MP sentenced to life for 'kidnapping' activist

Issue 

The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation's eight-year effort to seek justice for one of its party activists who was kidnapped in 1999 in the north-east Bihar state concluded on May 8 when the alleged culprit — MP Mohammad Shahabuddin — was sentenced to life imprisonment. Chhote Lal Gupta, the victim, is officially presumed dead.

Justice Gyaneshwar Srivastava convicted Shahabuddin of abduction with the intent of murdering Gupta. Because Gupta's body was never recovered, the murder charge did not succeed. Shahabuddin has three months to appeal. Though not a full victory, the conviction is significant for Gupta's family and his party. The CPI-ML(L) is active in politically organising the oppressed sectors in Bihar and has long been targeted by mafia MPs such as Shahabuddin, whose seat is in Siwan, about 100 kilometres north-west of the state capital Patna. Bihar has a population of almost 83 million people, of which 52% are illiterate and 90% live in rural areas. Caste oppression is particularly rampant.

Shahabuddin has long been a favourite of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Laloo Prasad Yadav, a charismatic leader who dominated Bihar for 15 years until 2005, and who succeeded in cultivating a mass following among the lower castes and Muslims (another oppressed group in Hindu-dominated India) with a mix of promises of dignity spiced up with isolated pro-poor measures.

An April 21, 2004 BBC report attributed to Shahabuddin the popular move to cap doctors' fees at 50 rupees (US$1.15) per visit and for decreeing free consultations on national holidays. The report observes: "In his constituency Mr Shahabuddin is both feared and revered ... When he sets rules, they are followed." Shahabuddin's ability to "get things done" against the context of a corrupt, under-resourced and incompetent state machine has earned him some mass following.

Laloo Yadav, who split from Janata Dal (JD) in 1997 to form the RJD, was fully behind Shahabuddin, once calling him his "younger brother". Despite Yadav being forced to resign as Bihar's chief minister in 1997, triggered by a scandal involving the embezzlement of US$267 million, his wife Rabri Devi succeeded him in the position for the following eight years.

Following in JD's footsteps, the RJD has been accused of waging a campaign against CPI-ML activists, killing dozens during the 1990s. The CPI-ML(L) has waged a 10-year struggle to bring Shahabuddin to justice for the alleged murder of student leader Chandrashekar on March 31, 1997, while Chandrashekar was engaging in street agitation for a strike in Siwan. Chandrashekar, who came from a poor family, had just returned to Bihar after his term as the student union president of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Chandrashekar's case is one of more than 30 criminal charges that are still pending against Shahabuddin. According to a May 8 BBC report, the other charges include murder, kidnapping, attempted murder and possession of illegal firearms. According to a People's Union for Civil Liberties report, in March 2001 when police were executing a warrant to arrest a local RJD head, Shahabuddin's cronies beat the police up, fired at them with AK47s — killing two police and six others — and set fire to three police vehicles.

In March this year, Shahabuddin was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for bombing a CPI-ML office in Siwan in 1998 and for assaulting a party member who sustained injuries from the blast.

Despite having been listed as a "hardened criminal" by the Siwan police since 1985, Shahabuddin still won the federal seat of Siwan in 1996. He was re-elected in 2004 while in jail. The RJD lost its dominance in the Bihar assembly in 2005 to an alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Janata Dal (United), opening the way for serious legal action against Shahabuddin. Shahabuddin has been in police custody since late 2005.

According to a May 8 BBC report, almost one in six legislators in India's federal and state assemblies face criminal charges.