Friday, June 21, 2024

India’s Prisoner of Conscience. A Letter To Lalu Prasad Yadav

We are republishing an article that originally appeared in “Indian Currents” magazine. It is written by A J Philip, a veteran journalist, who has worked with several mainstream newspapers in India. 

Dear Shri Lalu Prasad Yadavji,

It is with a heavy heart that I write to you. I do not even know whether you would receive this letter in the Ranchi jail where you are incarcerated. My fervent prayer is that you get it and read it.

We met just twice. The first time was when I went to the state guest house at Patna to interview the visiting Haryana Chief Minister, the late Devi Lal, at the unearthly hour of 6 am. This was in the eighties. You preferred to stand behind me when I interviewed him, may be out of deference to the senior leader. 

You must have found me a bother as the Haryana strongman was in his elements and enjoyed answering my questions. Once or twice you even hinted that I end the interview and leave so that you could do some politicking.

The second time was when I spent a whole afternoon at your residence, allotted to your wife Rabri Devi as Chief Minister. You had just returned from appearing before a court in what is known as the fodder scam. I wrote a column entitled “Two days in Laloo land” after the interview. It also appeared in a book authored by Prof K.C. Yadav, who exposed the hollowness of the fodder scam.

I also wrote a lead article in the Indian Express headlined “A House for Mr Biswas” in which I questioned the rationale for extending the services of the CBI officer year after year to continue his investigation against you.

I remember that you got the article translated into Hindi and millions of its copies were distributed all over the state, especially during a Garib Rally you organised in Patna. The  Hindustan Times, Patna, even published a boxed item on my article reaching millions of hands.

The headline of the article was based on the title of a novel written by Nobel-laureate VS Naipaul. After the article appeared, reports came that some “terrorists” from the Northeast were using UN Biswas’ house in Kolkata as their hideout. In short, the super sleuth who was chosen to hound you could not even prevent his house becoming a safe haven for a criminal gang. 

We also have another tradition of accusing every politician of being corrupt, when we do not mind hiding our income when we file our income tax returns or undervaluing a property while buying or selling it or demanding and giving dowry at the time of marriage of our children. 

I have studied the politics of the fodder scam. What happened was that some corrupt government officials in collaboration with equally corrupt contractors were drawing money from the district treasury against fake bills. This had started when Dr Jagannath Mishra was Chief Minister and the practice continued even after you joined as Chief Minister.

It was detected while you were in power by a bureaucrat. Actually, you should have got the credit for busting the racket but, what an irony of irony, you were accused as the lynchpin of the racket and put behind bars!

I remember you of those days! You were the uncrowned king of Bihar. You were the darling of the masses and you even controlled national politics. Why should a Chief Minister at whose appeal millions of people would raise any amount of money that he needed for political work would stoop to the low level of hobnobbing with fodder suppliers in a small district town? Even the thought was ridiculous.

I knew Jagannath Mishra but I would never believe that he encouraged the fodder suppliers to cheat the exchequer of millions of rupees. It is like saying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be held responsible if the money allotted by the Centre for development work in, say Manipur, is swindled by the local politician-bureaucrat-contractor lobby!

Or, to take another recent example, diamond dealer Nirav Modi flew away from India after cheating public sector banks of thousands of crores of rupees. A few days before he did the vanishing act, he went to Davos and found himself a place in the group photograph taken with Modi. Arun Jaitley was the Finance Minister when he cheated the banks. Jaitley says the cheating began when the UPA was in power.

Why did not the CBI take any action against Modi and Jaitley of the BJP or P Chidambaram of the Congress? Again, Vijay Mallya flew away carrying a dozen or so suitcases after swindling the provident fund money of the employees of his Kingfisher Airlines besides thousands of crores of rupees belonging to several Indian banks. He was a Rajya Sabha member too! Could he have fled without the connivance of those in power? Why was no action initiated against the ministers concerned?

No, Sir, you are a different kind of politician. I notice that every political party, be it the Congress or the CPI or the CPM or the SP or the BSP, colluded with the Sangh Parivar but you always remained aloof from it. I remember the courage you showed when you arrested Lal Krishna Advani who was on a dangerous mission, the moment he entered Bihar. 

His Rath Yatra was causing havoc to Hindu-Muslim unity and by arresting him, you could avert needless shedding of blood of innocent people.

You could not have realised at that time that you were wounding an elephant which had elephantine memory and would not forget its tormentor. They found in the fodder scam the perfect weapon to finish you. 

Any sensible person would have dismissed the charge against you as outlandish for it did not stand to reason that a Chief Minister would join hands with a petty thief to share his booty. The whole government apparatus was used to nail you. So, what did they do?

They split the fodder scam into several cases. It is now between 25 and 30 years since several such cases were registered against you. The verdicts in all the cases have not yet been delivered. It was all done with a purpose. In India, multiple punishments have to be undergone concurrently but in your case, you have to complete every sentence one after the other. The idea is to ensure that you remain in jail till your end.

Recently, I was shocked to see a photograph in which you were pushed into a train to go to Delhi for treatment at the AIIMS. Was it not possible to send you by air? I have a friend who keeps me posted about your health conditions. That is how I know that your kidney no longer functions well. You also have high blood pressure and diabetes. I also know that you had undergone three heart surgeries.

You were the one who transformed the Indian Railways and who introduced trains for the poor. You did not think of wasting lakhs of crores of rupees to introduce a bullet train between Patna and Delhi. That is why you were called to speak to the students of Harvard on how you made the moribund railways a profitable organisation.

You are now 70, never jumped bail, never absented from court hearings, never disobeyed any court order, and yet you are not given bail. Where in the law book is written that a “convicted” prisoner can be treated only in a government hospital? You may have heard about R Balakrishna Pillai of Kerala. He was also punished for corruption and sent to jail. He was admitted to a private hospital at Thiruvanthapuram and remained in an air-conditioned room. His imprisonment was for one year but how many days did he remain behind bars? Just a few weeks. I am sorry to say that the difference between him and you is that he is a kshatriya and you a Yadav. Let me quote what a friend wrote more in desperation than in anger:

“Let us look at this in the light of the caste, class and community bias of our elitist police, bar, and judiciary. Even the IAS officers convicted in the fodder scam, who spent almost their entire lives in jail, were from lower castes. “Finance commissioner Phool Singh was a Kurmi (vegetable grower caste), Beck Julius was a tribal, K Arumugam and Mahesh Prasad were from the Scheduled Castes. The then chief secretary, Vijay Shanker Dubey, was found spotless, the then DC of Chaibasa Sajal Chakravarti was convicted but got bail and even rose to be Chief Secretary of Jharkhand. And co-accused Jagannath Mishra, ex-CM, in whose tenure the scam began, and his kinsmen and co-accused IAS officer RS Dubey and so many other Pathaks and Mishras have been let off, acquitted in the self same case in which Lalu has been convicted and put behind bars”. To put the record straight, Mishra was awarded imprisonment in a recent verdict.

Among the IAS victims, I had an occasion to meet Arumugam, whose office was close to mine at Patna. I had gone to invite him to a function at our church. He had at that time no clue that he would soon be behind bars!

A lady from my community, who I know well, went to the court and obtained a decree that any convicted person would be unseated from power. She was felicitated by everyone because the first victim of the order was you. I wrote a column in which I critically examined the order and found that the very premise on which the petition was filed was wrong.

Any sensible state would have given you bail so that your family could treat you well. If Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar could go to the US for treatment, nothing should have prevented your family from taking you there for treatment. But what did the CBI lawyer say in the court opposing your bail application?

That you are an incorrigible opponent of the NDA government and that you can mobilise public opinion against the government etc. Are they grounds for denying bail? Yet, you were denied bail. Now come to think of it, there is a Union Cabinet Minister who uses her official machinery to let fugitive cricket administrator Lalit Modi to travel outside of Britain.

I felt really sad when I read your son Tejashwi Yadav’s tweet on April 25: “Met my father after long for few minutes in AIIMS, Delhi. Worried about his health. Didn’t observe much improvement. At his age, he needs continuous care and monitoring of vital parameters”.

Yet, the Centre has sent you back to Ranchi because your health has allegedly improved. It appears that they do not want you to come out of the jail. They fear that if you come out, their government in Bihar will collapse. The thin ice on which Nitish Kumar skates was exposed when the BJP-JDU lost the recent by-elections in the state.

Of course, you cannot fight elections but your presence even as a silent campaigner in 2019 is something which the BJP cannot stand. Hence the desire to keep you behind bars. They are even capable of filing cases against your sons and daughters for crimes committed even before they are born.

And what is their own record? In one case against the BJP chief, forget the witnesses, even the judge hearing the case mysteriously died!

In Uttar Pradesh, there is a chief minister who has withdrawn cases against himself and his party men. The charges range from murder to arson to rioting. What an irony, they are “withdrawable” cases, whereas the 32 or so cases registered against you are sacrosanct! My idea of calling you a prisoner of conscience is not very original. 

We have used the term for Dr Binayak Sen, Soni Sori and Irom Sharmila. It fits you well because you are in jail only because you were the only one who did not compromise with the ruling dispensation and whom the Sangh Parivar fears. 

I can only hope that this letter finds you in better health. You need the care of your wife and children and the company of your grandchildren to keep you happy. I hope against hope that your present health condition would prompt the powers that be to grant you bail. There are many who erroneously think that you are “corrupt” but they will realise your value only after you are gone. I hope that does not happen and you are able to return to public life. For the present, mine may appear a cry in the wilderness.

What about the conviction, some of my friends may ask me. To them, I can only say, Jesus too was convicted!

With all the best wishes and prayers

Yours etc


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