Shabdo's shock

Print edition : February 27, 2004

The murder of two social workers in a village in Bihar's Gaya district brings to the fore the issues of corruption and criminalisation of politics.

THE violent attempt to throttle the truth continues in Gaya district of Bihar. First, Satyendra Dubey, an Indian Institute of Technology-trained engineer, was killed on November 27 last year when he tried to expose corruption in the multi-crore Golden Quadrilateral project. Even as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was investigating the case, came the daring double murder of social activists Sarita and Mahesh on January 24. They were shot by unidentified assailants at Shabdo village in Fatehpur block of south Gaya. Members of the Institute for Research and Action (IRA), they had been doing development work in the villages of Fatehpur block, numbering around 40, for the last four years.

Mahesh and Sarita, who were shot dead on January 24.-PARASNATH

The people of Shabdo, which was the focus of their recent activities, are in a state of shock. Said Archana of the village: "After saying goodbye as usual we watched their motorcycle make its way back to the block headquarters, less than 3 km away. The tail lights of the motorcycle had receded down the road and were suddenly no longer visible. A few seconds later, we heard gunshots in the distance. We reasoned that the motorcycle would have reached Jamaitha, 1 km away, and rushed in the direction of the gunshots. When we reached there, in the darkness, we saw Sarita didi lying on the left side of the road. She was dead. She had been shot on the side of the head and in the stomach. We could not locate bhaiya immediately. We thought that they had taken him with them, but soon we found him in a ditch on the right side of the road, dead, with three bullet wounds. The motorcycle stood parked on its stand on the side of the road."

In the absence of any evidence from eyewitnesses, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly happened. Were they shot at while the motorcycle was still moving, or stopped (perhaps even by a person they knew) and then killed? Some say there was a motorcycle behind them. Others say that the assailants came on foot.

The IRA, a society registered in 2000, has many achievements to its credit. The most outstanding ones are the rejuvenation in the region of ahar-pynes, the traditional rainwater harvesting system, and an experiment of collective farming in Shabdo. Reviving the rainwater harvesting system involved the repair of the centuries-old Hadadva pyne extending over a distance of 45 km and passing through the villages of Fatehpur and Mohanpur blocks. Work on this project started in January 2001 with the formation of village committees, where several local issues were taken up. The actual digging on the pyne began in January 2002 and was completed in five months with the collaboration of the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), the Zilla Parishad, Magadh zone Commissioner H.C. Sirohi, and the voluntary participation of thousands of villagers. During the monsoon that year, 170 ahars along the Hadadva pyne were filled with water, as was the pyne itself.

After this successful action, the IRA decided to concentrate on one village and develop it as a model. It selected Shabdo, which has about 100 families and a population of 567, in Paharpur panchayat. The idea was to promote integrated development through cooperation in crucial areas of life. The plan included the formation of an empowered village committee; cooperative farming, animal husbandry and fisheries; achieving total literacy; prohibition; development of infrastructure; and developing awareness and discipline in the community, including children.

Work began in September 2002. One of the first projects to be taken up was collective farming. Farmers of Shabdo own from one to 13 bighas of land. In many cases their landholdings were divided into small parcels at some distance from one another, impeding effective cultivation. Considerable effort went into convincing the farmers of the economic advantages of consolidation and cooperation, based on individual farmers contributing to the expenses and sharing the profit in proportion to the landholding of each. After initial trepidation, farmers agreed to do away with the boundaries of their fields. This was a historic moment - boundaries that had divided their land and also caused major disputes were finally wiped out. The first major step towards cooperative living had been taken.

In 2003, several other development works were initiated, including the construction of a gram seva kendra (village service centre, with several rooms, including a guest room and a computer room) and a jagjanani bhavan (with a meeting room for women and space for children). There were plans to build a dairy, which would also benefit the villages surrounding Shabdo. A cemented shed for 100 cattle and a link road were built, and two borewells were to be drilled in time for their inauguration on Republic Day. Besides, electrification of 26 villages had been completed and plans were afoot to extend this to other villages. All this had been achieved with financial support from the DRDA through the Zilla Parishad. According to the Commissioner, Rs.26 lakhs was sanctioned in 2003 and recently an additional Rs.6 lakhs was allotted for the borewells. Social issues such as prohibition, gender equality and cleanliness were also taken up.

DEVELOPMENT work in Bihar often gets enmeshed with local politics, and Sarita and Mahesh's work was no exception. Speculation is rife regarding the identity and motivations of the killers. A criminal-politician-police-administration nexus is also talked about as a possible reason for the murders, on the basis of a few recent incidents.

On the afternoon of November 2, 2003, Mahesh and some residents of Shabdo had gone to neighbouring Rajabigha to help a Shabdo resident and IRA member to complete the construction of his house. Only the roof remained to be built, but a person called Samman Yadav opposed its construction on the grounds that the land adjoining the sidewall, over which the rooftop would extend, belonged to him. The IRA member had bought the land from a local resident and maintained that Samman Yadav's claim was false.

Samman Yadav is allegedly involved in several cases of land encroachment and murder. According to informed sources, when the volunteers from Shabdo found that several people, who they said were criminal elements, had assembled in Samman Yadav's house, they decided to seek police help. Mahesh and a few villagers went to the police station in Fatehpur and spoke to Inspector Krishna Singh. According to the present Inspector, M.D. Ayub, Krishna Singh left for the site immediately with a few policemen. As soon as the police personnel reached the place they were fired upon. In the encounter that followed, Krishna Singh, Samman Yadav and Birendra Yadav (reported to be Samman Yadav's nephew) were killed.

According to another version, Birendra Yadav and his group had backed away, but he was overpowered by the police personnel and angry villagers, and killed. The 13 accused named in the first information report (FIR) registered by the village chowkidar include Budhan, Satyendra and Umesh, all sons of Samman Yadav. Officials reported that three of the accused, including Umesh, had been arrested.

A section of the people blamed Mahesh for Samman Yadav's killing and alleged that he had acted as an "informer". In the police camp, there was anger over the death of Krishna Singh. Events took an unexpected turn when the police, on the basis of Mahesh's action of alerting the police, mentioned his name not only in the FIR but also in the media, instead of keeping it confidential. A legal expert in Patna, who is well versed with police practices, said: "This was like signing his death warrant. It is a clear case of liquidation."

In fact, the charge-sheet in connection with the incident, submitted by the district's Superintendent of Police on January 10, also makes allegations against Mahesh. It mentions that Mahesh tried to stop the chowkidar from getting police reinforcements. Why would he do that if he had called the police in the first place? It looks as if the aim of the charge-sheet was to convert Mahesh from an "informer" to an "accused".

According to local people, Budhan and Satyendra refused to do the shradh ceremony for their father; instead, they promised to do a collective shradh.

There were at least two other reasons why the Samman Yadav family may have been upset. Just a year ago, Samman Yadav had to give up land that belonged to eight Bhuiya families (Bhuiyas or Musahars are among the poorest communities in Bihar), which he had been occupying for more than a decade. It is only after the IRA started working in the region that the Bhuiyas lodged a complaint with the police. Subsequently, with Sarita and Mahesh's support and effective government intervention, they reclaimed their land and even cultivated it this year. Although the issue was a contentious one, it was resolved peacefully, substantiating the claim of the people of Shabdo that the IRA had a working relationship with Samman Yadav.

The other reason was the elopement of Samman Yadav's daughter Anita with Nandkishore Yadav in early 2003. Both Anita and Nandkishore were victims of the practice of child marriage, but as adults they decided to make their own choice. Samman Yadav suspected that Sarita and Mahesh had played a role in the couple's reported escape to Delhi. A Shabdo connection was also likely because a Shabdo resident owned the shop where Nandkishore worked. On February 2, 2003, Samman Yadav registered a case in the local police station regarding this incident.

Some other events would suggest the possibility of other people working behind the scene. On January 9, 2002, Ramji Yadav, president of the Tankupa block in Gaya district, was shot dead while travelling in the Dhanbad-Gaya passenger train. The FIR filed by his brother Sitaram Yadav, who was with him, names Shyamdev Paswan, the Rashtriya Janata Dal's (RJD) member of the Legislative Assembly from Fatehpur, Budhan, Satyendra, three other known individuals and three unknown individuals as the main accused. In this case, the alleged issue was Ramji Yadav not meeting the MLA's demand that the road work in Tankupa panchayat be granted to his supporter.

Both Ramji Yadav and Sitaram Yadav were active supporters of the IRA and were friendly with Sarita and Mahesh. Ramji Yadav was also close to Bindi Yadav, the chairperson of the Zilla Parishad. Ramji and Bindi were also in the RJD but were political rivals of the MLA. This may have been the reason why the MLA had opposed the IRA's application for financial support for development work in Shabdo, which Bindi Yadav supported. It is plausible that these personal and political intrigues went against Sarita and Mahesh.

Some people suggest that a section of the administration, too, was disgruntled with Sarita and Mahesh because of their association with Sirohi. This association gave them "power" vis-a-vis local elements and may have antagonised some of them. But, according to some sources, Sarita and Mahesh's relationship with the Commissioner had been waning in recent months. Sirohi is reported to have told them, prior to the November 2 incident, that they should leave the area as their work in Shabdo was over.

Two persons have been arrested so far in connection with the killings, but they are thought to be unimportant characters in the murder mystery. While the villagers allege that the accused are roaming freely, the police claim that they have absconded. The police also claim to have conducted raids, but no attachment of property has taken place yet, not even after the Inspector's killing in November. Considering that Fatehpur and adjoining areas are dominated by the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), one cannot help recalling the frequent raids and illegal arrests in Naxalite-affected areas.

The recent events in Fatehpur are a chilling reminder of how unsafe social activists are in rural Bihar, even when they are engaged in constructive development work. It is virtually impossible to work in these areas without rubbing some powerful interests the wrong way, with potentially fatal consequences.

Sarita, Mahesh and Satyendra Dubey, even in death, have raised crucial questions about two important aspects of the present state of governance - corruption and criminalisation of politics. The way these questions will be resolved will determine the future of democracy in Bihar.

Bela Bhatia is Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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