In the first week of November 2005, a joint team of Bihar and Delhi Police arrested four-time RJD MP from Siwan — Mohammed Shahabuddin — at an official bungalow on Bishambar Das Marg in Delhi. Bihar was then under President's Rule and an assembly election (the second in the same year) had been in progress for over a month. The Election Commission had taken a very serious note on poll-related violence in the state.
Shahabuddin's arrest that afternoon from his New Delhi residence had sent a message across his home state, Bihar, that the proverbial long arms could even reach people who were considered to be a law unto themselves. The context of that arrest was interesting — rejection of the anticipatory bail plea and issuance of a non-bailable warrant for giving a false affidavit mentioning only around one-and-half dozen cases as opposed to around three dozen registered cases against him, half of which pertained to heinous crimes such as, murder, kidnapping, gun running etc. A false affidavit was perhaps the least serious crime that he had committed in his criminal-political career. But it meant that a regime change — ouster of Lalu-Rabri regime — could spell trouble for him.
In that Assembly election, RJD was routed. Bihar had come out of the 15 years of misrule of Lalu-Rabri. Nitish Kumar's JD(U) and BJP emerged triumphant. That spelled doom for Shahabuddin, called 'Saheb' by his believers and 'Sahabu' by the residents of the region. Since the time Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD came to power in Bihar in 1990, Shahabuddin spelled terror in hearts and minds of people in the area. What Gabbar Singh said in Sholay, "Yahan se pachas pachas kos dur gaon mein..." was true for people of Siwan for their two-time MLA and four-time MP.
No one would dare talk about him. If anyone had to say anything negative, he would first ensure that no one was around, at least within audible distance and the conversation would take place in extreme confidentiality. The account of crimes committed by him was chilling. The list of his crimes and the way he eliminated his detractors and challengers was enough to instill fear in hearts and minds of many.
He would not even care for the then superintendent of police of the district — SK Singhal who realised this the hard way. Shahabuddin and his men fired bullets at the SP, a crime for which he could be convicted 11 years later when the Nitish government set up a fast track court to expedite trials against him. This writer had a firsthand experience of the kind of fear Shahabuddin and his goons had over ordinary people in the area. For his believers, he was a demigod.
Thanks to an IAS officer, CK Anil, who was posted as district magistrate of Siwan in 2005 during President's Rule, the cases against Shahabuddin were pursued vigorously. Initially no one believed that Sahabu could be brought to book.
Take for instance the case of a double murder case in 2004 for which he, along with three of his associates, were convicted by a special court in December 2015: this case was known as the acid murder case. In August 2004, three brothers — Girish, Satish and Rajiv Roshan — were abducted after a prolonged tiff between these men's father Chandrakeshwar Prasad alias Chanda Babu and Shahabuddin's men over possession of his shops in the main Siwan market. Girish and Satish were killed by dipping them in acid. Rajiv managed to flee but he was later killed by unidentified assailants a few days before he was to depose against Shahabuddin as a prime witness.
The list of victims is long. There are multiple cases in which Shahabuddin has been convicted by a special court of law. They have been challenged in higher courts, but that's due process.
Lalu Yadav had never been apologetic about Shahabuddin. For his current ally and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the arrest and a speedy trial against the former Siwan MP meant rule of law was in force in Bihar. Nitish followers and even ordinary citizens of Bihar would single out his case to point out that Nitish meant business. A series of convictions against Shahabuddin and others like him, sent out a message that criminals wouldn't be spared in his regime. He had won the perception battle.
Lalu has now turned the tables on him. Last month, State Minority Welfare Minister Abdul Ghafoor from the RJD and RJD's Raghunathpur MLA Harishankar Yadav made a courtesy call to Shahabuddin in Siwan jail. The meeting took place over tea and snacks in the jailer's official chamber. After a video of this meet went viral, the jailer was suspended. But the minister remained defiant and his political boss Lalu dismissed the incident as a 'routine' matter.
A month later, Lalu has honourably rehabilitated Shahabuddin in politics, as a national executive member of RJD. Shahabuddin and his followers had backed Lalu in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, so now it was time for the RJD chief to reward them. This only adds to Lalu's image that he never discards his loyalists. Second, now that he is back in power, he has started rewarding his men, even if they are convicted for heinous crimes. Third, it further cements the Muslim-Yadav socio-political coalition.
What does it mean for Nitish? The JD(U) officially maintains that this is an internal matter of the RJD and has nothing to do with the Nitish government or the JD(U). So what if it impacts popular perception about Nitish Kumar? Look at the numbers RJD-JD(U) has. People knew that such things might happen and yet they decisively voted for this combination.
Remember, Nitish was a bitter critic of Lalu till a year ago. They are now friends and allies. He may never be friends with Shahabuddin but may just turn a blind eye to the former MP's activities. Yes, this move hurts Nitish's image and public perception. But one cannot prejudge anything in politics.