For the present, the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh has bought peace with the family of the slain journalist, Jagendra Singh, with a Rs.30 lakh compensation and the promise of government jobs for his two sons.
It, however, remains open to question whether the government will be able to keep its third promise of bringing the guilty to book.
The doubts arise because while the policemen implicated in the murder have been suspended – the time-honoured official ploy to deflect attention – the prime accused, Minister of State for Backward Classes Welfare Ram Murti Verma remains free.
The delay in apprehending him is believed to be the ruling party’s disinclination to annoy the Kurmi community to which he belongs. In fact, the state’s Minister for Public Works Shivpal Singh Yadav lost no time to say that Verma will not resign till the death was “thoroughly” investigated. Since the Kurmis comprise nine percent of UP’s population, they cannot be ignored.
Now that the journalist’s death is being described as a case of self-immolation, the chances of the minister being put behind bars have become even more remote. As a Samajwadi Party (SP) member confessed, the forensic report which referred to the alleged suicide bid means that the “exercise” of defending the minister has been completed. Clearly, the law has not been allowed to take its own course.
This episode typifies the breakdown of law and order in one of India’s largest states under a government in thrall to caste-based politics.
It was Jagendra Singh’s articles about the minister’s alleged wrongdoings which angered the latter and led to the journalist’s horrifying death. It was on the basis of his dying declaration that the policemen were caught and a FIR was filed against the minister.
If Akhilesh Yadav has acted after being inactive for nearly two weeks, the reason perhaps is that the grisly incident has occurred at an awkward time for the nascent Janata Parivar, a combine mainly of the parties of backward castes of the Hindi belt.
Since its chief is SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, the opprobrium of the ghastly tragedy will fall not only on the SP, long known for its association with hoods, but also on the Parivar.
At a time when the latter’s two important constituents – Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) — are gearing up to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bihar, the shock and revulsion over the journalist’s gruesome death cannot but undermine the electoral position of the two parties to a considerable extent.
During the polls, the backward caste angle will feature prominently in the discourse on the horrific incident not only because all the important players in the tragedy belong to the backward caste but also because caste has always been a crucial element in the so-called cow belt.
As parties dependent almost entirely on the support of the backward castes, the Yadavs and Kurmis, the JD-U and the RJD cannot but be discomfited by the unfolding developments in neighbouring UP which will continue to be in the limelight in the foreseeable future since the Supreme Court has decided to intervene. The Allahabad High Court is also probing the tragedy.
In contrast to the unease in the JD-U and RJD camps, the BJP’s base among the upper castes, who make up a sizable 14 percent of Bihar’s population, will be further strengthened since the party is bound to play up the spectre of lawlessness in the neighbouring state.
Fears in this regard have been further accentuated by the arrest of a JD-U MLA, Anant Singh, on charges of kidnapping and murder in Bihar.
The two incidents will revive memories of the “jungle raj”, in the words of the BJP and its former ally, the JD-U, which prevailed in Bihar between 1990 and 2005 when the RJD was in power. In that period, Bihar’s main claim to fame was that virtually its entire infrastructure – roads, bridges, power lines – fell into disrepair as kidnappers roamed the land in search of victims who would fetch large ransoms.
But burning alive a critic is in a different category. It is closer to the activities of another notorious politician of UP who is suspected of feeding those who earn his displeasure to crocodiles in a pond in his estate.
UP’s descent can be contrasted with Bihar’s brief regeneration under the government of the JD-U and BJP between 2005 and 2013 when lawlessness was curbed and the first steps towards development were taken.
After the rupture between the two parties, however, it is back to square one where the hopes for economic growth are concerned. Although Nitish Kumar has become chief minister again after briefly stepping down to atone for the JD-U’s defeat in last year’s general election, he is now too busy propping up his fragile alliance with the RJD to focus on development.
He will now have to dispel fears about the return of the jungle raj. But the two incidents in UP and Bihar will make his task extremely difficult.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)