The furore over the release of former MP and don Mohammad Shahabuddin, has missed out many elements of the badlands of Bihar – for instance, that he was nurtured and supported by upper caste feudal lords to take on the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, or CPI(ML), in Siwan. In this fascinating interview to CPI(ML) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya narrates the story of his party’s battle against Shahabuddin, the political patronage provided to the many dons who stalk Bihar, and the skewed nature of our judicial system.

It is said former MP and the don of Siwan, Mohammad Shahabuddin, was initially propped up by feudal lords of the area. What were the dynamics of this arrangement?
It was a marriage of convenience between Shahabuddin and feudal lords, who wanted to check the CPI(ML)’s growth. Our party’s rise in Siwan had the same trajectory as elsewhere in Bihar, most notably in Bhojpur and other adjoining districts like Patna, Jehanabad and Arwal. The CPI(ML) grew here in the 1970s and early 1980s. This was the period in which the CPI(ML) worked underground and Bihar was ruled mainly by the Congress but for the brief post-Emergency period when Karpoori Thakur and Ram Sundar Das were chief ministers.

In Siwan, the CPI(ML) began to rise in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was the period in which Bihar was witnessing the political transition from protracted Congress rule to what has now turned out to be a protracted rule of the Janata Dal. In the initial period the Janata Dal was undivided, but subsequently split [largely between Nitish Kumar’s Samta Party – which is now the Janata Dal (United) – and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal]. What we are witnessing today is the coalition phase.

During the [ongoing] Janata Dal period the CPI(ML) expanded through open mass struggles on the interrelated questions of land redistribution, minimum wages, social and human dignity and political rights.

Yes, but how did Shahabuddin fit into all this?
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the party’s epicentre [of growth] was Darauli block in Siwan. Under the CPI(ML)’s leadership, the landless poor and marginal peasants, consisting mostly to Dalit and backward castes, took on the well-entrenched feudal power belonging mostly to the dominant Rajput caste. Bishwaniya Darbar of Darauli [a zamindari estate] was a key citadel of this feudal power led by landlord Mrityunjay Singh and his henchman Prabhunath Singh. Shambhu Singh of Kishunpali, Govind Singh of Gauri, and Vinod Dubey of Beltanri were some other dreaded symbols of the feudal-criminal nexus.

In the 1990 elections to the Bihar Assembly, when Shahabuddin secured his first electoral victory as an independent MLA from the Zeeradei Assembly constituency [the birthplace of India’s first President, Rajendra Prasad], comrade Amar Nath Yadav also emerged as a powerful popular candidate of the Indian People's Front [IPF] – which was a mass political platform led by the CPI(ML). Remember, a year before, in 1989, the IPF’s Rameshwar Prasad became the first MP from the ML movement. He was elected from Arrah.

The feudal forces tried their best to prevent the rise of the IPF/CPI(ML). The Bhojpur village of Danwar-Bihta witnessed a barbaric massacre of Dalits in 1991 for daring to resist booth-capturing and exercise of the universal adult franchise guaranteed by the Constitution.

Siwan too was witness to the killing of IPF activist Nand Kishore Yadav during comrade Amar Nath Yadav's election campaign. In the 1990 election, the IPF won as many as seven seats.

But Shahabuddin won anyway, so why would feudal lords feel threatened by the CPI(ML)?
We were growing. This was evident from the results of the 1995 elections. By now, Shahabuddin had joined the Janata Dal. He retained the Zeeradei seat, but the adjoining seats of Darauli and Mairwa were represented in the Assembly by CPI(ML) leaders Amar Nath Yadav and Satyadeo Ram. In 1996, Shahabuddin became the RJD MP from Siwan while the CPI(ML) finished an impressive third, polling more than 1,00,000 votes. Shahabuddin's rise as don or as kingpin of the crime-politics nexus or syndicate began at this point. Elimination of political rivals becomes a key tactic of his.

Are you referring to the killing of former Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Chandrasekhar?
The killing of popular student leader comrade Chandrasekhar is widely known as the biggest political killing in the region. But he wasn’t the only one to be eliminated – nearly a dozen district-level leaders of the CPI(ML) were done to death in Siwan and Gopalganj districts. Even now, comrades like Vyas Pratap Singh, Umesh Paswan, Surendra Yadav, Shyam Narain Yadav, Suresh Ram, Rajkumar are still fondly remembered in this region as martyrs.

Indeed, when Chandrasekhar was killed at Siwan’s JP chowk in broad daylight on 31 March 1997, addressing a street corner meeting in support of a Bihar bandh agitation on 2 April against corruption, price-rise, and attacks on Dalits and oppressed castes by the Ranveer Sena, comrade Shyam Narain Yadav, who was an emerging young leader of Siwan and a member of the district committee of the party, was also there. He, too, was martyred, as was Bhuteli Miyan, who was pulling the rickshaw carrying the microphone for the meeting.

Wasn’t Chandrashekhar’s mother a widow? How did she respond to the killing of her son?
Comrade Chandrasekhar, who was popularly known as Chandu, had just returned to Siwan, his home district, to work for the party after leading and representing the students of JNU for years. He shared very close ties with his mother Kaushalya Devi, having lost his father, who served in the Army, as a child. In one of his letters to his mother, Chandu described her as The Mother, Maxim Gorky's immortal creation. [In this novel, a mother emulates her son’s revolutionary activities after his arrest.]

After the assassination of Chandu, Kaushalya Devi indeed played the role of a fighter mother who not only sought justice for her beloved son, spurning the compensation offered by the government of the day with the contempt it deserved, but more crucially, inspiring all friends and comrades of Chandu as though they were all her children for as long as she lived, a role that Radhika Vemula today plays in the battle for justice for her son, Rohith [the Hyderabad Central University student who committed suicide in January].

Chandrasekhar's assassination galvanised the student community and justice-loving people across the country, especially in Siwan, against the growing criminalisation of politics under the RJD rule in Bihar.

Yes, it did change the narrative about the RJD. But Shahabuddin still won the 1999 Lok Sabha election, held two years after the killing of Chandrashekhar and Shyam Narain Yadav.
You see, a significant local development of this period was the rift in the RJD's fabled electoral equation of Muslims and Yadavs [described by Lalu as M-Y]. This was because Shahabuddin’s growing terror and arrogance alienated large sections of the Yadav community in Siwan. The cumulative effect of the movement for justice for Chandrasekhar and Shyam Narain Yadav, and the growing anger of the people against the state-sponsored reign of terror unleashed by Shahabuddin, could be seen in the 1999 Lok Sabha election. A wave of support and goodwill for the CPI(ML) candidate Amar Nath Yadav could have unseated Shahabuddin but for his terror and administrative backing. [Shahabuddin won by over one lakh votes]. If he did win, the secret lay in the support extended by Siwan’s feudal lobby.

This open secret, known to political observers in Siwan, has now been acknowledged by Shahabuddin who claims to have provided a political umbrella to the feudal lobby in Siwan, but laments that his upper caste voters migrated to the BJP after his arrest.

Why is it that this narrative of upper caste feudal lords backing Shahabuddin is seldom mentioned in the national media discourse on him?
This is because the Islamophobic discourse prefers to zero in on Shahabuddin as a near-exclusive case of criminal-politician nexus or criminalisation of politics. But even a cursory glance at Bihar’s contemporary political scene will show us that Shahabuddin is in company with a whole lot of his kind or is in competition with them.

Could you cite examples?
If one talks of just the Chhapra-Siwan-Gopalganj region, the common people there know that there is little to distinguish between a Shahabuddin and, say, a Satish Pandey [Chhattis Pandey in local parlance] or a Prabhunath Singh [former RJD MP of Maharajganj] for that matter.

Then you have the likes of Yogi Adityanath across the border in Uttar Pradesh, where crime in politics is compounded with communal venom. Similarly, Shahabuddin is not alone when it comes to impunity enjoyed by the powerful. The impunity enjoyed by Maya Kodnani, her bosses in Gujarat or the Ranveer Sena commanders, as revealed by the Cobrapost video, is no different from the impunity enjoyed by Shahabuddin.

What you are saying is that the justice system in India is skewed.
The skewed nature of justice and the prison system that grants bail to Shahabuddin also grants repeated parole to Sanjay Dutt while convicting communist leaders in Bihar like Shah Chand to life sentence under TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act] and condemning him to die in jail. The system, which gives bail to Shahabuddin, also acquits the perpetrators of horrific massacres of rural poor and communal riots. And the system, which acquits the perpetrators of communal riots, also hangs the likes of Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon on circumstantial evidence or even for satisfying the collective conscience of the nation.

Today, when Shahabuddin is granted bail, which is now under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court, the CPI(ML) MLA from Darauli and president of the Bihar unit of All India Agricultural and Rural Labour Association, comrade Satyadeo Ram, remains in jail along with the national president of Revolutionary Youth Association Comrade, Amarjeet Kushwaha, who lost narrowly from Zeeradei in the 2010 and 2015 elections to the Bihar Assembly. They languish in jail even though falsely implicated by the former BJP MLA from Darauli.

The parameters of justice cannot be different for the ruling and Opposition parties in a democracy. And even if the system is skewed, the battle for justice has to be consistent and cannot be selective.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.