,” says Parmatma Ram. As we leave, the villagers shout slogans in his support, lest we forget that this is his kingdom. Back in Siwan, there is a semblance of normalcy but there are eyes everywhere, searching for strangers. You are noticed wherever you go and your conversations are overheard. That is how Sahab governs Siwan.