AZAMGARH/VARANASI, India: Lal Bihari isn’t proud of his behaviour as a dead man.
In his 20s and 30s, he bribed a policeman with $6, tried to extract his wife’s widow pension, and held his nephew hostage. He also contested elections in India’s Uttar Pradesh state as a dead man—without any political experience—against two living former prime ministers.
In 1986, he travelled 172 miles from Mubarakpur town to the state capital Lucknow to create havoc at a Legislative Assembly session. He was arrested for seven hours but was released because, technically, he’s dead.
“I was this close to picking up weapons too,” 68-year-old Bihari told VICE World News. “This is not how I thought my life would turn out.”
In Bihari’s Azamgarh district, the dusty badlands of north India, crime rates are among the country’s highest and lawlessness is deeply intertwined with politics and policing. Many here consider Bihari’s actions a reasonable response to a living man being declared dead.
Bihari first “died” in 1976, when his cousins allegedly bribed local land revenue officials to declare him “dead” in order to grab his land. He is one of thousands of people in India who have been declared dead in land records over the decades, a criminal ploy to grab land in a country where land laws are easy to exploit, and land is in high demand, unequally distributed, and increasingly worth killing someone for.
In January, VICE World News travelled to Uttar Pradesh to meet four victims of this crime, including Bihari. They have fought years—and in some cases decades—to have the error fixed, to get their land and life back.
India’s colonial-era land laws give powers to land revenue officials to declare a person dead, a declaration that’s nearly impossible to overturn. If you’re dead in Indian government records, you can’t buy a registered mobile, rent a home, start a business, get married, get divorced—in essence, you’re a dead person walking.
India’s colonial-era land laws give powers to land revenue officials to declare a person dead, a declaration that’s nearly impossible to overturn.
“I lost my weaving business, my livelihood, my land, everything.” Bihari told VICE World News. “In this country, land is the most important asset for people—and the reason for everyone’s greed.”
In the 18-year struggle that ensued after Bihari was declared dead, he committed crimes and contested elections to develop a government record of his existence. He added “Mritak” to his name—Hindi for dead_—with his efforts grabbing international headlines and inspiring a Bollywood film. By the time he was declared alive in 1994, he had met an underground community of thousands of other “dead people” who were, like him, scammed of their land.
In 1980, he set up Mritak Sangh, or the Association of the Dead, which is a growing community of the living dead reaching into the tens of thousands, exposing a uniquely South Asian criminal trend. Bihari says his case might be over, but thousands continue to suffer even now.
“It’s given way to the biggest example of corruption in the country.”
Land is the biggest asset in India. With 1.4 billion people, it’s on its way to be the most populated country in the world, but it is riddled with unequal land distribution. India’s last census in 2013 found that 7 percent of Indians control over 47 percent of the country’s land. Six in 10 Indians depend on the land they live on to grow food and feed their family.
“In this regime of private land ownership, land is increasing in its value and people want to own more and more of it, no matter how,” Shipra Deo, a land and women expert from Uttar Pradesh, who works with global land rights advocacy organisation Landesa, told VICE World News.
A 2016 report by legal advocacy group Daksh found that two-thirds of all civil cases in India are related to land and property. The majority of the litigants are poor with little education, from lower castes, or both. Bihari is a Dalit, a community formerly called the “untouchables” under the ancient and rigid Hindu caste hierarchy. He grew up as a child worker in rural Uttar Pradesh and never got an education. In India, 70 percent of 200 million Dalits are born landless, but Bihari was among the rare ones to inherit over half an acre of land. All he wanted was a way out of generational poverty.
“In this regime of private land ownership, land is increasing in its value and people want to own more and more of it, no matter how.”
Bihari said his Dalit identity played a crucial role in delayed justice, but adds that he’s seen people from all castes, religions, genders or creeds in these cases. “The victims are usually the weak links in society,” he said.
Tussles over private property have led to extreme violence in India. A Dalit man was shot dead last year in Uttar Pradesh, allegedly by his upper-caste lender who wanted his land. In 2018, an elderly couple was smothered to death by their 26-year-old daughter with an alleged land grab motive. That same year, a 40-year-old man gouged out his father’s eye over a property dispute. Beyond these everyday cases, large-scale land grabs have been carried out by powerful politicians and local mafias too. Exposing or reporting land-related crimes has led to the murder of whistleblowers and journalists.
Experts trace these tensions back to the British colonisation of South Asia that lasted nearly a century, when private land acquisition laws were installed that focused mostly on extracting land taxes and put the responsibility of maintaining accurate land records on individual land holders and not officials. Pranab Ranjan Chaudhury, an expert on land governance in India, says today’s private land ownership laws have colonial roots that makes it easier for authorities to evade accountability in case of error or criminal alterations.
“What makes things worse is that our land records are not updated. Often, the information on paper doesn't match the actual land demarcations,” he told VICE World News. “This makes it easier for people with vested interest to take advantage.”
These legal ambiguities have resulted in people exploiting them. In 2021, fraudsters tried to grab temple land in Uttar Pradesh by claiming its God is dead; In India, deities also have property rights. In 2018, a man from the same state was declared dead and was then denied his right to avail government benefits. Early this year, an elderly man in Madhya Pradesh was wrongfully declared dead, allegedly by local thugs, who also encroached his land and threatened to kill him.
Deo, whose work focuses on women’s land rights, says land ownership is the most powerful asset for marginalised groups—and also the most precarious.
“If people have secure and clear rights over land, it paves way for transformative changes. For women, for instance, a piece of land gives them the power to assert themselves and significantly reduces their desire to live in violent or abusive relationships. It paves way for a life of identity and dignity,” she said.
Women are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to land grabs, Deo says. In the western state of Rajasthan, they are branded witches as part of a land-grabbing tactic.
“Violence and land grabbing reflects a form of power play,” said Deo.
Some 60 miles away from Mubarakpur is the ancient Hindu city of Varanasi, the constituency from where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won two consecutive national elections. On a cold January morning, Santosh Murat Singh stood at the banks of the Ganges river, where Hindus cremate their dead. Against the backdrop of burning pyres, Singh is draped in white funeral cloth and a placard around his neck that says “Main zinda hu”—Hindi for, “I’m alive.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Singh was declared dead in land revenue records. He alleges this was done by his cousins, who he says bribed local revenue officials in Varanasi to declare him dead in a 2003 Mumbai train explosion in order to grab his 12.5 acres of inherited land. Singh, at that time, was in fact working as a cook in Mumbai. His parents had passed away, while his sister got married and moved away.
He found out about the deceit a few months later when he got a call from a friend who attended his teravih, a 13-day Hindu ritual that follows a person’s death, organised by his cousins. In the following years, Singh’s trajectory resembled Bihari’s, although he’s not a part of his association and runs his own informal group of over 500 other “dead” people.
“Violence and land grabbing reflects a form of power play.”
After registering a police complaint against his relatives, Singh contested local elections, threw himself on politicians’ cars and joined an indefinite protest in New Delhi. Unlike Bihari, he’s not been successful in being declared alive.
“Local authorities have become Yamraj [the Hindu God of death] for the people they’re supposed to serve. Everyone is complicit,” Singh told VICE World News.
Legal recourse is a distant dream for Singh. One can’t just prove their existence by showing up. The process of filing the case, gathering evidence and witness verification is tedious before it even reaches trial, and is prone to endless delays, corruption and land revenue officials who are stretched too thin to show up at court. Singh’s case hasn’t even reached the trial stage yet.
“I wasted so many years chasing lawyers, paying hefty fees and losing my livelihood,” he said. “I’m reduced to a beggar now and at the mercy of people who buy me food and clothes.”
The 2016 Daksh report states that people fighting land and property cases are being bled dry by legal expenses. “The total cost of litigation every year is equivalent to about 0.5 percent of India’s annual gross domestic product of $2 trillion,” the report said. About 90 percent of litigants surveyed earned about $300 a month, while 80 percent didn't go to school.
Bihari, too, said he resorted to theatrics when he ran out of finances after never-ending court hearings. In 2015, Bihari sued the state government for $3 million—an amount he said he’s exhausted in the 18 years of his trial by selling property, his wife’s jewellery and household belongings, as well as plunging himself into debt by taking massive high-interest loans. That trial, which he says is the first of its kind on the issue of the living-dead, is still ongoing.
Deo, the expert, said that often a bigger punishment than the crime itself is to be left at the mercy of India’s legal system. “If people want to access justice, the process is extremely complicated,” she said. “The powers that be ensure that victims remain marginalised.”
Krishan Kanhaiya Pal, a lawyer from Lucknow who has dealt with 50 similar cases and represents Bihari too, laid out the process: The litigant first appeals to the local administrative court, then to sub-divisional officer, then the district magistrate, followed by the commissioner’s court, the board of revenue and then the high court and the Supreme Court.
“Hundreds of thousands of cases are pending in our courts,” he said. “The system is such that justice is delayed and therefore denied.”
Deo said that land related cases can take decades to resolve. “10-20 years is very common. I’ve seen cases go on for 50 years at the revenue courts, with no end in sight,” she said.
Bihari said that, in bleak irony, many in his network have actually died mid-trial. In some cases, their children carried on their struggle. One such case is Dhiraji Devi’s in Mau town, some 60 miles from Varanasi, which has been sitting with the revenue courts since 2005. She died in 2019.
“The system is such that justice is delayed and therefore denied.”
In their police complaint, Devi’s eldest daughter Mansha and son-in-law Om Prakash say Devi, a widow, was wrongfully declared dead twice—the first time in 2005, and then again in 2010—in official records, while another fraudulent record included a second marriage which never happened. The police complaint blames Dhiraji’s husband’s family for falsifying official data to grab 3.5 acres of land that she inherited, and was supposed to go to Mansha.
Now, Prakash and Mansha are carrying on the legal case.
“The disputed property is gone and the court keeps giving us dates after dates. Our expenses are rising,” said Prakash, while serving snacks at his street food stall in Mau. “My mother-in-law died suffering over her property. Who knows we will also die fighting this case too.”
The Indian government has been working towards updating its colonial-era land records for years, especially to reduce fraud and protect the poor. A big move towards this is the Modi government’s $114-million land records digitisation programme that started in 2016. According to the Department of Land Records, over 90 percent of land records have been digitised across 24 of 28 states, as of 2022.
In 2021, Modi, in his monthly radio programme, told citizens that India is using digital mapping via Indian Space Research Organisation’s satellite imagery, GPS and GIS technology to be “one of the first countries in the world to prepare digital records of land in its villages.”
The new system also aims to make traditional revenue administrative positions, such as village-level accountants and registrars, redundant as they are often accused of taking bribes to falsify records. According to a national survey by Transparency International India, one in two people have given bribes to local officials, especially those responsible for property and land registration. Last year, the Anti-Corruption Organisation, one of 11 anti-corruption units operating in Uttar Pradesh, found that the revenue officials topped the list of all government servants caught red-handed taking bribes in the last five years.
Jagdamba Prasad Singh, the additional district magistrate and chief revenue officer of Azamgarh district in Uttar Pradesh, told VICE World News that cases such as Bihari’s have reduced dramatically due to the digitisation process and public awareness.
Last year, the Anti-Corruption Organisation found that the revenue officials topped the list of all government servants caught red-handed taking bribes in the last five years.
He claimed the documented number of these crimes in the state is only 2,000 to date, and said that the local authorities have always taken swift action against the accused, including government officials named in the police complaints.
“Land-related crimes are a distant dream now for culprits,” he said. “Earlier, all land records were manually written, and therefore prone to being falsified. Now these records will be updated online in real time. Anyone can open the website and check from anywhere in India.”
He added that in his district, there are no pending cases either. “The police complaints might be getting investigated, but we will solve cases at the courts as soon as I get them,” he said.
But in rural India, this kind of digitisation is lost to many who don’t have a computer, let alone an internet connection. When VICE World News met with victims of this crime, many didn’t even have a phone. Some are in the informal labour sector. One of them, Umashankar Chaube, a vegetable vendor in Varanasi who has no phone or internet connection, was declared missing and presumed dead in 2014, allegedly by local gangs who wanted his land.
Chaube find out about the crime eight months later. When asked if he tried to find out the status of his land through a Right to Information petition, which is done online, he said he didn’t know how to do that. Occasionally, he travels to Varanasi city wrapped in white funeral cloth to protest in front of government buildings.
"It's not just our lives, but the lives of our next generation too that's over," he told VICE World News.
The Daksh report says that the digitisation of land records is so slow that most people continue to visit courts despite the challenges. "They continue to believe the courts are the only way for them to quickly get justice, despite data showing this is not the case,” the report stated.
Chaube, along with Bihari and Singh, say they’ve also received death threats for fighting their case. Chaube was assigned two police bodyguards, he said, but just for 15 days. Pal, the lawyer, said even he’s received death threats for providing pro bono legal assistance to the living dead people.
“I’ve appealed for provisions of security to the government but no heed has been paid,” he said.
Back in Mubarakpur, Bihari says he often feels the futility of this struggle. There were moments when Bihari thought he’s going crazy too; he has ailments now and has reduced his activism. Over the years, many he has helped with their cases haven’t lived long enough to see it through.
As he sits near piles of court documents and photos of BR Ambedkar—a Dalit icon who was India’s first Minister of Law and Justice, and led a movement to “educate, agitate and organise” against systemic injustice—Bihari says he’s currently preparing to remarry his wife once the $3 million lawsuit is settled.
“My wife is in her 60s, and on paper I’m 29,” he laughed, referring to his “re-birth” in 1994. But the wedding is more symbolic than a celebration.
“It’s to commemorate decades of this people-led struggle,” he said. “I’m not optimistic that we will end corruption. But I want to send a message that as long as we live, we will fight.”
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