Baijnath grins broadly when you ask him if he’s still alive. You must be saving a lot on food bills? The grin nearly stretches from ear to ear. Even in legal death, he cannot fail to see the humour in his situation. In Azamgarh, paying respects to the dead will elicit a pleasant thank you in response—from the dead. No, not from the beyond. And no, Phantom, the Ghost Who Walks, hasn’t relocated from Africa. Nor is it a script for a B-grade flick. But of course, legal death means you’re in for a life of horror.
Wait…legal death? Yes. On paper, it’s a kind of limbo—a trishanku state between those still breathing and those who have attained nirvana. De facto, you’re alive—so, sorry, no, not much savings on the overheads. But de jure, you’re dead meat. And the sheer effort it takes to get yourself declared alive is anything but funny. Not to speak of the implications of failing.
But how are living, breathing people legally bumped off? Well, as it happens, some time before computers took over lives, human existence and its cessation was certified on paper. The fact that people were born and lived was recorded in various registers. And title deeds certifying their ownership of properties were locked into apparently sacrosanct vaults of hardbound paper. These entries could be erased by the scratch of a pen by a powerful man called the ‘lekhpal’. He was the scribe for local land records and revenue office. But ever so often, he also doubled up as the angel of death.
Baijnath (he goes by one name) is a semi-literate Dalit farmer who owns, or rather owned, less than an acre of land in an Azamgarh village. Years ago, unbeknownst to him, a lekhpal wrote him a death certificate. A Brahmin called Baijnath Pandey had died and the lekhpal made an entry on the records substituting the names of Pandey’s heirs, his sons Bachaspati and Triveni, as inheritors of the plot owned by the living, breathing Baijnath. It may seem like a careless error to make, just a case of mistaken identity. But turning back the clock requires a Herculean effort as others have found out.
The living Baijnath had no idea he was no longer supposed to be alive. And the lekhpal had not made a field visit to check if he had entered the correct name. In 2015, Bachaspati and Triveni tried to sell that half acre—that’s when Baijnath came to know about his legal death. His lawyer finally told him to approach the Mritak Sangh—literally, Association of the Dead. This is where he found himself to be part of a whole community almost, a kind of Brotherhood of Zombies which claims their total population in India could run into tens of thousands. They demand the right to life, in the most literal sense.
The Mritak Sangh was founded by Lal Bihari Mritak, a bit of a legend in these parts. Lal Bihari lost his father at a young age and shifted with his mother to her natal home in Mubarakpur, 30 km east of Azamgarh town. She married again and left him with her aunt. He never attended school: a few stray tuitions at a neighbour’s is all he got while he became a child labourer. He was weaving Banarasi saris for a living when a paternal aunt declared him dead to the lekhpal in his father’s village—a technical knockout dealt with an eye on his share in the ancestral property.
At age 21, Lal Bihari applied for a loan to start a business. The bank wanted proof of identity and other documentation and he went back to his father’s village to get it. That’s when he heard the news of his own death! Now, Lal Bihari didn’t want any property. He just wanted to get on with life. “People called me ghost and satan to my face. They laughed at me. Nobody took it seriously,” says Lal Bihari, who now smiles at every dead joke you can throw at him.
Lal Bihari pleaded with every official possible to rectify the error, but in vain. He also tried many ruses to get an official document to acknowledge him as alive: it became his life’s mission to not be dead. He kidnapped his cousin, the son of the aunt who’d rendered him inexistent. “I went to his school and got him to Mubarakpur. He was with me for seven days.”
Ramadhar, who died years ago but was resurrected in 2015
It was a bizarre week. “I went to the butcher with his clothes and asked him to smear the blood of a slaughtered animal on them. The butcher refused and told me to buy a chicken and do it myself. I could not!” says Lal Bihari. Then the boy missed his mother, so he had to take him to watch films in Azamgarh. “I had to ensure he was entertained all the time!” But someone advised his mother that filing a case would mean she would declare Lal Bihari alive, so the plan flopped. “Finally, I had to drop him back home,” recalls Lal Bihari.
In the 1980s, Jagdambika Pal (who later attained fame as the three-day CM of UP) raised a question about Lal Bihari twice in the legislative council, but nothing changed. Lal Bihari once went to the state assembly as a visitor, with pamphlets hidden in his shoe. When he threw them at the well of the house, the marshal detained him for hours and disciplinary proceedings were initiated. But the moment they realised what he was up to, the assembly not only took no action against him but kept his name out of the official records!
It gets curiouser. Once Lal Bihari even applied for widow’s pension for his wife, again in vain. He tried to get a response for the denial; none came. His journey through various courts and government offices gave him all the education the unlettered Lal Bihari needed about the Kafkaesque nature of the world. Naturally, he came to absorb a touch of absurdist humour. The records had him as “Lal Bihari: Mritak” (Lal Bihari: Dead), so he simply changed his name to Lal Bihari Mritak, which is how it reads on all his official documents now, including his Aadhaar card! He finally won the losing battle of his life in 1994, after a frustrating 18 years. A lekhpal devised a way to reintroduce his name into the records. Afterwards, he happily transferred his share of land to his cousins.
“It is a coming-of-age story,” says Bollywood director Satish Kaushik, describing his film on Lal Bihari, which is going through its 19th draft before he finally begins to shoot in September. Kaushik has known Lal Bihari for the past 15 years but his project has been stuck. “The success of biopics on Pan Singh Tomar, Mary Kom and Milkha Singh shows the audience is finally ready to watch Lal Bihari’s story.”
“I had read of him in a newspaper and kept the clipping for a few years before coming back to it. Since then, Lal Bihari has been like family. His son stayed with me for long periods,” says Kaushik. “In 2003, when he won the Ig Nobel awards, the US denied him a visa to go and accept it.” Lal Bihari confirms this. “The US government didn’t want me there. They may have a lot of similar cases there and didn’t want any of them to start staking claims.”
A judgment on Lal Bihari’s case is now taught in some law schools, a scholar is writing a PhD thesis on him and, ironically, he featured as a question in the Lekhpal Services exam. Lal Bihari has made it his life’s mission to help others who have attained premature death on paper.
Most have to do with land-grabbing. In Mau, 45 km east of Azamgarh, Lal Bihari is advising 76-year-old Dhiraji Devi, who was declared dead in 1985—without her knowing it for a decade. After her husband, a coalfield worker, died in 1974, Dhiraji went to work in the Samla colliery in Bengal, where she got a job. She would send back money for her children as well as to cultivate her husband’s ancestral land in Makhuni village, Azamgarh district. When she returned in 1995 after retiring, she found herself homeless: her in-laws said she had no share to her name. Her brother-in-law had had her declared dead in the “family register” and her share in the land transferred to her mother-in-law. She filed a criminal case against them—it’s been pending for years. The Mritak Sangh supported her. She sent several memoranda to the chief minister of UP as well as the PM. Both offices intervened. Still, nothing stirred in the mortuary-like silence of officialdom! Dhiraji even threatened self-immolation in front of the UP Vidhan Sabha in 2012. Finally, a district official recorded her as alive in the family register, but her name in the land records was not updated. The in-laws objected, claiming she had married again.
Lal Bihari declared dead at 21, now enjoys posing as a dead man
In replies to RTI queries, the UP revenue department said in 2014 that Dhiraji was declared dead by a tehsildar’s order in 1985. When she demanded a copy of the order, they said the file had gone missing. She now lives in the garage of her daughter’s small house in Mau. Her son-in-law, a street food vendor, provides for her and rushes around government offices. She was sitting dazed and shrunk to her bones on a bed, from which she rarely gets up. Mumbling a few words, she screws her eyes to look in the direction of voices with her one good eye, which too seems greyed by cataract. The other eye is shut and covered by a few flies feasting on its discharge. She is a legally deceased person. And yet, she has an Aadhaar card. It gets her nothing. No pension, no sops.
At Gonaipati, also in Azamgarh, an executive magistrate has come to apply closure to Ramadhar’s case. The village pradhan tells his story: Ramadhar had migrated to Bengal to work in a pharmacy, then opened a dairy with a few cows. Some seven years ago, the pradhan learnt his family was trying to sell their land, without giving Ramadhar his share. When the pradhan fished him out from Bengal, he found Ramadhar was dead on the family register. The district resurrected him in 2015 and now he waits to get possession of his land.
“Some cases are genuine errors by the lekhpal,” says the magistrate. “Often there is no way to contact a person and confirm he’s alive, especially if he has migrated. So, a relative can turn up with other ‘witnesses’ and give false testimony.” Corruption, of course, isn’t unheard of, he admits.
In the 1970s, Bal Kishun and Ram Kishun moved a few miles to the south, closer to Azamgarh, from Devara Khasraja on the banks of the Ghaghara. When the floodplains became available for farming, they would go back to cultivate their 10 acres every year. Around two years ago, a neighbour told them someone else’s name was on their plot in the land demarcation map. Some strangers had had them declared dead in 2015 and taken their property! They got this rectified quickly, aided by an educated daughter, but are waiting for the police to solve the fraud case.
Jamuna had migrated to Kanpur for work. It was a tough life—stalked by mental health issues, depression included. He got more reasons to be depressed when he went back to his father’s land in Khatauli after years. His brothers had blotted him out from the family register. There’s an X-mark over his name, which has been struck out. He’s not just dead: he never even existed! So being eligible for a share in ancestral lands is out of the question.
The zombie may have the last laugh yet. Lal Bihari has petitioned the Allahabad High Court for Rs 25 crore as compensation for his long journey to find legal life. In 2007, the National Human Rights Commission recorded that 335 such cases were rectified and action initiated against errant officials. What if they all follow Lal Bihari and seek damages for dying?
Text: Ushinor Majumdar in Azamgarh, UP. Photographs: Tribhuvan Tiwari