Mohammad Shahabuddin: Power in jail, power out of jail

Much hullaballoo has already been created with the release of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Mohammad Shahabuddin from the Bhagalpur jail on September 10, after 11 years in prison. The four-time MP and two-time MLA, who has often been regarded as the dreaded don of Bihar’s Siwan district, almost immediately stoked controversy when he called Bihar CM Nitish Kumar a “chief minister of circumstances”. He did not even spare PM Narendra Modi, calling his government “zero, bakwas (useless)” in an interview with a Times Network reporter.

The response to his release from prison has been that of contrasts: while the citizens of Siwan seem to have given him a grandiose welcome, the Bihar government – irked by his comments on Kumar – went to the Supreme Court seeking a cancellation of his bail. Notably, the apex court did not stay this bail order of the Patna High Court on Monday and sought the reply of Shahabuddin himself on the issue.

Shahabuddin jumped into the political arena in 1990, when he was first elected the MLA in Bihar. From 1996 till 2008, he was the Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) representing the Siwan constituency. He was jailed in 2005 when Bihar was under President’s Rule, and the subsequent Nitish Kumar-led government ensured that he was properly persecuted with the formation of a special court dealing only with his cases. Notably, his wife, Heena Shahab contested the Lok Sabha elections from the district in 2009 and 2014. Both the times, she was defeated.

The 49-year-old has a total of 40 cases against him since 1986, with 24 of them still pending. The cases in which he has been convicted include the murder of CPI (ML) leader Chhotelal Shukla in 1999, attack on Siwan SP SK Singhal, and the murder of brothers Girish Raj and Satish Raj in 2004, among others. Not only this, his involvement has also been suspected in the infamous murder of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president and CPI (ML) member Chandrashekhar Prasad in 1997, as well as that of Siwan journalist Rajdeo Ranjan in 2016 – at a time when he was in the Siwan central jail.

Often referred to as bahubali, (strongman) Shahabuddin’s dominance over Siwan seems to have been based on both a culture of fear as well as patronage. Various tales of his contribution for the locals of Siwan, helped him gain a Robin Hood-like image with widespread popularity. But these stand in pale comparison with stories that narrate the assaults by his men on anyone who dared to raise a finger against him. Shahbuddin maintained direct control over health, education, trade, land deals and the liquor business. He took the delivery justice in his own hands with his own brand of courts. Tales go as far to suggest that when Shahabuddin was in power, people even avoided travelling at night.

This apart, Shahabuddin’s significance within the political fold over the years, despite his involvement in criminal activities, can be attributed to two important factors. First is the minority (Muslim) votes he commands in Siwan, as well as other neighbouring districts. These, according to him, have not moved to Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) (JDU), but have remained with his party. The second factor – which may not be very significant in the present context but was so in the past – was the large-scale support he enjoyed from the landed upper castes. Speaking on this, Shahabuddin was quoted by the Indian Express as saying, “In those days, those whom the CPI (ML) called feudal were with me and the RJD government. At that time, there were only two sides. I gave a political umbrella to those upper castes in Siwan who have now migrated to the BJP.”

Politically speaking, the release of Mohammed Shahabuddin comes at an inopportune time for the ruling Mahagathbandan alliance of JDU, RJD and the Congress. The 49-year-old, by overtly criticising Nitish Kumar and calling RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav his onlyneta (leader), has dealt a further blow to the alliance already suffering from internal fissures. The limbo is clearly reflected by the state government in its contrasting stands. While the government did file for a petition with the SC against the bail order and is now mulling a non-bailable warrant against him, this has been clearly at odds with Lalu Prasad Yadav defending Shahabuddin after his statement. In fact, RJD vice-president Raghubansh Prasad Singh even supported the jibe against the chief minister of his own alliance.

SOURCES: Indian Express