Lal Bihari is a unremarkable farmer from Uttar Pradesh. In 1975, this local man went to the bank to take out a loan. On presenting the requisite paperwork, Bihari was told that he was in fact, techincally and legally, dead. After much investigation and effort, it transpired that a conniving uncle had bribed a local police official to declare him dead so that he could pilfer Bihari’s one acre of land. Not so unremarkable after all.
Bihari spent the following nineteen years attempting to be recognised as a living citizen of India. Initially, he embarked upon this by trying to be arrested for minor crimes, but he was never indicted, on the basis that he was legally dead. Yet, the law revealed its inconsistency in failing to provide his wife with a widow’s allowance. As his legal battle continued, he added mritak, ‘the late’,to his name to draw attention to his case. This farcical collection of struggles with bureaucracy reached its zenith in 1989 when Bihari ran for election against Rajiv Gandhi. Locals referred to Bihari as a spirit, ghost or demon and he became the subject of much mockery.
In 1994, after almost two decades of relentless pressure on the legal system, Bihari managed to get his death overturned. He has since devoted himself to the Association of Dead People, a support group for others who have had their identity, property and life stolen.
The organisation received an Ig Nobel prize and Bihari’s life story is set to become the stuff of Bollywood. However, what sounds like the stuff of a rather eerie film is in fact a true story. In this district of Uttar Pradesh, often referred to as the ‘Badlands’ and renowned for its criminal culture, the story of one man’s struggle reveals how very inimical bribery, corruption and backward legal practice can be for the individual.