Lal Bihari and his ‘dead people’s society’ seek justice for those officially ‘killed’ by scheming families

People often go to considerable lengths to grab property — they lie, cheat, even murder. But in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, a mere scratch of the pen can do the job. This is the land of the legally dead, where relatives and enthusiastic government officials make a killing, by ‘killing people on paper,’ to grab their land.

Lal Bihari, 64, from Amilo-Mubarakpur village is one such victim, who ‘died’ and was born again. His father died when he was a few months old and his mother left him to remarry. He never went to school, but learned to weave Benarasi sarees.

At 21, he applied for a loan to set up a loom workshop. It was refused for the most unlikely reason — that he was dead. “My uncle, working hand-in-glove with the district administration, had declared me dead,” he said. This happened on July 30, 1976.

Thus began Lal Bihari’s 18-year struggle to prove he was alive, petitioning the lekhpal and kanungo (village-level officials in charge of land records). He was repeatedly fobbed off but he refused to give up.

While most people try to avoid a criminal record, Lal Bihari went to extraordinary lengths to earn one. He kidnapped his nephew hoping that a police complaint would be registered by the same uncle who had declared him dead. “I thought my uncle would have to admit that I am alive if he goes to the police. But they outsmarted me and didn’t complain. I finally got tired and sent the boy back after a week,” he says sadly.

He conducted dharnas and rallies in Azamgarh, Lucknow and Delhi, posed as a corpse wearing a skeleton costume, lying on a make-believe pyre, making a nuisance of himself. He made his wife apply for widow’s pension, but the official refused to process the papers, having figured out it was Lal Bihari’s case. He even barged into the state assembly in Lucknow, hurling pamphlets in Bhagat Singh style. Then he happily surrendered to the police, thinking he would finally get proof of his existence, but the judge let him off without so much as a mention of his name in the court records.

Taunted as shaitan and bhoot (devil, ghost), his presence was seen as a sign of ill luck in the village. “We had no food to eat, no income, but I had to come back from the dead,” he says. A dark sense of humour kept him going. He adopted the name that government documents had given him: Lal Bihari Mritak. He got a bank account, election identity-card and even contested against then-PM Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1991 with this name.

In 1994, he finally found a district official willing to fix the error and make him “undead.” “I am the only man who has been born twice, once from my mother’s womb and the second time from the government’s womb. I will also die twice,” he says, smirking at his own wit. He now celebrates June 30 as punarjiwat diwas (rebirth day).

Lal Bihari got his land back too but bought peace with his relatives by allowing them to till it. Through this struggle, an illiterate Lal Bihari had acquired the invaluable skill of understanding (without being able to read) government and legal documents. He also found there were many others who were struggling to prove themselves alive, just like him. In 1980, he established the Mritak Sangh, the Association for Dead People, and earned the sobriquet “Netaji” from those who flocked to him. He also filed a case for compensation with the Lucknow High Court.

His life even inspired a Bollywood film by director Satish Kaushik, which is expected to release soon. “We would go on dharna, publish handbills, even court arrest to embarrass the district officials. The result was that soon, people who approached me were able to get the official’s attention and often the error was corrected,” he says.

But the problem remains serious and widespread. Sixty-five-year-old Jamuna, from Khatoli village in Azamgarh, had been working in a Kanpur factory with his father since he was a teenager. His visits to the village were occasional, with the understanding that his two brothers would till and manage their 1.5 acres of land. On one such visit, Jamuna found out that his brothers had struck his name off the family register and therefore, land records. “It is as if I never existed. My brothers denied I was even their sibling,” he says with tears in his eyes.

This was in November 2017. He was also turned out of his house. Homeless and desperate, Jamuna sought Netaji’s help. Carrying a board saying “Main mritak hoon (I am dead)’’ Jamuna protested outside the district magistrate’s office. An inquiry was ordered but this June, Jamuna was kidnapped by his brother to prevent him from testifying. “I was kept in Punjab for a week,” he says. When he was released, Jamuna petitioned for another inquiry, but there has been no relief so far.

In some cases, by the time the victim is declared legally alive, the damage has been done. Goriapatti resident Ram Avatar Yadav, 80 years old, declared dead by his family was resurrected by Lal Bihari but has not been able to get possession of his land. Driven out of his home, Ram Avatar lives at the sarpanch’s house for the last eight years while his family is in Kolkata.

Meanwhile, Bhagwani Devi, a 70-year-old widow from Fakhruddinpur village, has no idea how and when she was declared dead. She had hoped that her share in her husband Shivpujan’s property would see her through old age, but his brothers changed the records. Now, she lives with her daughter’s family.

“Main kankal hoon ya hoon insaan, kaun kare iski pehchaan, jis desh mein murda zinda ho, woh hai Bharat desh mahaan” (Am I a skeleton or am I alive, who will determine this? A country where the dead are living, this is my great nation, India). These words by Lal Bihari sum up the dilemma of the living dead. “I now know it is easy to kill someone on paper,” he says, “If you actually kill someone, you become a criminal. If you kill someone on paper, there is no body and no crime.”