land grab

The Living Dead

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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In Uttar Pradesh, one diehard has exposed the practice of killing people on paper to take over their land

When Lal Bihari first heard about his death, he thought it was a joke. He smiled at the lekhpal, the village officer responsible for land records. But there was no smile in return. “Lal Bihari died last year,” the lekhpal repeated. “I don’t know who you are.” That was when the 22-year-old from Amilo in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh (UP), realised something was amiss. He had come to his birthplace Khalilabad for residence, income and caste certificates. He needed them to get a bank loan for his handloom business.

“But I am here before you,” he said, puzzled. “You know me. I have met you before.” The lekhpal showed him the land record, a piece of paper, and read it out. It said that the previous year, 30 July 1976, after the death of Lal Bihari, his one bigha (one-fifth of an acre) of land had devolved to his cousins. He was officially dead.

As he walked out that day three decades ago, Lal Bihari was already thinking about how to become alive again. But it would take him 17 years, during which time he would kidnap his cousin; add the title of mritak (dead man) to his name; get thrown out of the UP legislative Assembly; contest elections against two prime ministers; demand widow’s pension for his wife; and start an association of dead people. After he finally came ‘alive’ again, he continued exposing this land-grab practice. Says Panchu, a 75-year-old in Adampur village, Azamgarh, “My own son had killed me off. If it had not been for Lal Bihari, I would still be dead.”

Showing a living person as dead is not tough. The victim is usually someone who has been absent from the village on work or, like Lal Bihari, whose mother took him away after the father’s death. Relatives bribe the lekhpal, who notes it on the khatauni (record of those who cultivate and occupy land in a village) that the person is dead and the land is transferred. Kanungos, naib tahsildars and tahsildars, who check the notings, are often in collusion. “The price of my death was Rs 300,” says Lal Bihari. After he discovered he had ‘died’, Lal Bihari went to a lawyer, who said, “A dead man has come to me,” and laughed. Neighbours would mock him—“Look, there goes the ghost.” He felt humiliated. Since a court case could take decades, he visited various government departments. He beseeched and quarreled with officials. He filed complaints. In vain. “The enquiry would be conducted by the very officials who had listed me as dead,” he says.

He often thought of giving up. But in 1980, a piece of advice changed his mind. And life. A politician named Shyam Lal Kanojia, whom he calls his guru, told Lal Bihari, “Your case is going nowhere. You are a mritak. Why not openly call yourself one to shame those who did this to you?”

The idea appealed. Lal Bihari would, henceforth, make a spectacle of himself. He added mritak to his name (he still receives calls with the greeting, “Mritak speaking.”) The same year, he started the Mritak Sangh, an association of the living dead. The name sounded good and would be useful for correspondence. But there was one problem: it had no members except him.

Mujhe Zinda Karo

The self-as-spectacle tactic worked. Vernacular papers began to write about him. And Lal Bihari stepped up the drama. In 1985, he tried to get himself arrested. He kidnapped his cousin, a boy named Baburam in the fifth standard, whose family had shown him dead. But once he picked up Baburam from school, he didn’t know what to do. “I took him to a movie every day,” he says.
After five days, when the family did not file a police complaint, he decided to soak Baburam’s shirt in goat’s blood and send it over. “I thought it would scare them into going to the police,” he says. But the butcher he knew didn’t help and told him to go to the poultry seller. “The blood from a chicken was never going to be enough,” says Lal Bihari. He dropped the idea. The plan flopped, though Baburam got a new shirt. The kidnap ploy also flopped. “A journalist told me I would end up a criminal. He told me to return my cousin and promised to publicise my plight,” he says.

Baburam returned home. And an article about him appeared in a state newspaper called Swatantra Bharat. An MLA read it and raised a question in the UP Assembly.

This spurred Lal Bihari to go on a dharna outside the Assembly in Lucknow. As he sat alone with a placard, he saw there were others, small huddles of protestors, on various other dharnas. And it hit him—this was pointless.

So in 1986, when he came back to Lucknow, he had seven handbills with him. He also had a letter from a legislator recommending a visitor’s pass. When the Assembly session was under way, Lal Bihari got up and like a Bhagat Singh without the bombs, threw the bills onto the Assembly floor. He says he was screaming, “Mujhe zinda karo” when Assembly marshalls dragged him out by his hair and jailed him for seven hours. Another question was raised in the Assembly.

Gimmick after gimmick followed. He bribed a policeman Rs 500 to get a case registered against him and his cousin for rioting. The policeman returned the money when he discovered the motive. He applied for widow’s pension for his wife, Karami. “They would refuse because I was alive. This would be a record for me,” he says. But the government’s refusal made no mention of him.

Next, Lal Bihari sold his property to contest the 1988 Lok Sabha election from Allahabad against former Prime Minister VP Singh.

Surprising even himself, he got about 1,600 votes. In 1989, he filed nomination papers against Rajiv Gandhi in Amethi and then promptly filed an application for countermanding the election, as he was dead. It was not countermanded, of course, but he got written about.
His resurrection, too, was theatrical. In May 1994, after an enquiry, the lekhpal and kanungo recommended that he be declared alive, but the file vanished from the tehsil office. Lal Bihari was furious. “I put up posters and handbills saying I was going to capture the tehsildar’s office and write an order declaring me alive,” he says. The next month, the tehsildar passed an order making him alive.

Amilo is a Benarasi sari village, resonating with the faint beating of looms in its many workshops. Lal Bihari stays in a little brick house with a small compound. A board on an outer wall says: ‘head office, Mritak Sangh’. The phone number mentioned does not work because the bill has not been paid. Inside the house, there are bundles of files, correspondence and clippings going back to 1977. Lal Bihari has not read a word of it. He’s illiterate. It’s a difficult handicap. But he overcame it, using his son Vijay Bharat and other friends who were literate. “From my fifth standard onwards, I used to write and read out the documents to him,” says Vijay Bharat.

The Mritak Sangh is an unusual association, with no periodic meetings or even roster of members. When there’s a dharna or an election or when a reporter or filmmaker arrives, the dead men who can afford it turn up from far-off villages. And tell their stories.
Deepchand, a 50-something mritak, had left Ranipur village for Delhi, become a tailor, and set up shop in Shaharanpur. When he returned home, he found he was dead on paper. His elder brother told him, “I have left nothing for you. I have left your name nowhere.” His brother has actually died now, but Deepchand has little hope of getting back his share. “When the name is not there, how can you fight?” he asks.

Ram Lallak, a slight, 60-year-old man in Belwa village, went to Jaipaiguri in West Bengal to work as a daily-wage labourer at the age of 13. In the late 1990s, he returned on hearing that his brother had declared him dead. Following a dharna by the Mritak Sangh, Ram Lallak was declared alive. He then lost on appeal, won on further appeal, but another officer pronounced him dead again. “I have died thrice. At present, I am dead but have a stay on it by the court,” he says.

Paltan Yadav became a sadhu after being shown dead. He has won his case. But the failures outnumber the victories of the Mritak Sangh. There is 75-year-old Shivdutt Yadav and his four brothers, all shown dead in one village but alive in three other villages where they own land; there is 70-year-old Sumer Ram, now alive but yet to receive his land. The bundles of papers which Lal Bihari cannot read are full of such cases. The whole state probably has thousands of them.

In July 1999, following an article on the Mritak Sangh in Time magazine, the UP High Court directed the state government to conduct an inquiry. Advertisements asked people who had been shown dead to come forward. By January 2000, they had around 90 cases, and the High Court, calling it ‘a never-ending process’, directed the National Human Rights Commission to monitor the investigation. In 2007, VK Sharma, principal secretary (revenue), UP, told the Commission that the total number of cases had come to 303. Proceedings have been initiated against 91 revenue officials and investigations are still continuing. “But the number of dead men must run into tens of thousands,” says Lal Bihari.

Stayin’ Alive

After Lal Bihari was alive again, he made peace with his relatives and did not take back his land. On an October evening last year, he took me to meet his family. We crossed Khalilabad village junction. In the middle of the paddy fields stood two little houses with thick grey mud walls and thatched roofs.

At the compound were two women with their pallus drawn, three shy children and an old woman whose weathered face seemed right out of a National Geographic page. There were also two men present. The one with an unkempt beard was Baburam, the kidnapped cousin.

We sat on cots and sipped tea. Behind us, overflowing with lush paddy was a small square of land, the reason why this whole saga began. There was light banter, pleasantries, many a ‘suno bhaiya’ and much laughter. The irony and tragedy of the incident couldn’t be clearer. Patiram, another cousin, said, “We made a mistake. But we are one now.”

People who have been shown dead seek Lal Bihari out. And sometimes, it is the other way round. Three months ago, Lalji, a construction labourer with four children who had been fighting a lone battle for over six years after being shown dead, had an unexpected visitor.

Lal Bihari had heard of his case from a clerk in the Azamgarh tehsil office. Soon, articles on Lalji began appearing in the local papers. The case will probably not get resolved anytime soon. But till that happens, you can bet that Lalji parades himself as a dead man.
Meanwhile, Lal Bihari is still thinking up new gimmicks. In the second of the two afternoons I travelled with Lal Bihari to meet the ‘dead’ of Azamgarh, we talk about his history of standing for elections. “It’s for publicity. I didn’t expect any votes,” he admits. And what about the upcoming Lok Sabha polls? He shakes his square face. He won’t contest. “This time I am going to make a blind man stand,” he says. “Andha kanoon ke liye andha umeedwar (a blind candidate for the blind law).” He then tells me how the blind man can tell you the time accurately, feel a currency note from anywhere in the world and say where it is from, drive an autorickshaw, climb trees...
He then looks at me, beaming. This once-dead man, his face alive with excitement.