Trying to start a business can be difficult. Especially when you need to try and secure a bank loan in order to get your idea off the ground. In parts of northern India, it is more difficult for some people than for others.

The death of Lal Bihari

Lal Bihari had the dream of opening his own handloom company in his village of Amilo in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. When he visited the government representative, known in India as a Lekhpal, in 1977 in order to try and secure a loan for his business he was denied for an unexpected reason.

22 year old Lal was informed that he could not take out a business loan due to the fact that, according to their records, he was, in fact, dead. Unsurprisingly, he was surprised to hear this. Due to the fact that he that he was stood in the room having a conversation with the Lekhpal, he believed that he was not dead and could not understand why the government thought that he was. He was especially concerned to hear it from this government representative who knew him quite well. They had even recently had tea together. Mr Bihari was not dead when they had tea, and still wasn’t dead now.

Who killed Lal Bihari?

When he provided his proof of identity and the Lekhpal looked further into his records, it became apparent why he had been declared as deceased. At some point the previous year, his uncle had fraudulently registered Mr Bihari’s death in order to inherit his share of the family’s farm, a portion of land approximately one fifth of an acre in size.

It turns out that it isn’t especially difficult to register someone as dead in Uttar Pradesh, especially when the person is not in the immediate area. Lal Bihari’s mother had taken him away from the area after the death of his father and this gave his family the chance to claim what was rightfully his as their own. Lal went on to discover that all it took to “kill” him, was a bribe to the Lekhpal of ₹300 (Indian rupees) which at the time was approximately $33 USD or about £20 GBP.

One reason for this could be that the population of India has grown so much, the land is becoming increasingly scarce and people will resort to nearly anything in order to get their share. It doesn’t seem that difficult to declare someone as dead, as minimal proof is needed and corruption appears to be rife in parts of India. The New York Times even claims that “Bribes are required to conduct almost any public business, whether it is getting electricity turned on or filing a court case.”

Humiliation of the dead

Mr Bihari could not simply unregister his death with the same people that had knowingly incorrectly registered it just a few months before; he had to go through the courts.

When he first visited a lawyer, it is claimed that he was laughed at. “A dead man has come to me!” chuckled the lawyer. This humiliation was reinforced by neighbours who would continue to mock Lal and call him the “ghost”.

After the, perhaps, unintentional shame, the lawyer told Lal that this was quite a regular occurrence. Lal learnt that there were dozens, if not hundreds of local people who had been told the same thing in order for someone to illegally obtain land that should have been theirs.

And it could take years for his case to be heard in the courts. It is currently estimated that there are a backlog of approximately 31 million court cases in India. Lal didn’t want to be dead for that long.

Things to do in Uttar Pradesh when you’re dead

So, he decided to do something to try and speed up the process. He thought that, if he could get himself onto the public record, there would be no way that he could kept being told that he was dead.

One of the quickest and easiest ways to get yourself onto the public record is to get arrested. So, Mr Bihari kidnapped his 10 year old cousin, the son of his uncle who managed to declare him dead in the first place. The family never pressed charges. A journalist who Lal spoke to at the time told him that he shouldn’t become an actual criminal in order to have his name written down on a list, and if he returned his young cousin back to his family then the journalist would publicise Lal’s case in his newspaper. After five days, Lal sent his cousin home.

The journalist was true to his word and published his story in the Swatantra Bharat, a local Uttar Pradesh-based newspaper. A government representative read the article about Lal Bihari and brought up his plight in the assembly. Lal learnt that this was happening and headed to the assembly hall with a placard to further his cause. This peaceful protest was ignored.

He later returned to the assembly hall with another plan. he obtained a visitor’s pass and tried to stage his protest inside the hall. He chanted “Mujhe Zinda Karo” – roughly translated as “Make me alive!”. By shouting abuse and throwing pamphlets explaining his “death” at police and government officials, he thought he could further his cause. He was forcibly removed from the hall and spent seven hours in prison before being released with no further charge.

Rather than actually commit another crime, Lal decided to bribe a police officer to make one up for him. He paid off an official to say that he had been taking part in riots, however when the policeman learned of why Lal was doing this, he gave back the bribe and no longer wanted to be part of the plan.

So, seeing as he was technically dead, why not try to take advantage of the situation? Lal applied for a widow’s pension for his wife but was ultimately denied. He assumed that the reason for this must be that he was not actually dead, but unfortunately that was never mentioned in the government’s paperwork.

He had managed to get the attention of a politician, Shyam Lal Kanojia, who Lal would go on to call his guru. Rather than be shamed by the “death” that was hanging over him, he told Lal to embrace it. “You are a mritak. Why not openly call yourself one to shame those who did this to you?” – mritak being the Hindi word for dead or deceased.

Mritak by name…

Now Lal Bihari Mritak had a new lease of life, albeit not legally. He was going to take his fight to another level.

To pour as much media attention as possible on his case, he decided to put himself forward in the 1988 Allahabad election that was being contested by the former Prime Minister VP Singh. Lal had sold his house in order to pay for his nomination.

Now, people all over Uttar Pradash knew the name Lal Bihari Mritak. He even managed to get 1,600 votes in the election. This began to put the wheels in motion.

In May 1994, 18 years after he was declared legally dead, an enquiry was ordered and Lal Bihari Mritak was found to be alive.

Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh

Over the years, many hundreds of people had got in contact with Lal, saying that they were also victims of being declared dead, and he set up the Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh, translated as the Uttar Pradesh Association of Dead People.

Dhiraji Devi is going through the courts to prove she is alive.

With no official list of members, or regular meetings, the Association is informal at best, but whenever someone is contesting their “death” other members who can afford to travel, join the protests on their behalf and tell their own stories. The Association have even begun to file the official paperwork for those in need.

Lal Bihari Mritak has taken away the taboo of being dead for thousands of people who had their property stolen from them in this way. No one has to feel the shame and humiliation of being called a “ghost” any more.

Lal went on to make up with his estranged family that had “killed him” back in 1976. He didn’t even request his land back.

Final Recognition

In 2003, Lal Bihari Mritak was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize Winners, a respected parody of the Nobel Prize, that states their awards are handed out “for achievements that first make people laugh, then make them THINK”.

Lal Bihari, of Uttar Pradesh, India, for a triple accomplishment: First, for leading an active life even though he has been declared legally dead; Second, for waging a lively posthumous campaign against bureaucratic inertia and greedy relatives; and Third, for creating the Association of Dead People.

Although Lal had managed to obtain a passport from the Indian government to attend the award ceremony at Harvard University, the United States government denied his visa request to enter the country. He sent his friend, Madhu Kapoor, to attend the ceremony for him and a few weeks later, he presented Lal with his prize in a ceremony in India.

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