India’s walking dead

What if you were alive and well, but discovered someone had declared you dead? After getting over the ludicrousness of such act, you would naturally call on legal services to sort out the misunderstanding, right?

Well, not in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and where thousands of people have been declared dead by devious relatives who bribe officials in order to seize their land. Once someone is deceased on paper, the resurrection process is subject to a complex, corrupt system, not to mention the fact that there are no legal services available for the officially dead.

Land shortage appears to be the main cause of this bizarre phenomenon. As families grow larger – India’s population is now over 1.2 billion – land properties, the only way for most residents to make a living, become smaller after getting subdivided among heirs. Many unsatisfied farmers turn to corrupt government officials and often pay as little as 50 rupees (around US$1) to obtain a false death certificate and take over the deceased’s land. They usually pick a vulnerable, an absentee or an uneducated relative for this easy process of land grabbing, and the victim can then spend a lifetime battling in court to reverse the action.

That’s what happened to Lal Bihari, founder of the Association of Dead People, who was first informed of his own death when he applied for a bank loan in 1975. Bihari was particularly annoyed to hear it from a dishonest bureaucrat with whom he had recently had tea. Determined to get the government’s attention, he decided to publicise his case in unique ways, including trying to get arrested, suing people, running for office, and even staging his own fake funeral along with other living dead fellows. Nearly 19 years later, in 1994, he finally got both his life and land back.

“In pursuing my battle, I had developed quite an identity. I became the leader of a movement. I knew I had other dead people to save,” he told the New York Times.

It’s not clear how many people Bihari has helped to resurrect through the association, and although his effort is admirable, it is clear that in order to put an end to such frustrating occurrences there would have to be tighter policies and substantial changes in the legal system.

If you want to find out more about India’s living dead, check out photographer Arkadripta Chakraborty, who has been documenting the plight of India’s living dead.


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