By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2003).
"HE SHOULD BE HANGED," says Vanita Mishra. She's talking about the man she believes murdered her husband. Eighteen months ago, the 24-year-old widow first approached the police in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and told them she knew a witness who had seen the man she suspected brutally beating her husband on the day he disappeared. Not only that, the alleged killer had 30 previous criminal charges against him.
The only problem was that the man she suspected was not only an alleged gangster, but also a state legislator: Raghuraj Pratap Singh, better known as "Raja Bhaiya," or Big Brother Raja. The police refused to register a case against him, Mishra believes, because they were too frightened.
For years, the handsome young legislator and his father, Udai Pratap Singh, ruled their rural district of Kunda with absolute authority. Members of the high Rajput caste, they behaved as though they still owned the land and as if the people were still their feudal subjects. Raja Bhaiya made no apologies for his ancestry, once explaining his supposed popularity by saying simply: "I am their raja." And when he drew fire from the press for holding a weekly meeting to settle the disputes of villagers, he said the people came to him because they couldn't afford to go to court.
But in October, Raja Bhaiya's freedom to rule over Kunda came to a sudden end. He was arrested on a relatively minor charge--allegedly threatening a one-time political crony--and then, some months later, amid a spiralling list of fresh police accusations, charged under India's toughest law, the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act. So why, after failing for years to arrest Raja Bhaiya, did the police suddenly move?
Many believe it's because Raja Bhaiya made the mistake of tangling with an iron-willed woman: Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state. A former schoolteacher born into the shoemaker caste--one of the Dalit, or "untouchables"--Mayawati made her political career by showing her low-caste supporters that she could bring their erstwhile Rajput rulers and the high-caste Brahmins alike to heel.
The clash between the high-caste legislator and the low-caste chief minister is symptomatic of politics and power in India's most populous state, whose voters play a key role in deciding the make-up of the national government.
"When this nasty game of politics is played, all the social and moral norms are kept aside," says Shriv Narayan Singh, a senior lawyer in the state and long-time political observer. Those entering politics have two objectives, he says: Either they want to do something for the country, or they want to do something for themselves. "The majority," he adds, "is interested in the game of power."
When Raja Bhaiya was on the election trail, his chosen symbol was a chair. According to local journalists, the chair implied that he would back whoever occupied the chief minister's seat. But when Mayawati became chief minister for the third time last year, Raja Bhaiya eschewed that pragmatism. Denied a ministerial position, in October 2002 he led a group of assembly members in a revolt intended to bring down Mayawati. Less than a week later, he was in jail.
That was just the beginning. In a raid on January 25, police claimed to have discovered Raja Bhaiya's father in possession of a high-powered rifle, making him liable to prosecution under the tough new Prevention of Terrorism Act. Conveniently for the police, Udai Pratap then "hinted" that he and his son had conspired to assassinate Mayawati, according to District Magistrate Mohammed Mustafa. (Both father and son are being held incommunicado and have not been able to comment publicly.) After a brief search, the police say they also discovered a skull and partial skeleton that they suspect are the remains of Vanita Mishra's missing husband in a 400-hectare lake next to Raja Bhaiya's estate. Before long, father and son were jailed under the anti-terrorism law, which shifts the burden of proof onto the accused and denies defendants bail for at least a year.
It was a remarkable reversal of fortunes. Despite the list of charges against him, Raja Bhaiya has never been convicted of a crime. And for nearly 10 years, he maintained an unshakeable hold on his state-assembly seat. In 1993, he defeated his nearest opponent by the largest margin ever. Three years later, in 1996, he did even better. Critics say he forced his constituents to vote for him with an army of thugs known as the Raja Bhaiya Youth Brigade. During elections, not a single opposing campaign poster could be found in Kunda. "It could be because the other parties realize it is a lost cause, campaigning against me here," Raja Bhaiya suggested at the time.
In the 2002 assembly elections, when the Election Commission halted the counting of votes because of alleged irregularities and ordered the poll to be repeated--this time with extra security--Raja Bhaiya took an even greater share, 85%, of the vote.
Police claim Raja Bhaiya also used his youth brigade to frighten other traders out of the local liquor trade--which the government estimates is worth about 50 million rupees ($1 million) a year. And, police add, by taking over government land and flooding it to form the lake by his estate, he built a fisheries business that generated as much as 100,000 rupees a day, tax-free.
The charges registered with the police against the legislator over the years comprise a litany of heinous crimes: rioting, extortion, robbery, assault, kidnapping, attempted murder and murder. But according to a lawyer who represents the family, in 12 of the 20 cases registered before he alienated Mayawati, Raja Bhaiya was either acquitted or the charges were dropped. In the eight others, as well as the dozen or so brought against him since he squared off with Mayawati, Raja Bhaiya's family maintains he is innocent, slandered by his political opponents. The new district magistrate of Kunda has another explanation. "People have been frightened to testify against him," says Mustafa. "He terrorized the people."
Few claim Raja Bhaiya and his father are choirboys. But, equally, few believe his arrest represents a sincere effort to rid the government of known criminals. A number of high-caste politicians--most from Mayawati's coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)--vocally opposed his arrest under the anti-terrorism act, accusing Mayawati of misusing the law to dispose of her enemies. Not only was the timing of the most serious charge against Raja Bhaiya suspect, but some of Mayawati's own ministers have long charge sheets of their own, her critics say.
Crime and politics have long been locked in an unhealthy embrace in Uttar Pradesh. Criminals once relied on political patrons, says Ashish Nandi of New Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "Now they themselves have entered politics." Criminals can help politicians gain and retain power, Nandi explains, by capturing poll booths, organizing demonstrations or stirring up violence. In exchange, politicians can help them avoid prosecution. Criminals became even more involved in politics when they began to realize the nature of the immunity that political power granted them. In the 2002 state assembly elections, more than a sixth of the 5,539 candidates had police records.
Despite the attacks on her cabinet colleagues, Mayawati has turned the row over Raja Bhaiya's arrest to her advantage. In an official statement, she denied it had been motivated by political expediency or by caste conflict. But her more spirited remarks to the press were couched in the rhetoric of a champion of the oppressed against the oppressor. "These people have been spreading terror since ages," she told reporters. "The people of Kunda were leading a life of slavery. They did not feel they were living in a free country."
She called on the central leadership of the BJP to rein in their local representatives, whose opposition to Raja Bhaiya's arrest threatened the state's coalition government. Recognizing the importance of the Dalit chief minister as an ally in next year's general elections, the BJP's national leaders ordered their local representatives to toe the line. That made Mayawati even more popular with her supporters. Even when a video surfaced allegedly showing Mayawati exhorting party members to divert money intended for development projects to party coffers, she weathered the storm.
Vanita Mishra, a Brahmin, might be the chief minister's biggest fan. In December, she finally persuaded the police to lodge her case. "Only when I read in the paper that Mayawati was going after him did I go back to the police," she says, fighting back tears. "I only want justice for myself and my two children for what we have suffered on account of this man."
But justice is not easy to find in India's courts. A few weeks after police found the skull they say is that of Vanita Mishra's husband, the man who allegedly led them to it, their chief witness in the case, was killed. The police say the killers must have wanted to keep him from testifying; others says the police killed him to stop him from changing his story in court. The skull isn't talking.