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The cost of worshipping Shahabuddin

September 22, 2016 12:00 IST

'At least 6,000 people attended a meal at Shahabuddin's residence in a feast to celebrate his bail. As if the community has no other priorities of channelising such funds for better purposes!,' says Mohammad Sajjad.

Mohammed Shahabuddin

The granting of bail to notorious gangster and former MP Mohammad Shahabuddin, and his emergence out of Bhagalpur jail with a cavalcade of hundreds of vehicles travelling around 350 kms up to Siwan, has rightly outraged people.

Many vehicles in the cavalcade had West Bengal registration numbers and reached Bhagalpur jail about an hour before Shahabuddin was to be released. Presumably, they belonged to Siwan expatriates in Kolkata. Understandably, this was meant to demonstrate that his charisma was not confined to Bihar, but spread across states.

Adulation of goons by their community is a manifestation of despondency as fans have nothing more to look forward to as symbols of their pride.

The moot point is whether the common Muslim of Siwan has started identifying himself with the goon as this would make them vulnerable not only to crime, but possibly also to violent religious extremism.

Till the other day, Shahabuddin's presence in Siwan jail was supposed to be 'dangerous,' hence he was transferred to distant Bhagalpur jail, but then suddenly, even setting him free on bail was no longer considered a threat to the ongoing investigations.

Unfortunately, the story got wrapped in communal tags, along the divides of Hindu and Muslim identities -- your gangster, my gangster, thereby diluting the degree of social outrage, and extending its eventual benefits to the nastiest of the power elites -- the gangsters and their patrons, the politicians.

'They' got four days (from the granting of bail by the high court) to make the 'shobha yatra' as pompous as possible. Clearly, this unprecedented grand show was to send a message to the hoodlums and criminals that their days have arrived once again, that 'power' is now on their side than on the side of the people.

This was unprecedented in the sense that other gangsters like Munna Shukla did not put up such a show when he was let off (not a mere release on bail) in the lynching case of G Krishnaiah, the then district magistrate of Gopalganj in December 1994.

Nor did Pappu Yadav have this kind of cavalcade when he came out of jail after being exonerated in the murder of the CPI-M legislator from Purnea, Ajit Sarkar.

Who are 'they'? Are they the Muslims of Siwan/Bihar, or are they Rashtriya Janata Dal supporters/workers, or both, considerably overlapping each other?

In either case, where is the known leadership of Bihari Muslims -- be it the clergy, the 'secular-modern' political leadership, or even the intelligentsia, in whatever proportion they are in the community?

Why this silence? Could this silence be read as their consent for the pompous drama of gangster power, cocking a snook at even the essential basics of social moralities?

On social networking sites, one could discern that some passionate defenders of the legitimate interests of the 'millat,' of plural-secularism, of Constitutionalism, of free speech, maintained either a studied silence or spoke in a language of 'you-too-have-got-your-own-gangster.'

Another segment of the community invoked the idea that bail was granted by the judiciary in accordance with due process of law. They chose to forget their deep discomfiture at the bigwigs of the Gujarat massacre of 2002 who were let off almost in similar ways.

This is certainly not to say that nobody from the community spoke out against this dirty display of the politics of communal polarisation around the gangster's bail.

There are many instances in which Muslim youth, falsely implicated in terror cases, have been exonerated by the judiciary, but the community did not organise such a reception.

Reportedly, at least 6,000 people attended a meal at Shahabuddin's residence in his village Pratappur, in a feast to celebrate his bail. As if the community has no other priorities of channelising such funds for better purposes!

In that case, how would they justify their economic backwardness! How would they justify their breast-beating on the Sachar Report findings! This is indeed a moment of serious introspection for the community.

This introspection was invited long ago by columnist Soroor Ahmed, who articulated the pertinent narrative of two youth who emerged from Siwan in the late 1980s -- Amir Subhani currently the principal secretary, home affairs, with the image of an upright and honest officer, who, with his schooling in rural north Bihar, topped the civil services examinations in 1986-1987; and Mohammed Shahabuddin, who almost simultaneously rose to prominence owing to his dreaded record of crimes.

For young graduates in Bihar, Subhani became a role model. Lower middle class students realised that the civil services were not a monopoly of the elites, that rural schooling was no handicap in their way of becoming IAS officers.

However, Shahabuddin's political rise in the 1990s changed it all. Hoodlums were emboldened; they mushroomed across the nooks and cranny of Bihar, looking up to Shahabu as their role model.

Many were affiliated to his gang augmenting his clout and in turn he would ensure impunity for these minions from the law enforcement agencies. Not only this, he could also ensure electoral entry for some of them.

Some would first enter the local bodies and then turn into entrepreneurs-legislators while clinging to the enterprise of the crime-economy. Moreover, the emerging hoodlums also became tools in the hands of those deriving electoral benefits out of communal riots.

As I have written about the three riots of north Bihar in 2015-2016, such hoodlums have been the immediate agent provocateurs, be it the Azizpur riot (January 18, 2015), the Lalganj riots (November 18, 2015), and the Saran riots (August 2016).

They can mobilise people to gherao the police and other public functionaries, while the common people falsely implicated by the police cannot mobilise any number of people to register their protest.

True, this was/is certainly not only a Muslim phenomenon. At least since the 1970s, every other dominant caste/community has got its own 'dons' who get elected and legislate laws for the land and its people.

Since the 1970s and 1980s, Muzaffarpur has been lorded over by many gangsters. One such 'don' went on to become a minister in Satyendra Sinha's cabinet in the late 1980s, about whom Sinha later recorded in his memoir (Meri Yaadein, Meri Bhoolein) that morally this was one of the most unpleasant decisions he had to take.

Another aspect of this story, in terms of political volatility, are Shahabuddin's remarks that Nitish Kumar could become chief minister merely because of circumstances, and his 'leader' is Lalu Yadav.

This is a typical argument of any criminal wishing to explain why and how he become a criminal. Shahabuddin extended this warped and cliched logic to the process of becoming chief minister. Quite shamelessly, this was instantly endorsed by Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the former Union minister for rural development and the RJD vice-president.

The irony: Raghuvansh Singh has a complaint against his electorate that they preferred the Lok Janshakti Party's Rama Kishor Singh in 2014 and defeated him from the Vaishali Lok Sabha constituency, though Rama Kishor Singh's credentials are comparable with Shahabuddin's. Rama Kishor Singh has been cooling his heels in jail since June 2016 on the charge of kidnapping for ransom.

Nitish Kumar is to be faulted for the fact that under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the administration should have prevented Shahabuddin's 'shobha yatra.'

The ever growing communalisation of our society in this age is intertwined with criminalisation in complex ways. The social divide is being milked to the hilt by dangerously unscrupulous politicians. This is perhaps the biggest challenge that Indian democracy faces today.

Mohammad Sajjad, who teaches history at Aligarh Muslim University, is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur.

Mohammad Sajjad