On December 5, 1994, an agitated funeral procession in Bihar turned violent. Moving down the Vaishali-Muzaffarpur highway, the procession was led by a few politicians including Anand Mohan Singh, a don turned legislator and the founder of the now defunct Bihar People’s Party. It was carrying the body of Kaushlendra Kumar aka Chhotan Shukla, another gangster turned BPP leader.
While the crowd seethed in rage and sorrow, mourners spotted the vehicle of G Krishnaiah, a young 1985-batch IAS officer and then the district magistrate of Gopalganj. The vehicle was on its way to Patna.
Egged on by Anand Mohan Singh, the crowd soon turned into an irate mob and vented its anger on Krishnaiah, who had been born into a landless Dalit family in Mahabubnagar district of undivided Andhra Pradesh, now Telangana. He was dragged out of the car and lynched to death.
Thirteen years later, in 2007, Anand Mohan was sentenced to death by additional district judge RS Rai for inciting the mob. He was found guilty under penal sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 147 (rioting) and 427 (causing damage). In 2008, the Patna High Court commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. In 2012, the Supreme Court his conviction and life sentence.
But on April 10, the Bihar government issued a notice that contains a tweak which might shorten Anand Mohan’s jail term.
The April 10 notice.
The notice says that among the categories of convicted criminals for whom premature release is not allowed, one category will be removed. This pertains to criminals convicted for the “murder of a public servant on duty”. This effectively tweaks rule 484(I) of the Bihar Prison Manual, 2012.
Former IPS officer Amitabh Kumar Das told the that before this change, the state’s prison manual had no provision for the premature release of three categories of prisoners – rapists, terrorists, and murderers of government servants on duty.
Anand Mohan Singh has been in jail for the last 15 years for this third offence. Now, he would qualify for premature release. This has led some to look for a possible political subtext in the move, and speculate on how it’s tailor-made to ensure an early exit from prison for the once dreaded strongman and former parliamentarian.
In fact, he’s been out on parole three times in the last six months, most recently to attend his son’s wedding. This has only reinforced perceptions that the Nitish Kumar-led Mahagathbandhan government is being soft on him.
Political commentators in Bihar also recall other recent indicators. In January this year, Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) organised a party event that had clear signs of reaching out to Rajputs – the caste group to which Anand Mohan belongs and among whom he still has considerable clout. During the event, pitched to commemorate Rajput icon Maharana Pratap, the chief minister responded to youths demanding Anand Mohan’s release.
“We are making efforts for that,” in a tone that was seen as pacifying, while also assured.
With the prison manual change, this has taken on a new light.
In the last few years, both the major regional forces in the state – the JDU and Rashtriya Janata Dal – have been trying to outgrow their OBC-centric vote base by reaching out to upper caste groups. The RJD, which earlier had some chunks of Rajput support, has been keen to rebrand itself as a party eyeing the “A to Z” of social support.
In simpler terms, it’s an outreach pitched to woo disgruntled upper caste voters and non-Yadav OBC groups. The party has been through such efforts, though it remains a difficult task and sometimes counterproductive for its core voter groups.
The JDU, its current ally but long-time rival, has also been trying to make inroads into upper caste groups. Many are inclined to view the current tweak as a bid to please some sections of the Rajput electorate. That, however, also shows how some caste groups in the state identified with the armed leaders of gangs as symbols of caste pride and strength.
Almost three years before Krishnaiah’s murder, Anand Mohan Singh had appeared on the cover of Hindi fortnightly Maya dated December 31, 1991. He posed for the camera with his gunmen while the cover exclaimed “Yeh Bihar hai!” – this is Bihar. The text identified him as a vidhayak, or MLA. The report itself was about an array of mafia dons controlling different crime syndicates in the state and aspiring to have a hand on the levers of state power while challenging it.
The December 31, 1991 issue of Maya with Anand Mohan Singh on the cover.
That was largely because, while being protected by political patronage, they had also become a part of the politics of a competitive capacity for violence. In the 1990s, Anand Mohan was only one of the many on this long list of notoriety – Ashok Samrat, Suraj Bhan Singh, Mohammad Shahabuddin, Chhotan Shukla and Pappu Yadav, to name a few. While a few met abrupt ends in encounter killings and inter-gang rivalries, many went on to make careers in politics.
There is also the perspective of how to view the burgeoning of crime mafias and syndicates controlling the claims on state tenders and contracts. In a semi-feudal and semi-capitalist rural economy like Bihar, where private capital had only a few avenues of investment and enterprise, crime became a lucrative avenue for investment. It was almost entrepreneurial in a socio-economic order that did not have many productive ways of private enterprise, and a negligible private sector.
To an extent, the capacity for criminal violence also became a way to assert one’s claims on state resources and power. Social group identities like caste representation became a lubricant as well as the resultant social capital of the process. In his work The Republic of Bihar (Penguin, 1992), scholar and social commentator Arvind N Das also reflected on how crime became a vehicle for primitive accumulation in post-independence Bihar.
In some ways, the controversy around the change to the prison manual redirects the public gaze to the blurred lines between crime syndicates, political power, and social group identities that often seek to run along the power play in the state. That, however, now has to negotiate with new social forces and sections of an electorate that is not blind to the dangers of brute intervention. This is something political parties cannot lose sight of for too long, even if a tweak here or there could ingratiate them to some voters.
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