Plight of the Living Dead

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MICHAEL FATHERS AzamgarhThe eastern fringes of India's Uttar Pradesh state are known as the badlands, a place where hired killers can be bought for as little as $10 and peasant farmers eke out a living on plots as small as a basketball court. Combine these two ingredients--crime and a shortage of agricultural land--throw in a large chunk of greed, mix in some family rivalry and you come up with an ingenious scam. Just head for the nearest Land Registry Office, bribe an official, declare the owner dead and transfer the land to your name.

I'm here. I'm alive, Lal Bihari told revenue officials after discovering he was listed as deceased in 1976. That may be so, an unruffled clerk replied, but according to my books you're dead. It took Lal Bihari 18 years to get his life and his land back. During that time, he added the word Mritak, or Dead, to his name and to prove that he was living sought arrest, tried to run for parliament, kidnapped the son of the uncle who had stolen his property, threatened murder, insulted judges, threw leaflets listing his complaints at legislators in the state assembly and demanded a widow's pension for his wife. Each time he was either beaten up by police or rebuked for wasting officials' time. Unable to make headway, Lal Bihari The Dead sought the company of other ghosts in Uttar Pradesh and found an entire underworld of the deceased and dispossessed. Last month a dozen of them demonstrated outside the Uttar Pradesh assembly to publicize their fate, demanding an official investigation into land registry transactions to prevent others from being robbed.

Lal Bihari is not sure how many members there are in his Association of Dead People. He's vague about its constitution, it has no funds and no one of importance is paying any attention--at least for now. But in his home district of Azamgarh, 220 km southeast of the state capital, Lucknow, Lal Bihari and his association have become a magnet for the dead souls of the region. He receives letters and secret visits from victims or their relatives hoping he can restore their property. I've heard about you from friends, wrote a young man late last month. Exactly the same thing happened to my aunt when her husband died. Can you help?

Like other eastern districts in Uttar Pradesh, Azamgarh is overcrowded. Land, the only source of income and status for most residents, is scarce. Holdings are getting smaller, divided and subdivided as families grow larger. Rich and poor find it difficult to resist stealing land from an absentee uncle, cousin, nephew, widow or any weak and vulnerable relative. The quickest and simplest way is to bribe land records officials--it costs between $1 and $50, depending on the size of the plot and the wealth of the farmer--declare a person dead and grab his share of the property. It is a clever ploy, says Lal Bihari. You don't get your hands dirty by committing murder, and yet the person is as good as dead.

Kailash, 50, a landless farm laborer, has moved to Lal Bihari's village. Kailash's second cousins have threatened to kill him if he tries again to claim back the 2,000 sq m of land, inherited from his father, that they stole from him. When he first went to court to tell the magistrate he was alive, his cousins beat him. Lal Bihari is trying to revive the case, now lost in India's labyrinthine judicial system. Further complicating his task is that Kailash is not too keen about the effort on his behalf: It is better to be dead on paper than to be really dead. I think my cousins might actually kill me. Lal Bihari flings open his arms in exasperation. Most of the people I fight for have no courage at all, he says. I would not be surprised if they told their relatives I was forcing them to fight.

Bhagwan Prasad Mishra, 75, is not afraid to fight. A pillar of the Azamgarh community, he has been officially dead since 1977, when four young nephews who managed a family property transferred a half-hectare of his land to their name. Armed with a rifle, Mishra visited the boys and got them to sign an affidavit admitting they committed fraud and had no claim to the land. The affidavit was filed with the Land Court and forgotten. Subsequent petitions to have Mishra declared undead have been similarly mired in legal procedures. Yet such is the strength of family in this part of India that Mishra holds no grudge against his tormenters. My nephews show me great respect, he says. Indeed, when Lal Bihari finally recovered his land in 1994, he gave it back to the very uncle who had stolen it. He was so ashamed he begged me for forgiveness.

Not everyone can afford such magnanimity. Most victims are widows, or someone sick or simple who are listed as dead, Lal Bihari says. Jhulari Devi, 85, was declared dead and chased from the family farm in the 1970s after the death of a son. Her case has been stalled in the courts for more than 25 years. Paltan Yadav was pushed off his land in 1988. His relatives mockingly told him, Paltan is dead. Who are you tilling his land? Penniless, he became a holy man. Once he gets his land back, Yadav says, he will drop his saffron robes of celibacy and find a bride. Says Lal Bihari: These people cannot fight alone. They have no money, no brains and no strength. I now believe it was my destiny that I became a dead man. And if he can help other unfairly deceased souls, that will be more than anyone who is alive in India has bothered to do for them.

With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly/Azamgarh