Mohammad Shahabuddin was in the news earlier this month when Lalu Yadav, former Bihar chief minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal president, inducted the Siwan strongman in the party’s national executive. The BJP raised the issue of the criminalisation of politics — how a hardened criminal was being accorded respectability by making him a part of the highest policy-making body of the ruling party.
Shahabuddin was also in the news last month when the minority welfare minister of the Bihar government, Abdul Gafoor, accompanied by a local MLA met him in the Siwan jail, where he is lodged since 2006 (after Nitish Kumar became chief minister) as an accused in several murder cases. The photograph of Gafoor feasting with Shahabuddin in jail went viral on social media. The question was raised by the BJP as to how a minister could visit a murder convict in jail and share food with him. Lalu Yadav retorted that when he was in the jail in the fodder scam cases, many visitors came to him with a lot of food and he shared that with his guests. To treat guests well, whether in or out of jail, is part of our tradition and Shahabuddin was only upholding that tradition, he said.
This incident reminded me of the ‘privilege’ I had once to become the guest of Shahabuddin in the Siwan jail. If I remember correctly, it was the year 1997. I was working with the Times of India, Patna then. I was covering a bye-election in the Ziradei assembly constituency (incidentally, this is the place from which Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, hailed) in the Siwan district, necessitated by the resignation of Shahabuddin, then sitting MLA, on his election as a Member of Parliament from Siwan in 1996 Lok Sabha election.
An interesting part of the bye-election was that in Shahabuddin’s place Lalu Yadav had nominated a Yadav candidate — Shiv Shankar Yadav — for the Ziradei seat and the opposition parties were harping that Shahabuddin was not backing him as the former wanted a candidate of his choice, possibly a Muslim. It was generally held that no candidate could win the Ziradei seat without the support of Shahabuddin who had represented the constituency twice. I tried to speak to Shiv Shankar Yadav but he was out campaigning in the remote areas. Then thought I would check with Shahabuddin himself about his electoral preference.
Incidentally, the Siwan strongman was in the jail then (he was in jail thanks to Justice DP Wadhwa, the then chief justice of the Patna High Court, but that is a different story). I went to the Siwan jail and met the jail superintendent with a request to arrange a meeting with Shahabuddin. It was about 4 pm. The superintendent told me that the MP Saheb was in solitary confinement and only those permitted by the court could see him. I had to take special permission from the DM if I wanted an audience with the MP Saheb next morning, he said. I went to meet the district magistrate but he flatly refused permission. “The Member of Parliament is in jail because of the court’s order. Only the court can grant you access to him," he said.
At about 9 pm that day, I managed to meet Yadav, the candidate, at his camp office/residence. When I broached the subject, he was emphatic that he was Shahabuddin’s, not Lalu Yadav’s, candidate. As if to buttress his point, he told me that he could make me speak to Shahabuddin himself to clear the doubts. I jumped at the idea. Yadav dialled a number (it was the era of landlines) and said: “Shahabu, here is a journalist from Patna who is saying that you are not supporting me as Laluji has foisted me on this constituency. Please tell him that I am your candidate.”
Yadav handed me over the phone. The voice on the other side first greeted me: “Welcome to Siwan”. He rattled out the names of many journalists in Patna with whom he had friendly relations and then said: “Shiv Shankarji was my choice. I persuaded Laluji to give him the ticket for this assembly seat which I vacated.” But I was not very sure if I was actually talking to Shahabuddin (I had not met him before, so I did not recognise his voice) or I was being subjected to a con job. I asked him if I could meet him and speak to him face-to-face.
To my surprise, he readily agreed. And, to my greater surprise, he asked me to come over to the jail at once. With trepidation, I reached the jail premises. A young man guided me to a small jail gate and then led me to the Jail superintendent’s chamber where I had been in the same afternoon. I saw Shahabuddin seated in the superintendent’s chair and about 30-35 men squatting on the floor. Apparently, election strategy was being discussed. Shahabuddin stood up to embrace me like a long lost friend and asked someone sitting beside him to vacate the chair for me.
Lo and behold! Who was that man who left the chair and promptly sat on the floor? It was the embarrassed jail superintendent himself. He looked sheepish when I made eye contact with him. Shahabuddin spoke to me how he would ensure Yadav’s victory with a thumping majority. He said he was eager to get out of the jail to do public service. “People of Siwan want me in their midst to fight for their just causes”, he said. He also told me how he was using his stint in the jail to improve the living conditions.
After about 30-minute interaction, it was time to bid good-bye. Shahabuddin, to my surprise, came out of the jail gate to see me off to my taxi parked outside. He told me that a journalist from Patna visiting Siwan had to be his guest. “I will be out of jail soon. Next time we meet, it would be over a dawat (feast) in my house”, he said as a parting remark.
The same night, I started my return journey to Patna by road. The next evening, I wrote my Siwan report. I mentioned the sequence of events and my meeting with Shahabuddin in jail. It was a story with graphic details. It made a splash. The chief justice of the Patna High Court took suo motu cognisance of the news report and issued notices to virtually everyone in the top state administration — chief secretary, home secretary, DG (Prisons), district magistrate and SP of Siwan and, of course, the concerned jail superintendent and Shahabuddin himself.
After great deliberations and legal consultations, all those who were served notice — from the chief secretary to the jail superintendent — wrote an identical two-line response: “The meeting in the jail premises never took place. It was a figment of the reporter’s imagination.”
Shahabuddin also trotted out exactly the same two-line response.
Then I was served notice to appear before the chief justice’s court and explain my conduct. I pleaded my own case and told Justice Wadhwa: “The implication of the state administration’s response is that I cooked up the story to blackmail Shahabuddin. But can anyone in his senses imagine that I, a journalist, can have the gall to blackmail Shahabuddin who is a terror even to the state authorities? And what did I blackmail him for — money, land, house or what else?”
The chief justice sought an answer from the state counsel. The latter kept making vague remarks and the chief justice kept asking him for a specific answer. When the counsel persisted with his ramblings, the chief justice was visibly annoyed and ordered contempt notices against all the defendants.
There was panic in the state administration as to what would be the outcome of this face-off with the chief justice. But the distress turned out to be short-lived. About a week after the contempt notice was served, Justice Wadhwa was elevated to the Supreme Court. With him gone, the case went into cold storage. A few days later, the same Patna High Court granted Shahabuddin bail.
And everyone lived happily thereafter!