The Murder at Shabdo:

AIPWA Investigation Report on killing of Sarita and Mahesh Kant

[On 26 January, two development workers, Sarita and Maheshkant, were shot dead in Shabdo village. Sarita had begun her activist career as a cultural worker of the CPI(ML). She later joined the NGO sector, and at the time of her murder, was the Convenor of the Institute for Research and Action(IRA), an affiliate of Action Aid. Following the murder, the CPI(ML) called for a Gaya-Jehanabad bandh on 27 January. AIPWA Vice-President Comrade Saroj Chaube, and Comrade Rajaram Singh, deputy leader of CPI(ML) legislature party in Bihar Assembly along with activists of Jan Sanskriti Manch also joined the solidarity march to Shabdo on 12 February. A joint investigation team of CPI(ML) and AIPWA, comprising Meena Tiwari, CC member of CPI(ML) and Vice President of AIPWA, Saroj Chaube, CC Member and National Secretary of AIPWA, Niranjan Paswan, Secretary of Gaya District Committee of CPI(ML), and Ratan Kumar Singh, Advocate, visited Shabdo and Raja Bigha villages. Here, we carry excerpts from the fact-finding report along with some comments on the ongoing project work initiated by Sarita at Shabdo.]

The Murder

Shabdo is a village about 3 km from Fatehpur block of Gaya district in Bihar. There are only Yadav households in this village, around 40 in number, all from the same family. None of them is landless, and each family possesses anything between 2 bighas to 12-13 bighas of land. The Institute for Research and Action (IRA), an affiliate of Action-Aid India, came to this village 4 years back. Mahesh Kant and Sarita were respectively the Convenor and Secretary of the IRA and were frequent visitors to the village. They lived at the village for one month, but later moved to the premises of the Bihar Education Project at Fatehpur block.

On 24 January, Sarita and Mahesh had been busy preparing for the Republic Day celebrations in Shabdo village. After dinner, they left the village on a motor cycle for Fatehpur. After a while the villagers at Shabdo heard two gun shots and ran up to the spot only to find both Sarita and Mahesh lying dead by the road side. No one came to the spot from the nearby Jamheta and Raja Bigha villages. The villagers from Shabdo stayed at the spot till 1 am in the night when the administration people came and took the bodies.

A Trail of Murders

There are several threads that lead up to the murder of the two young people. All of them involve clashes of local vested interests and the nexus of criminals with politicians and power lobbies.


IRA’s Work in Shabdo

Sarita and Mahesh, as well as their organisation IRA, registered in 2000, was involved in reviving the ahar-pyne system of traditional water harvesting. Their most remarkable achievement was to inspire the people of Shabdo with a spirit of cooperative farming, and to get villagers to volunteer for shramdaan. Shabdo was selected by IRA to be developed as a model village. Perhaps what made it a suitable choice for IRA was the fact that it had fewer social contradictions than most villages in Bihar. For one, all the households were exclusively Yadavs of the same kin, for another, none were landless labourers, and there had been no significant land disputes or struggles.

In 2002, Sarita and Mahesh could persuade the villagers to bring down the boundaries of their farms. They convinced them that cooperative farming would have economic advantages. The Commissioner himself stayed in the village for 3 days to convince the farmers that if they agreed to cooperative farming, they would have the incentive of increased development funds. A gram seva kendra (village service centre) and a jagjanani bhavan(room for women and children) were built.

Social questions, however, were not so easily addressed. Social issues, especially the advocacy of prohibition and gender equality were taken up. Surprisingly, however, this model village does not have a single woman in its 15-member Gram Samiti. Within Shabdo, there was the admirable model of shramdaan and cooperative farming. But, women labourers from the Manjhi tola of nearby Raja Bigha complain that when they are employed during wheat harvesting, Shabdo farmers do not pay the minimum wage. While Sarita and Mahesh had held some meetings with the agrarian labourers in the Majhi tola, there had never been any joint meeting of the farmers of Shabdo with the farm labourers of Raja Bigha.

The funds received by the IRA and Shabdo became a bone of contention for powerful vested interests competing for power and influence. Mahesh and Sarita inadvertently were caught in the tussle between two power groups which were both close to the RJD.

One source of tension involves the land of Musahars of the neighbouring Raja Bigha village. 10 years back, following a fire in the Musahar Toli of the village, their land had been occupied by Samman Yadav, and they had moved to Raja Bigha. With the help of Mahesh, Sarita and Block officials, these Musahars had filed a complaint and succeeded in retrieving and cultivating their land. But villagers say that this issue was resolved peacefully, because the IRA had dialogue with Samman Yadav.

Shabdo villagers also recalled that a year ago, when Sarita was conducting a meeting at the school in Musahar Toli of Raja Bigha Village, the son of Samman Yadav, came in drunk carrying a gun and threatened them, claiming to be the chairman of the school. The meeting was subsequently shifted to another place.

There was a clash of interests involving allocation of funds to IRA, between the Block Pramukh Ramji Yadav, who was close to Bindeshwari Yadav, Chairperson of the Zila Parishad, on the one hand and local MLA Shyamdev Paswan, on the other, though they all belonged to the RJD. The IRA is said to have had the support of Ramji and Bindi Yadav as well as the Commissioner Hemchand Sirohi. Sirohi had recommended the cultivation of flowers and had arranged for the release of funds, including Rs.6 lakhs for a borewell. Bindeshwari Yadav had allotted Rs.22 lakh out of the Zila Parishad fund towards IRA’s development works in Shabdo village. The MLA objected to this, but was snubbed. The MLA had also wanted road work in Tankupa panchayat to be given to a supporter, a demand that Ramji Yadav had refused. In January 2002, Ramji Yadav was shot dead in a passenger train. The FIR filed by his brother names the MLA Shyamdev Paswan along with two sons of Samman Yadav as the main accused.

Soon after, a daughter of Samman Yadav eloped and fled to Delhi. Samman suspected that she had been helped by Sarita and Mahesh, and lodged a complaint of kidnapping.

On November 3 there was an altercation at Raja Bigha between one Satyendra Yadav, an IRA member, and Samman Yadav. Satyendra, president of Shabdo Gram Samiti, worked as the driver of Bindi Yadav, the chairman of Gaya Zilla Parishad. He had bought a roadside plot at Raja Bigha to set up a shop. Many people from Shabdo have similarly bought roadside land-plots at Jamheta to construct shops. This has been a source of conflict between the Samman Yadav group and the people of Shabdo. On November 3, Samman Yadav and his sons objected to the construction of the roof of Satyendra’s shop, claiming that the roof would cover land that belonged to them. Satyendra said this was not true.

On the same day, Shabdo volunteers learnt that criminal elements had assembled in Samman Yadav’s house at Raja Bigha, and Mahesh informed the police of this. When police reached the spot, firing ensued, resulting in the deaths of Samman Yadav, his nephew Birendra Yadav, as well a police official. Samman’s wife accused Mahesh of having caused the killing by acting as an informer. The police too not only mentioned Mahesh’s name in the FIR but even leaked it to the media, exposing him to the wrath of the Samman family. The sons of Samman Yadav did not perform their father’s last rites and pledged to avenge his killing, so that ‘his last rites would be performed together with that of his killers’.

A Callous Police-Administration

After the killing of Samman Yadav and others on November 2, the villagers of Shabdo had warned Mahesh and Sarita to be careful. They had both expressed apprehensions of threats to their lives. According to relatives of Sarita, she had even informed the police on this count. But the police took no measures.

After the murder, the police took two hours to reach the spot. On being asked the reason for the delay, they retorted, “Should we risk our lives?” The villagers are still apprehensive of an attack. None of the culprits have been arrested so far. Shabdo village itself has not been marked by protest, only by shock, grief and fear. While the Gaya-Jehanabad Bandh was highly successful throughout the region, it evoked little response from the stunned Shabdo.

In the case of Manju’s killing in nearby Jehanabad, too, the Ranveer Sena men who killed her are scot-free. The proximity and even patronage of RJD politicians to the killers prevents them from being brought to justice in the case of Sarita and Mahesh as well as Manju. The Shabdo case brings home the fact that the nexus of power with criminals and police is so deeply entrenched in Bihar, that any kind of development work is impossible without offering it an effective challenge. q