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On the evening of January 24, social activists Sarita and Maheshkant attended a meeting at Shabdo village in Bihar's Gaya district. Soon after the villagers saw them off, they heard gunshots. They ran down to the main road in the neighbouring Rajabigha village and found Sarita lying in a pool of blood beside the motorcycle on which the two were returning to Fatehpur block30km from the district headquarters in Gaya. She had been shot from so close that her temple bore burns from the firearm. Maheshkant lay in a ditch on the other side of the road, also shot in the head.
Thus ended four years of efforts that the two had put in to improve Fatehpur's socio-economic situation. For about a year and a half their work was focused on Shabdo village, which was being nurtured as a model for rural development. To achieve this goal, they had formed an organisation called the Institute for Research and Action (ira).
The killings have drawn nationwide condemnation.The two were cremated on January 25 in the state capital Patna, where they lived - Sarita with her husband Pushpendra Kumar Singh and their children and Maheshkant with his brother Manikant.
The shootout took place after a police party reached Samman's house following a complaint that several criminals with firearms had assembled there. The fir says Samman had an altercation with Suresh Yadav of Shabdo over the latter's house in Rajabigha. On the day of the shootout trouble was anticipated because the construction of a controversial ledge was to take place. Samman opposed it because it could have partially blocked the entry into a by-lane.
The fir of the activists' murder mentions that Maheshkant tipped off the police about the gathering of Samman's cohorts. The police believe that Samman's two sons came back to avenge their father's death, for which they blamed Maheshkant. Nobody else had a strong motive to commit the crime, claim the police.
Shabdo residents say the dispute over the ledge wasn't reason enough for the killings. Some social activists believe that Maheshkant's name was dragged into the whole affair unnecessarily by the police because he was influential. But elders from surrounding villages say that after the sub-inspector was killed in front of their house, Samman's family was torn apart. His sons had nothing left to lose and a lot to avenge.
The police have gone into overdrive to track down Buddhan and Sadhu. The two brothers are the co-accused in another murder: that of Ramji Yadav, an influential politician from Tankuppa blockwho was killed in a train about two years ago. The main accused in the complaint filed by the victim's brother is Shyamdev Paswan of the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal (rjd). Paswan is the member of the Bihar legislative assembly from Fatehpur. Many people take his name in hushed tones in relation to the killing of Sarita and Maheshkant and opposition parties have publicly called the double murder a political killing. But Paswan held a press briefing after the murder denying involvement and claiming that his opponents were trying to derive political mileage.
The state authorities are under considerable pressure. Several meetings have been organised across the country to mourn the death of the two social activists. The question on everyone's lips is: why should two activists, who worked so selflessly to improve the lot of the region, die such brutal deaths?
The widespread reaction prompted Bihar's former chief minister and rjd chief, Laloo Prasad Yadavto visit Shabdo on January 27, where he announced that the case would be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (cbi).What has brought the killings into sharper focus is the recent murder of Satyendra Dubey, project manager of the National Highways Authority of India, in Gaya. Dubey is believed to have been killed for reporting about corruption in road construction to the prime minister's office. cbi's investigation into Dubey's murder received a setback with the alleged suicide of two people who had been interrogated by the agency. In factcbi director Uma Shankar Mishra told the press on February 5 in Gaya that due to the high workload, the bureau was unlikely to take up the two activists' murder case.
Just as in Dubey's case, nobody wants to talk openly about the circumstances leading to the murder of the activists. Most of the information is either divulged on the condition of anonymity or off the record. Hem Chand Sirohi, the media-savvy commissioner of Magadh division (which includes Gaya) worked closely with Sarita and Maheshkant. Although Sirohi is one of the few persons who can throw light on the matter, he is incommunicado. Down To Earth's efforts to contact him also proved futile. He has reportedly proceeded on a long leave.
The day Laloo Prasad Yadav visited the area, Sirohi was seen telling local people not to talk to the media about the murders and mention only the good work the two had done. "How can you separate development efforts from politics?" asks an activist who was present.
Sarita was a former member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and had also been associated with the underground leftist movement. Maheshkant had trained to be an aeronautical engineer. Their tryst with Fatehpur began in 1999. Initially, it was Sarita who came here. Soon after, Maheshkant started accompanying her. The aim: to bring about some improvement in the lives of the villagers. But why did they have to come to Gaya district?
Gaya witnessed a major movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s in which land was taken away from an influential head priest of Bodh Gaya and distributed to the landless. Some of Sarita's friends had been part of the campaign and she had come to the district to assess the condition of the beneficiaries. It was in this connection that she arrived in the Fatehpur block of Gayaparts of which are frequented by Naxalites. Here the two activists met Dinesh and Suresh Ravidas, who reside in Salaiya Khuld village. While Dinesh was part of the land movement, his brother Suresh was politically active. In the early days of their visits, they stayed in Dinesh's house. Initially, Naxalites and villagers took them for police informers and the police thought they were Naxalite agents.
"They wanted children to go to school. What surprised them was that even when provided free education, children were not attending school" recalls Dinesh. They realised that education didn't appeal to empty stomachs. Why were food and nutrition inadequate? Because agriculture was in a bad state. This, in turn, was due to the lack of irrigation facilities. Sarita and Maheshkant began to think about ways to tide over the problem.
They spoke of installing borewells. But the villagers were of the opinion that borewells would not benefit everyone. Beside, show many borewells could be sunk and at what price? The village elders suggested a solution that they had seen work well during their childhood: the Hadadwa pyne .
The pyne is a system to harvest floodwater for irrigation and has been used in the Magadh region for centuries (see box: An old concept). The Hadadwa pyne - with an 11.2-km-long main channel and 22.5-km-long distribution channels - used to feed floodwater to about 40 villages in Fatehpur. But that was a long time ago.
Upon inspecting the structure, Sarita and Maheshkant found that it was badly silted up. They talked to the villagers about reviving it. But the response was lukewarm initially. The two activists travelled from village to village, holding meetings, motivating the villagers to act rather than wait for things to work out. The pyne required a huge digging and de-silting effort, which would involve a lot of money. Sarita and Maheshkant had a solution: each household was to volunteer labour according to the size of its landholding. Those who would not work themselves had to pay for it.
Irrigation committees were formed in each village to manage the work. The de-silting was completed in seven months. According to calculations done by government engineers, the overall cost of the voluntary labour put in to revive the Hadadwa pyne worked out to Rs 54.73 lakh. Having achieved so much with so little built tremendous trust among the villagers for the duo. The coming together of so many villages also provided a platform for social cohesion.
It was during this time that the initial disputes with Samman occurred.An official who was closely associated with the work reveals that Samman had been asked to collect money from those who were paying for their share of labour. Samman had the reputation of being a toughie in the area. He collected the money but did not pass it on for the work, the official says. He had also encroached on the land of some dalit families of Rajabigha.
At this stage, commissioner Sirohi came into the picture. Sarita had been introduced to him much earlier by a mutual friend. Maheshkant came in touch with him later. Sirohi is known as a man driven by grand plans. He has authored a book on rural development and prepared an outline for the revival of ahar-pyne and other waterbodies of Magadh division. Sirohi threw the full weight of the government machinery behind the villagers' effort.
It was his idea to create a model village for which Shabdo was later chosen. His plans, say people who spoke to him often, included a golf course in the village. The people of Shabdo remember Sirohi and Maheshkant talking about a fountain in the ahar of boats and a hotel on its banks where city-dwellers would come to relax. "Maheshkant felt that villagers need not migrate to towns. He said if we develop ourselves, townsfolk will come to us" recalls a resident.
Exactly how Shabdo was chosen for the model village experiment is not known - two of the three people who laid the groundwork for the project have been murdered and the third has gone into a self-imposed media exile.
The inhabitants of Shabdo remember Sarita and Maheshkant visiting their village two years ago. Prasadi Mandal, who worked very closely with them, says: "They liked Shabdo and spoke of developing a model village. We were attracted to the proposition as it promised development for us. We had started trusting them completely."
Such was the enthusiasm among villagers that all the men gathered at the local temple and pledged to give up drinking liquor to concentrate on the work. Sarita convinced the womenfolk to refuse to cook food if the men drank. "We were impressed by their commitment. Why did they have to leave the comfort of Patna to stay here? In return, they were impressed by our self-enforced prohibition" recollects Ramashish Prasad, secretary of the ira gram samiti of Shabdo. Next on the agenda was cleaning the village, building toilets and tethering cattle in a shed away from the houses to prevent diseases.
In October 2002Sirohi camped at Fatehpur for three days to set the ball rolling for the model village programme. Senior officials recall how he aggressively made use of government schemes to finance projects such as a community centre, a building for women to hold meetings and a cattleshed. The villagers saw electricity lines being laid and transformers getting installed.
"Maheshkant said that if our hearts had united, there was no point in having divisions in our agricultural fields. That's how we took up community farming. Soon, we levelled the dykes that separated our fields" recounts Ram Prasad of Shabdo. So how do they divide the agricultural produce? Sirohi got the revenue department to sort out the land records of Shabdo and make them available to the villagers. "We now know who owns how much land. We simply divide the produce according to the size of the holding. This means fewer people can handle all the farming operations. With the availability of water from the ahar, we are reaping two crops a year" he adds. In 2002, the village collected Rs 80, to buy fish for the ahar. Last year, it earned Rs 200, as revenue from the fishing contracts for the ahar.
To be sure, all this was helped by the fact that the 40 families here are from the Yadav community and are related to each other. In a state where caste conflicts are common, this certainly counts for a lot. Another advantage is that Shabdo has quite a few educated people with jobs in cities or towns.
But there were undercurrents of discontent too. Several lower rung officials disliked the fact that Sirohi kept his doors open for Shabdo's residents and expected the officials to be respectful to them. Some people of Shabdo are said to have started abusing their new-found special status. Newspaper reports mention that a few neighbouring villages expressed displeasure at Shabdo being selected for the programme.
In all the 40 villages where they encouraged people to volunteer their labour, the residents were full of respect for Sarita and Maheshkant. This led to the villagers approaching them for arbitration in disputes. The two activists used their clout with the administration to evict Samman from the tract he had grabbed from dalits. Suhagi Majhia dalit, confirms that her family has regained possession of the plot.
The diaries found in the quarters of the two activists in Fatehpur describe many social problems. "Sarita took up many cases to save women from exploitation and domestic violence" says Pushpendra. This did raise some hackles, among others, of Samman.
Sarita's mother has reportedly stated that her daughter had written to the police fearing violence, but the latter paid no attention. Police sources claim they had offered the duo police protection, which Sarita and Maheshkant refused. Pushpendra also points out that the two had faced several death threats. But this is part and parcel of working in the villages of Biharhe adds. Meanwhile, Maheshkant's diaries mention the many disagreements Sarita and he had with Sirohi on how to go about the task they'd set out to accomplish.
Whether the cbi takes up the case or not, the attention of the civil society is focused on the role of the administration in the Shabdo project. The head of a neighbouring village says: "Sirohi is a government official and will get transferred. What will become of Shabdo then, with Sarita and Maheshkant dead?" The villagers of Shabdo vow to carry on the good work. But the fate of the experiment will be watched as closely as the progress of the murder probe.