Patna: Covering the 1998 Lok Sabha elections in Siwan, this reporter received a knock on the door of his hotel room at midnight one day. An unsettling sight awaited as the door was opened. In the entire corridor stood men armed with AK-47s. They formed the entourage of Mohd Shahabuddin, a local don-turned-politician who wanted to meet this reporter.
“You did not tell me you were coming to Siwan,” a smiling Shahabuddin said, adding that this correspondent should visit him before leaving Siwan. “And by the way, if you need a quote against me, you should meet Kaushalya Devi,” he added, referring to the mother of Chandrashekhar Prasad, known as Chandu, a former JNU student leader who was allegedly killed in Siwan by Shahabuddin’s shooters in 1997.
Travelling across Siwan over the next four days, the statement returned to this reporter more than once. No one except Kaushalya Devi was ready to speak about Shahabuddin, who died of Covid-19 at a Delhi hospital Saturday.
A former four-term MP of Siwan, Shahabuddin was the face of terror in Siwan during the Lalu-Rabri era. When he contested, no party dared to put up a poster or banner against him. Doctors of the area were forced to keep their consultation fee at Rs 50 per patient, and district magistrates and officials addressed him as ‘Saheb’. He was so proud of his iron-fisted control over Siwan, he would boast about the freedom with which women moved around in the area.
Facing over 40 criminal cases related to murder, attempt to murder, extortion and abductions, he is said to have been the inspiration for the MLA-don portrayed by actor Nana Patekar in Prakash Jha’s Apharan.
His entry into politics
Son of a ticket vendor, Shahabuddin was born on 10 May 1967 in Siwan. According to his profile on the Lok Sabha website, he held a PhD and a Master’s in Political Science. He enjoyed reading, horse riding, and football.
Shahabuddin first became an MLA time in 1990. He subsequently joined the Janata Dal and was re-elected in 1995. His constituency, Jiradayi, was the birthplace of India’s first President Rajendra Prasad.
A year later, he was elected to his first stint in the Lok Sabha. He held on to the seat until he was disqualified in 2007 after his conviction for the abduction and suspected murder of a CPI(ML) member, among other cases.
During the Lalu Prasad Yadav years, he enjoyed the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief’s complete backing. Lalu used to publicly call him “Chhota Bhai”. Despite his conviction for murder, Shahabuddin was never taken out of the RJD’s national executive. This was seen as a clear message to the administration in Siwan — toe his line and ignore his activities.
Shahabuddin’s relationship with Lalu hit troubled waters in 2001, following a shootout between the former’s entourage and police personnel out to arrest the don for allegedly slapping a police officer.
Two policemen and 8 men in Shahabuddin’s team were killed in the shootout. Shahabuddin subsequently went underground, convinced that Lalu had tried to kill him. It was Lalu who went to Siwan to woo him back and the blame was put on an the police force.
When Shahabuddin was jailed, Lalu used to visit him in Siwan prison, and talk to him on the phone while he was in custody.
Shahabuddin led a plush existence in jail. An entire floor of a new block was reserved from him. It had a gym, a large fridge and an expensive Plasma TV. Inmates who got bail would come to seek his blessings.
“It is hard to decide if this is a jail or holiday resort,” a co-visitor murmured as he observed the picturesque view from Shahabuddin’s room.
Shahabuddin shot into national recognition when former Jawaharlal Nehru University Student’s Union president Chandrashekhar Prasad was murdered in Siwan.
Chandu, a CPI(ML) leader, was a powerful orator and allegedly made Shahabuddin uncomfortable. The killing created national outrage and JNU students protested before the Bihar Bhawan in Delhi.
Four persons — all members of the RJD — were convicted in 2012 for the murder and awarded life imprisonment.
Apart from crime, Shahabuddin’s political rise was aided by CPI (ML)’s land grab agitation in the 1990s.
The landed gentry — mostly upper castes — sided with Shahabuddin to protect their land. The circumstances changed when the upper castes began to gravitate towards the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shahabuddin had to go to jail.
Amid his waning influence, his wife Heena Saheb was defeated thrice in the Lok Sabha elections. The fact that the CPI (ML) is now an ally of the RJD and the party is being controlled by Tejashwi Yadav, with Lalu himself in jail, further took a knock on Shahabudddin’s influence.
He was shifted to Delhi’s Tihar jail on the orders of the Supreme Court in 2017, following petitions from the families of his alleged victims who said they would not get a fair trial in Bihar.
When this reporter called on Shahabuddin after the 1998 election assignment, the discussion veered towards the reign of terror he had unleashed on Siwan.
“I am not a traditional politician,” he said. “Do you find a young woman roaming at 10 at night anywhere in Bihar? You will find them in Siwan,” he added. “No crime happens here.”
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.