The Bihar government’s decision to remit the sentence of gangster-turned-politician Anand Mohan Singh, serving life imprisonment for the lynching of a young Dalit IAS officer, takes out the sheen of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s initiative to string together a loose and essentially non-programmatic opposition electoral combine against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in next year’s parliamentary election.
The decision will also raise questions on the apparent crossness of Supreme Court Justices K M Joseph and Justice B V Nagarathna, hearing the hearing pleas of Bilkis Bano and others against the remission granted by the Gujarat government to 11 men convicted of the gang rape of Bano and the murder of 14 of her family members during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
It needs to be kept in mind that the apex court Bench orally observed at the last hearing that the petition will be heard while keeping the (Martin) Niemöllerian reasoning in mind -– that, one should speak up before danger arrives at the doorstep.
Justice Joseph said something very similar to the German theologian and Lutheran pastor, best known for being an unwavering critic of the Nazi regime: “Today it is this lady, tomorrow it can be you or me.”
But the apex court judges, at the next hearing on May 2, will now be weighed down by the Bihar government’s decision which demonstrates that those controlling the wheels of politics and governance always overturn existing laws and bend it to their convenience.
Also read: Gangster-turned-politician Anand Mohan Singh released from Saharsa jail
Undoubtedly, the cloud of lawmakers and their chosen few within the government subverting well-laid out legal processes will appear more universal and no longer merely restricted to Gujarat, while hearing in Bilkis Bano resumes.
The two judges may still righteously adjudicate and overturn the Gujarat government’s decision. This may in turn, set a precedent with the potential to be decisive while hearing a likely appeal against Singh’s release.
But by the time the process is initiated and decided upon, the political benefit, that Nitish Kumar unambiguously had in mind while reaching the decision, would have been harvested.
The state government’s step to amend the Bihar Jail Manuals, 2012, to enable Singh’s release was a virtual copycat version of to the Gujarat government’s decision to discharge the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder case, barely months before state assembly elections were held in November-December last.
Bihar and Gujarat
It is widely accepted that the ruling BJP’s decision to unabashedly take steps like this and fielding Naroda Patiya massacre case convict’s daughter as candidate from the eponymous constituency in the Assembly elections helped the party considerably in securing its unprecedented electoral sweep in Gujarat.
Although the Gujarat government’s decision last year was roundly and rightly criticized by the opposition parties and civil society, the reaction of political parties to the Bihar government’s decision has been circumspect.
Necessities of realpolitik has ensured that silence must be the norm for different citizens groups and parties aiming to put together a bandwagon which prevents division of anti-BJP votes among opposition parties in as many seats as possible.
Clearly, even the BJP cannot attempt to punch a blow or two at its erstwhile partner for fear of it being shown the mirror. Significantly, Singh, who was already on parole when Rule 481 of the aforesaid Manual was amended to allow the release of prisoners who are convicted of killing a public servant on duty, had possibly the most sardonic take.
At the celebrations of his son’s marriage (a Rashtriya Janata Dal MLA), Singh spoke to assembled journalists and responded to the Bihar opposition’s criticism at his release.
Sarcastically, the don-turned-politician said that in Gujarat too, “some decision was taken under the pressure of RJD and Nitish Kumar, go and see that. Some people were released and garlanded”. He was clearly taking a dig and asking if that decision too was taken at the behest of the Bihar government. Singh was obviously suggesting that the BJP’s criticism of Nitish Kumar’s decision was unwarranted.
He was asking if that decision was okay, why is this one being questioned. Likewise, if certain citizens’ groups and political parties were critical of the Gujarat government’s move, what explains their reticence now?
Also read: Bihar: Ex-MP linked to IAS officer’s murder to be freed after change in Bihar Prison Manual
Electoral considerations were behind the BJP’s decision in Gujarat. Similarly, Nitish Kumar’s decision has been taken with the intention of cutting into the upper caste Rajput vote base that has backed the BJP ever since it rose as a political and electoral force in the mid-1990s.
The Bihar chief minister has been examining ways of securing the backing of the Rajput community in order to widen the caste base of his party and that of its allies. On January 23, 2023, Nitish Kumar organized an event titled ‘Swabhiman Diwas’ on the death anniversary of Maharana Pratap.
At the convention, attended by close to 50,000 people, people demanded Singh’s release. Reacting to the demand, he stated from the proscenium that he had initiated efforts in this regard and Anand Mohan’s wife Lovely Anand is well aware of this. Evidently, the plan to amend the Jail Manuals was well-thought out and duly examined.
On the face of it, the RJD appears to be the principal gainer because Singh’s son is already with the party. But Singh is no stranger to politics and his political persona is bigger than his son. It is quite likely that instead of joining either of the two main Mahagathbandhan parties in Bihar, he may be part of the alliance as an unattached politician.
It is thereby clear that his release – even if this gets rescinded at a later stage due to judicial order — will be beneficial to the entire anti-BJP bandwagon. It is well-known that even in the years that he spent in jail, Singh had the capacity to affect election outcomes even while in custody.
The erstwhile Bahubali’s presence will aid the Mahagathbandhan parties in going beyond their OBC-based voter base by drawing a section of upper castes on their side.
Bihar has a long history of criminal-politician nexus and there is no party that succeeded in making an electoral mark without the assistance of gangsters with political ambitions.
The development, however, will take the sting out of the campaign of anti-BJP parties, especially the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi against the ruling party’s divisive politics. Just as the decisions on the 11 convicts and candidate selection during assembly polls had political appeasement inscribed on them, the release of Singh too has a similar message.
Paradoxically, in his first full tenure as Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar made his mark by cracking the whip on dons and criminality in the state.
Juxtaposed with the decision over the Gujarat convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder case, the Bihar government’s decision underscores the bitter reality that every party and their leaders preferred forms of criminality for which they are willing to go the extra yard.
In the case of Anand Mohan Singh’s release, the JD(U) and RJD would argue that he did not personally murder the Dalit IAS officer, but was merely accused of having instigated his lynching. Already, many have pointed out that several BJP leaders earlier demanded Singh’s release, but now that the decision has been taken, they are criticising the step.
Also read: Who is Anand Mohan Singh, ex-MP released from prison amid controversy
But this game of passing the buck does not justify either of the two acts or similar decisions that are likely in future. Indian politics has for long spiralled downward and has become completely devoid of morality.
In the run-up to the 2024 elections, opposition parties would do well try resetting the political compass of India’s polity. As a first step, those parties being approached by Nitish Kumar to join an electoral bandwagon must request him to reconsider his government’s decision.
This will strengthen Indian democracy and reinforce their campaign against the Hindutva-driven narrative.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is “The Demolition” and the “Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India”. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
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