For the families of an 18-year-old looking forward to his wedding and a 48-year-old father of three, the morning of March 25, 1995, signifies great loss and the beginning of a 28-year quest for justice.
The fight for justice culminated on Friday, August 18, with the Supreme Court reversing a trial court’s 2008 acquittal of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader and former MP Prabhunath Singh in connection with their murder.
Rajendra Rai (18) and Daroga Rai (48) were shot dead by Singh at a polling booth in Bihar’s Panapur, near Chhapra in Saran district, allegedly because they did not vote for him. Singh, who was the sitting MLA of Masrakh constituency at the time, had won the previous election on a Janata Dal ticket and was trying to retain his seat after having joined the newly formed Bihar People’s Party (BPP).
Over the years since the incident, Singh had, according to the Supreme Court, made every effort to wipe out all evidence against him. He was also accused of abducting Rajendra’s parents a day before they were to record their statement. However, Rajendra’s brother Harendra Rai pursued the case despite the setbacks and intimidation.
Singh is already in prison, serving a life term in another case — the 1995 murder of Masrakh MLA Ashok Singh, who had defeated him in that year’s election. Prabhunath Singh was convicted in this case in 2017.
For Harendra, Singh being found guilty for the murder of his brother comes as a validation of his quest for justice despite the years that have passed and setbacks in the case.
“It is poetic justice. The matter was transferred from Chhapra court to Hazaribagh court to Bhagalpur court to Patna court, which had in 2008 acquitted all the accused after most witnesses turned hostile,” Harendra said.
“We lost hope after the Patna High Court upheld the lower court verdict in 2012 and the state government did not challenge it in the Supreme Court. But I am so happy and relieved that the Supreme Court has convicted Singh. Now, we want him to get the death sentence,” he added.
The Supreme Court will announce the quantum of punishment on September 1.
The Bench of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Justice Abhay S Oka and Justice Vikram Nath said in their verdict on August 18, “The tainted investigation shows the high-handedness of the accused, who was a powerful person, being a sitting MP of the ruling party. The prosecution had established, even through hostile witnesses, that the date, time, and place of incidence as given in the Fard Bayan of Rajendra Rai were fully established…”
It added that Singh was thus liable to be convicted under IPC Sections 302 and 307 for the murders of Rajendra and Daroga, as well as for the attempted murder of Rajendra’s mother Lalmuni Devi.
Changing times, changing parties
Ahead of the 1995 election, Singh, the sitting Masrakh MLA, had crossed over from the Janata Dal to the BPP led by Anand Mohan, an upper caste Saharsa Rajput leader who had challenged then Chief Minister and Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad in the post-Mandal political milieu in Bihar.
Singh, a Rajput leader from Masrakh, was already known for his use of muscle power, and was made the BPP’s candidate in Masrakh constituency in Saran district. It was seen as a prestige battle for him in a seat that had almost equal numbers of Yadav and Rajput voters. However, he lost the election to Janata Dal’s Ashok Singh.
Prabhunath Singh later went on to serve as an MP from Maharajganj Lok Sabha seat multiple times under both JD(U) and RJD, with his most recent victory being the 2013 Maharajganj by-election on an RJD ticket.
Bloodshed on election day
At the time of the 1995 election, Harendra was just 16. At 18, his brother Rajendra was to be a first-time voter. Harendra recalls how the whole family was looking forward to Rajendra’s upcoming wedding.
On the day of the election, Harendra said, the polling booth in their village saw a large number of people line up to cast their votes. Then, “Singh arrived with eight-nine supporters in a vehicle. After learning that most people had been voting for the Janata Dal candidate, he fired towards the polling booth, causing injuries to three people,” Harendra said.
The bullets hit Daroga Rai in the head and he died soon after the incident. Rajendra was hit below the waist and died over five months after the shooting, while undergoing treatment at Patna Medical College and Hospital.
According to the prosecution, Rajendra had said that those who were shot had told Singh and his associates that they had cast their votes for the Janata Dal candidate. After this, “Prabhunath Singh opened fire from his rifle pointing towards the informant (Rajendra) and others and thereafter the car sped away,” the FIR said.
An abduction and hostile witnesses
Harendra described the family’s ordeal after lodging a murder case as a “long and tortuous journey”.
“My parents, Rama Rai and Lalmuni Devi, and I were witnesses in the case. We lived in perpetual fear. The Saran administration, sensing that Singh could influence the case, transferred the case to Hazaribagh, from where the matter was transferred to the Bhagalpur court, which finally started the trial 11 years after the case was lodged,” he said.
However, eight of 11 witnesses turned hostile before their statements could be recorded. In 2006, a day before Rajendra’s parents were to record their witness statements in court, they were abducted. “My mother was then presented in court in a drugged state on the scheduled date, but she was incoherent. Our case became weak,” Harendra said.
Taking serious note of the abduction, the Patna High Court directed senior IPS officer D N Gautam to look into the trial by the district court. Based on Gautam’s report, the trial was moved to a Patna court in 2007.
“She (Lalmuni Devi) was frightened and under heavy stress prior to her examination. She was intimidated inside the courtroom prior to her examination. She was not normal and the court atmosphere was highly tense and abnormal,” Gautam had said in his report.
However, the families did not get any good news from the Patna trial court either. On October 24, 2008, the court acquitted Singh and others in the case due to lack of evidence. The matter was challenged in Patna High Court, which upheld the lower court’s verdict in 2012.
“My mother, whose mental state was affected after the 2006 kidnapping, died in 2022. But I still had faith in the judicial system. My belief in natural justice has been vindicated with the Supreme Court convicting Singh and others,” Harendra said.
He got a class-3 job in the revenue department in Saran in 1997 on compassionate grounds. A father of six, he built a pucca house in 2018. His family owns barely one bigha of land.
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According to the family of the other victim, Daroga, his kin were neither given a job on compassionate grounds, nor did they receive any other assistance from the government. The family also did not pursue the case, leaving it up to Rajendra’s family.
Daroga’s eldest son Rampukar Rai died earlier this year. Daroga’s second son, Darvesh Rai, said, “What did we get? Nothing. Some people gave us some vegetable oil and sugar for my father’s last rites. But no one got a job on compassionate grounds. We hardly have any land. We get by doing petty work and animal husbandry.”
Recalling the murders, Daroga’s cousin Parma Rau said, “It was like a reign of terror. Many people in the area still cannot speak openly against the mighty… Lalu also did not visit us.”
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