National

Battle Of The Bahubalis: Bihar Lok Sabha Election 2024

Gangsters in Bihar no longer enjoy the kind of dominance that they did in the 90s, but that has not kept them away from politics

Illustration: Vikas Thakur
Politics & Power (Left) Ashok Mahto, (right) Hena Shahab, (centre) Pappu Yadav Photo: Illustration: Vikas Thakur
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It was 7 PM. Syed Imtiaz, 35, was returning home. The bank in Bodh Gaya where he worked was about 30 km from his residence in Sherghati. He would take a bus and leave from office by 5 PM every day because these routes were not considered to be safe after sunset. On that fateful day, he rode to his office on his newly-purchased bike, but got late while returning.

While he was crossing the Sagahi Bridge, two gun-toting men stopped him. He could guess who they were and what may happen next. A petrified Imtiaz jumped off the bridge. The two men fled with his new bike. They were bahubalis. The Yadavs. They were a terror in the Magadh region then. It was the 90s.

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Until 2005, Bihar was rife with looting, extortion, murders, and bullying by the bahubalis. “In Purnea and Siwan, whenever Pappu Yadav or Shahabuddin passed through a neighbourhood in their respective cities, everything would come to a standstill,” recalls senior journalist Adityanath Jha. “There would be anxious discussions at the squares and intersections in advance of their arrival. So horrific was the fear induced by them.” But now, people are not bothered. There was a phase in Bihar’s politics in 2005 when bahubalis were sidelined. Jha believes that the terror of the strongmen has decreased since Nitish Kumar came to power.

The list of bahubalis in Bihar is a long one and includes people from every caste and religion. They no longer enjoy the kind of dominance that they did in the 90s; but they are able to make use of their past standing to gain entry into electoral politics.

Sensing an opportunity to build their vote banks, most parties have indulged in propping up bahubalis politically by offering them tickets. At present, bahubalis are contesting elections directly or via proxies in as many as ten constituencies.

Shahabuddin, Pappu Yadav and Anand Mehto

For Siwan, the 90s were a time of acute terror under Shahabuddin. With titles like saheb and sultan, he ruled supreme over the region while also serving as a political bulwark for Lalu Prasad Yadav. A former MP, he was serving time under multiple criminal cases in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, when he died of Covid in 2021.

People recall that Shahabuddin evoked such terror in the region that no party other than the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) could find a foothold in Siwan. The situation began to change in 2005, with changes in the state politics and power equations.

His wife, Hena Shahab, has made continual efforts to regain that lost ground. With Shahabuddin convicted, she contested the Siwan Lok Sabha election for the first time in 2009, and then twice again subsequently, facing defeat each time. In 2024, she is in the running for the fourth time.

This election, the subject animating political discussions in Siwan is not the way things were in Shahabuddin’s era, but the curious phenomenon of his wife exiting the RJD and contesting as an independent candidate. The move signals the biggest change in Siwan’s politics in a very long time, as the district’s pre-eminent political family breaks off its four-decade-old relationship with the RJD.

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Pappu Yadav walked free in 2013 after spending 17 years behind bars. Since then, he has been trying to project himself as a ben­e­volent Robin Hood. Whether it is on account of fear of his strongman image in the Seemanchal region or because of his Robin Hood-like popularity, he won the Lok Sabha elections as many as five times from two different seats, contesting three of those elections as an independent.

He was considered close to Lalu Yadav, but as his political base grew stronger, the bitterness between the two increased. Shortly before the 2024 elections, Yadav made national headlines as he merged his party with the Congress but was denied a ticket, forcing him to file an independent nomination. These developments turned Purnea into a hot seat. If the huge throng of supporters gathered at Yadav’s nomination filing is anything to go by, his reputation is still alive in the area.

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However, the name topping the list of bahubalis under the electoral spotlight this year is Ashok Mahto. His marriage at the age of 60 is an attempt to maintain his strongman image and influence through politics. On March 20, he married 45-year-old Anita from Lakhisarai, Bihar. Immediately after the wedding, Mahto went to Lalu Yadav to seek his blessings.

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According to media reports, he had earlier met Yadav and expressed his desire to contest the elections, after which Yadav had advised him to get married. This is because under the law, a person sentenced to more than two years cannot contest elections for a period of six years after their release.

Mahto was imprisoned for 17 years in the 2001 Nawada jailbreak case and came out only last year. Now his wife is contesting from Munger on an RJD ticket. He belongs to the Kurmi caste and hails from Nawada, but his bahubali image has gained purchase in many surrounding districts as well. Mahto’s entire fight is self-admittedly one of “forward versus backward”, especially against the Bhumihars.

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In the electoral field, Mahto’s adversary is the JD (U) veteran and MP Lalan Singh, who also belongs to the Bhumihar caste. However, in a way, the fight for this seat has now become a contest between two bahubalis, because bahubali Anant Singh, who came out on parole last week, has been issuing statements and doing road shows in support of Lalan Singh.

Not Proud of Past Image

Mahto is irked when asked why he took up arms. He replies: “When did I ever take up arms? Is there any proof of it?” Later on, he confesses: “Taking up arms was the need of the hour. There is always a reason why someone becomes a bahubali.”

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Yadav gets emotional when asked about his bahubali image. “I feel like killing myself whenever people rake up this image,” he says. When Shahabuddin’s wife was approached, she sought to avoid answering it altogether, saying instead, “He was a development man.”

The men in question have each spent more than a decade behind bars. The discomfort evident in the responses proffered by them (or their relatives) makes it clear that they now seek to distance themselves from the bahubali tag that they received in the past.

Bahubalis and Politics

Senior journalist Vikas Kumar believes that the bahubali culture in Bihar has not ended but simply changed form. Its one-time dominance has waned somewhat in recent years, but its force is still discernible in some form or the other. And it is on account of that continuing influence that political parties give tickets to such individuals and put them up as candidates.

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“Take the RJD candidates Munna Shukla and Ashok Mahto. What are their achievements on the political front, except their bahubali image and the fact that they come from particular castes and are able to influence the voting behaviour of those castes?” he asks. “Had their dominance truly ended, political parties would not have given them tickets,” he adds.

There has been a shift in the people’s perception of bahubalis. “Political parties have burnished the political stature of these strongmen by attaching to them a sense of caste pride. Today’s gangsters have a heroic image within their castes and political parties use them as a means to garner the votes of those castes,” says Kumar.

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The Bhumihars

Anant Singh, Surajbhan Singh, and Munna Shukla are strongmen who belong to the Bhumihar caste. Last week, the Bihar government released Anant Singh on 15 days’ parole, ostensibly to resolve a land issue. However, rather than tending to that matter, he immediately got down to the business of tweaking the electoral calculus in favour of the NDA.

Singh was an MLA from Mokama. His wife, Neelam Devi, was an MLA from the RJD, but when the power shifted away from the party, she switched sides to join Nitish Kumar. In the last general elections, Devi contested from Munger on a Congress ticket against the JDU leader and MP Lalan Singh. Now, her husband has declared that Lalan Singh will win by a huge margin of five lakh votes. Following this, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar showered praise on Anant Singh, causing RJD leader and former Deputy CM of Bihar, Tejashwi Yadav, to jibe that Anant Singh was a criminal when he was with the RJD, but now that he has gone over to the JD (U), he has become a saint. 

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Bahubalis may not like their gangster image anymore, but their political careers are flourishing on the very same ground of crime that was laid out in their past.

The Rajputs

Anand Mohan and Ajay Singh are bahubalis from the Rajput caste. Mohan came out of prison last year after 16 years. The Bihar government allegedly tweaked its jail law, which made his release possible. He became an MLA for the first time in 1990, a feat he repeated many more times. He was also an MP for many terms. Though he opposed the Mandal Commission and the provision of reservations, he found favour with both Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, two of the most prominent leaders of backward and Dalit politics. This is why he, his wife, and his son continue to get tickets, despite repeatedly changing parties. Currently, he is in the JD (U). Ajay Singh, known as “don” in the Siwan area, faces many serious criminal allegations. He has been a long-time member of the JD (U).

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The Yadavs

Although there have been many Yadav strongmen in Bihar, the names of Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav from Seemanchal and Surendra Prasad Yadav from Magadh stand out. Born in the Khurda village of Madhepura, Pappu Yadav became an independent MLA from Singheshwar in 1990. He has been an MP for a total of five terms. Similarly, Surendra Prasad Yadav, also known as “Magadh Samrat”, has been an MLA seven times and an MP once. In the 90s, his name figured in various criminal incidents that took place around Gaya and Jehanabad of the Magadh region.

The Muslims

Mohammad Shahabuddin of Siwan and Taslimuddin of Seemanchal are reckoned foremost among the Muslim strongmen, with the former being the most talked about. The culture of Siwan—its arts and crafts—occupies a small space in the popular imagination compared to the tales of the bullying perpetrated by Siwan’s strongmen who started their political journey in the 90s. “Siwan’s sultan” Shahabuddin won the Lok Sabha elections four times in a row as an RJD candidate, spent more than a decade in prison.

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In Seemanchal’s Purnea, Katihar, Kishanganj, and Araria, Taslimuddin was widely regarded as a strongman with a criminal image. In his 74 years, the late gangster-politician won the assembly elections eight times and the Lok Sabha elections five times. He had ties with various political parties, but he was closest to Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Proxy Politicians

Sami Ahmed, a senior journalist, raises questions over Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his party, the JD (U), promoting strongmen or their wives in the elections. He says, “Nitish Kumar is dubbed a leader with a clean image, with a good-governance image. But his party has put up bahubalis or their wives in many seats. Take the recent case of Anant Singh’s parole. He obtained bail in 13 cases and is serving a 10-year sentence for possessing an AK-47 and hand grenades. What is the meaning of granting him parole?” Ahmed says that no political party in Bihar is untouched by this blight.

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Bahubalis of Bihar may not like being associated with their gangster image anymore, but their present political careers are flourishing on the very same ground of crime that was laid out in their past.

(Translated by Kaushika Draavid)

(This appeared in print as Battle of the Bahubalis)

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