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Man learns he has been declared dead in an inheritance swindle, helps others so defrauded.

From New York Times, October 24, 2000, article by Barry Bearak.

  Lal Bihari, right, visiting his cousin Pati Ram in their ancestral village, Khalilabad,   In Azamgarh it is not difficult to have a living person  
  after winning a long battle to be recognized as legally alive. Photo: Barry Bearak   declared dead, although victims have a better chance  
      than in the past of correcting the record.  

Lal Bihari, founder of the Association of Dead People, first learned he was deceased when he applied for a bank loan in 1975. Proof of identity was required for the transaction. But when he applied for documents in Azamgarh, his district capital in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Bihari was told he had been officially declared dead. He further learned his demise had enabled an uncle to inherit his share of the family's ancestral farmland.

"Take a look for yourself," said the clerk, who Mr. Bihari knew personally, "it is all written here in the registry." Such is the strangeness and inertia of Indian bureaucracy that he knew he might never be officially recognized as living. As is turned out, he was resurrected in a mere 19 years.

The prospects for the fraudulently dead are better than they used to be. Attention to the problem was brought by a judge in 2000, resulting in notifications and amended records in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Mr. Bihari lives (once again), and acts as an advocate for others defrauded by death notices. "As the bureaucrats once feared the devil, now they fear the Association of Dead People," he said with delight. The National Human Rights Commission has convened hearings on the matter.

The fraud usually involves land and intra-family feuding. India's population now tops 1 billion, and land is becoming ever more subdivided. Bureaucrats are corrupt to the extent that bribes are required to conduct almost any public business, whether it is getting electricity turned on or filing a court case. Mr. Bihari's paper demise cost his uncle a $25 bribe.

When Mr. Bihari learned of his extinct status he started his association, printing stationary, and added the word "mritak", Hindi for dead, to his name. Lawyers told him it would take a "long, long, time" to fight it in court, so he tried to contrive ways trap the government into having to acknowledge his existence. He tried to get arrested, ran for public office, filed lawsuits in court. His wife applied for widows benefits, but was denied them by the same office that declared him dead.

The Association of Dead People held mock funerals in the state capital, Lucknow, part of a campaign of harassment that resulted in the bureaucracy relenting and correcting many land revenue records, including that of Bihari, in 1994.

Among the tales like own Mr. Bihari can recount is that of Ansar Ahmed, 48, who lives with his widowed mother in Madhnapar, a village of mud-brick dwellings with 90 families that had been divided for and against Ahmed, some acknowledging him, others acting as if he didn't exist. He was recorded as dead in 1982, when his brother took control of the family's small rice paddy. In 2000 a magistrate under orders from the high court went to Madhnapar and, after a brief inquiry, declared that Mr. Ahmed was alive, not dead. Criminal charges were filed against his brother, who was unchastened, saying the charges were "only allegations." In other investigations charges have been brought against allegedly conniving relatives and corrupt officials.

One for whom justice has been frustrated is Bhagwan Prashad Mishra, a spry man of 80, officially deceased since 1979. He lays the blame to lying nephews. Bureaucrats have not helped him. "After so much time, how can this continue to be?" he asks.

Mr. Bihari's duplicitous kin have also escaped prosecution. His uncle is dead, really, and his uncle's sons, who have been farming the disputed land, have been allowed to keep it by Bihari. Exposing their guilt has been satisfaction enough, he says.

One recent morning Mr. Bihari returned to Khalilabad, where many of those who long pretended he was dead now treat him with respect. The ancestral village is a long walk from the road through pathways of brilliant green. His family's house is made of mud and straw, with a sloping roof laid across branches of bamboo. Pati Ram, Mr. Bihari's cousin, warmly greeted the man whose death was once part of his family's mythology. "We have done him a great injustice," he said meekly.

The two cousins sat on a cot under the shade of a tree. The sky was blue, the air was sweet, the breezes serene. It was good to be alive.

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