May 2012
#Ghost Stories , 4373 Views
Officially Dead

Byline: Abhimanyu Singh
Photographs: Adil Hasan

How a widespread scam in Uttar Pradesh is cheating people out of their lives and land rights and has turned them into spectres of society.

Fifty-seven-year-old Lal Bihari has spent a significant part of his adult life being dead on paper. In fact he grew so used to his expired identity that he became known as Lal Bihari “Mritak” – “dead man.” In his village of Amilo, Uttar Pradesh, people on the streets simply call him “Mritak.”

Bihari is not the only mritak. He is among the thousands who have been unlawfully registered as dead in government records by their relatives in order to capture their land and property. This often happens with the connivance of local officials.

Bihari fought for 18 years and managed to reclaim his identity in 1994. His fight hasn’t stopped. He became a fulltime activist to help those who face the same plight that he did – being stripped of an identity and land rights.

In February this year, on the eve of assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Bihari received a response to a Right to Information (RTI) petition that he’d lodged about a month earlier. The government informed him that 221 people across the state had been reinstated as “alive” – they were no longer deemed to be “dead.”

The released information also stated that officials who were found to have colluded with the victims’ relatives would be prosecuted. And those signed back to life would be entitled to their rightful share of family land and property.

It is Bihari’s long, arduous and largely solitary battle against the administration – both in and out of the courts – that has prompted the state government to become serious about tackling such cases.

In early March, I went to meet Bihari in the small village of Amilo, in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district, a region that is infamous for being the native place of notorious gangster Abu Salem. Known for its culture of crime, this eastern belt is commonly called the Badlands, and has been the setting for gritty Bollywood movies such as Omkara, which tell the stories of men who end up on the wrong side of the law. In the recently held assembly elections, about one third of the total candidates had criminal charges against them. Some of them won handsomely.

Posters of candidates who contested these elections dot the walls in Azamgarh along the dusty road to the marketplace in Amilo. As I pull up in an autorickshaw, Bihari flags it down. A short, stout man dressed in a worn-out safari suit, Bihari’s manner is brisk and business-like. He takes me along to a barber’s shop where we have tea. Inside the shop men read newspapers and discuss the election results. People are friendly towards him. Bihari is well-known in these parts, a hero for some. But for the local officials and the families of the dispossessed that he challenges, he poses a menace.

According to the government’s RTI responses to petitions filed by Bihari – the other was in 2008 and indicated that 335 dead people had been declared “alive” – over 500 people have been recognised as living individuals.

“I suspect that many more have been declared ‘alive’ but they [the government] are not giving information about all the cases officially to save guilty officials,” Bihari says.

Three decades ago, after he was declared dead by the local administration, Bihari founded Mritak Sangh(meaning “Dead Man’s Association”), a banner under which he fought his own case, and which has latterly served as a nodal point for other “dead” people. “Sometimes they contact me on their own. I have my own ways to find out about such cases too,” he says.

He remains its sole full-time member, keeping tabs on fictitious deaths, fighting on behalf of these living dead by assisting with court cases and guiding them through the bureaucratic processes, and working tirelessly to keep the issue burning.

It’s Bihari’s commitment and the ludicrous nature of his own case that has earned him the attention of the media and citations for his work in human rights. As an expert on this matter, his fame has travelled beyond the region. A few years ago, there were talks of Satish Kaushik, a Bollywood film director, expressing interest in making a film about Bihari’s life. “I have also been consulted by a Supreme Court lawyer who was fighting a similar case,” Bihari says.

But from the time of his own “death,” Bihari was plunged into a Kafkaesque administrative and social nightmare, one which he can’t completely escape because of his dedication to the “deceased” as an activist, which is rooted in his own personal story of suffering. “My children call me crazy because I could not do anything for them. They tell me that no one respects me, neither the government nor society. My time to earn money is already over. My son is particularly upset because I sold some of my land also to finance my struggle,” Bihari says.

And for the other individuals like Bihari, the social stigma and other complications caused by the administrative wrongdoings are hardly erased by the government’s decision of pronouncing them alive, and continue to impact their lives.

Born in the village of Khalilabad, Bihari lost his father when he was an infant. His mother took him to the neighbouring locale of Amilo, her birthplace, about 20 kilometres away. As a child, he was married, and worked as a manual labourer in one of the village’s many small factories where some of the finest Banarasisaris are produced. When he was in his early 20s, he returned to Khalilabad to collect property records for his share of his father’s ancestral land as proof of identity to apply for a bank loan. Through the government clerk who maintained records, he learned that his paternal relatives had registered him as dead, and now owned his land. When he went to meet these relatives – his uncle and his family – they refused to recognise him. “On 30 July 1976, I was declared dead in the case number 258 by the district court of Azamgarh,” Bihari says.

This is how the deaths are filed: the relative goes to the registrar’s office, files an application under the Registration of Births and Deaths Act and provides the intended victim’s proof of identity and a medical certificate confirming their death to obtain a death certificate. This certificate is then presented at the Land Registry Office and the land is transferred into the relative’s name. Often, a nominal amount as bribe is paid to the officials involved.

In rural Uttar Pradesh, usurping land is the reason why relatives register the death of a living family member before the government.

Declaring a relative dead with the aim to usurp their land is a chronic practice in rural Uttar Pradesh where, for the poor, land is more than solid ground – it is often the only source of livelihood and the trigger for dispute. Bihari roughly estimates that in the state there are about 50 000 victims; it’s a form of corruption that largely goes unchecked. Of the thousands of “officially” dead men and women in Uttar Pradesh, many belong to Azamgarh district. The condition of unlimited population and limited land has ensured that nobody is safe from being cheated out of their life.

Bihari fought. Like a man possessed. He tried everything. He kidnapped one of his cousins hoping that the family would file a police report indicting him, and the issue would come to the government’s notice. But the family didn’t react so a week later he returned the child. He asked the government to pay a widow pension to his wife, hoping they would rectify the mistake upon seeing she was still married to him. “They wrote that the applicant is wearing vermillion in her hair,” he says. And nothing changed. He grew desperate to publicise his cause. He threw leaflets in the Lucknow assembly, fasted at the Boat Club – the then designated protest venue in Delhi – and in the 1988 parliamentary elections stood as a minor candidate against V P Singh, who would later become Prime Minister.

“I went crazy. People called me a ghost, a spirit, a demon, when I walked down the street. This is why I added Mritak to my name in 1980 and founded the Mritak Sangh, to spite the government, which would consider me neither dead nor alive. Whenever my case came up the judge used to smile, accept that injustice had been done, but would not write it down in the judgment,” Bihari says.

While fighting his case, he and his wife continued to live in Amilo. But with his “death” now public knowledge, he was not pitied but completely debased, becoming the target of mockery. “We stayed inside our house mostly lest someone insult us outside,” Bihari says. “All day I would run from pillar to post in sundry government offices. When I would come back home, my wife would cry. We had no place in society. It was as good as being dead.”

In 1994, after years of anxiety and humiliation, the local administration gave Bihari his life and his land back. In return, he sued the local Azamgarh administration for their mistake, claiming a compensation of a few crores in the Allahabad High Court. That case still goes on.

The broader issue of bogus deaths first came to the notice of the higher authorities, namely Allahabad High Court, in 1999 after Time magazine carried an article about Bihari’s case. Taking suo motu notice of the article, the court issued summons for a probe to the state government and a directive to the National Human Rights Commission in the year 2000 to monitor it. The probe confirmed that such cases existed, following which the Uttar Pradesh government began to act and slowly started to reinstate people’s lives.

Jagdish Prasad Gupta, in his 40s, lives in Mohamadabad, Uttar Pradesh, not far from Varanasi. Gupta, a sweetshop owner, spent a year of his life as a non-existent man because his step-grandmother had declared his father did not exist and therefore Gupta could not exist. She then took his land. With the help of Bihari, Gupta’s existence became legally recognised.

Bihari takes me to meet Paltan Yadav, 58, a former dead man and native of Amilo. He lives in splendid isolation in a small hut on a little patch of land. Yadav wears saffron robes to express his renunciation of the world. Yadav used to work as a daily wages labourer in Assam and two decades ago, while visiting Amilo, he discovered that his brothers had declared him dead, and had taken his share of land.

“My family betrayed me. When I returned, they started to make things very difficult for me. They beat me up and broke my bones. They left me half dead,” Yadav says. As he’d been away for so long, he was seen as an outsider, and the villagers largely sided with his relatives, whom they knew. “No one spoke in my favour,” he says. “The police did not bother with my case. I was penniless and would go hungry for days on end. But I never ran away.”

Assisted generously by Bihari, Yadav’s life was reinstated in early 2000 and his share of land was returned to him. He later sold most of it off for money, retaining just a small plot to live on. But for Yadav, and many like him whose lives have been legally restored, their situation doesn’t necessarily improve afterwards – the stigma of having been declared dead lingers on, shrouding their lives with disgrace and insecurity. Yadav remains in the village as a pariah.

Still, he has decided to stay on, instead of returning to Assam where his wife and children continue to live. Having regained what he already once lost, it is too much of a risk to leave again, and lose his bearings once more. And it isn’t safe to bring his family to Amilo as he is still on hostile terms with his brothers. His young nephews and nieces, however, visit him sometimes. “They are children and they had no part to play in it,” he says. Yadav makes it a point to attend funerals in his extended family although he skips the marriages. “I am a dead man but I get out of my grave to bury others,” he says, standing outside his dilapidated hut framed by shrubs, the spring sun illuminating the creases of his haggard face.

To the east of Azamgarh lies Mau district, where the little village of Mohamadabad is situated. Dhiraji Thakur lives here, a frail old woman in her 80s and another former dead person whom Bihari has assisted. Her glasses stick out from her small face as she sits, shrivelled, on a bed in her daughter’s house. Living here is a source of great shame for Thakur. As a Hindu woman, she says she finds it degrading to live in her married daughter’s home and to be dependent on her son-in-law’s charity. She divides her time between here and her elder daughter’s house. But she has no other option. Of all the people I met, her situation stood out for its absurdity. Her relatives on her dead husband’s side not only registered her as dead, but also that she had remarried before she passed away.

Her husband died two decades ago while working at the Eastern Coal Fields in Burdwan, West Bengal. She was hired in his place. While living in Burdwan, she maintained contact with her husband’s relatives. She would send money for fertiliser and seeds to support their subsistence farming, says Mansa Devi, who is Thakur’s younger daughter. Thakur would also occasionally visit her husband’s family during holidays.

Jagdish Prasad Gupta, in his 40s, lives in Mohamadabad, Uttar Pradesh, not far from Varanasi. Gupta, a sweetshop owner, spent a year of his life as a non-existent man because his step-grandmother had declared his father did not exist and therefore Gupta could not exist. She then took his land. With the help of Bihari, Gupta’s existence became legally recognised.

However when she returned after retiring in 1995, those very same relatives disowned her – they claimed Thakur had remarried, and had subsequently died. The second part has now been corrected, with Bihari’s help, but the first remains as it is.

“We have filed RTIs to get the administration to tell us who she is married to, but they have no response,” says Om Prakash Sharma, Thakur’s son-in-law. Sharma has since withdrawn her case from the courts as it would take too long to settle, but he hopes to reach a resolution with the local administration.

“They have blackened my face in this old age,” Thakur says.

Paltan Yadav, 58, lives in Amilo, and is an outcast in the village. Having been declared dead, and later undead, his family who betrayed him continue to be hostile toward him. He sold part of the land that he reclaimed after being declared alive, and a school has since been built there.

It is noon in Khalilabad, Bihari’s paternal village, and he goes to visit his uncle’s family – the relatives who once betrayed him. His uncle has since died, but unlike many of the other undead, he has made peace, albeit an uneasy one, with his aunt and two cousins. Even during his ordeal, he would occasionally visit them for family functions although he says he never ate their food. “They could have poisoned me,” he says and laughs. After he reclaimed his land rights, he gave his farmland back to his cousins, aware of how dire their circumstances were.

Bihari has long gotten over any bitterness. His work has gone far beyond his own cause. The man known as “Mritak” has come to signify a notoriety that for many in Azamgarh district rivals that of the infamous Abu Salem. Bihari, in a somewhat bemused voice, gives this example: “Once there was an exhibition in the town,” he says. “They put up my picture along with his, as in two famous people from Azamgarh. Below his picture they wrote that he turns the living into dead. Below mine – he brings the dead back to life.”