DHANBAD: Every morning, Dhanbad rises from the ashes. In a town where the trails of money and blood run the same course, Singh Mansion has been the undisputed fount of power for more than 50 years. Since 1977, the Jharia assembly seat, biggest in the Dhanbad Lok Sabha constituency, has been represented by a member of the Singh family.
As Dhanbad prepares to go to the polls on May 12, Singh Mansion for the first time stands divided.
Dhanbad begins each day with alarms, sounded by collieries, calling mine workers to work. Hours before that, a parallel system is at work. Cyclists — in batches of twos and threes — start carrying sacks of coal pilfered from these collieries to pre-designated locations. There are thousands like them at work. This continues with clockwork precision through the day and in the evening, the substantial stash is transported with fake permits, known locally as ‘disco papers’, to other states. Yet, this is not the biggest money-making operation in this coal town.
In 1971, after a series of accidents, the Indira Gandhi government nationalized coal mines and to hold on to power in Dhanbad, one would need political clout. It holds true even now. “Mining often comes to a halt when contractors and political leaders can’t come to an agreement about the tax,” says a local. Tax, in this context, is the pay-off to elected representatives who oversee mining. The numbers are mind-bending and the narrative an accepted one here, but neither can be substantiated. “Kuchh bhi poochhiyega. Yeh nahin ki paisa kahaan se aata hai. Poochhe to shoot kar denge,” another local warns.
Former MLA Suryadeo Singh , or “vidhayak ji” as everyone here refers to him even nearly three decades after his death, built the sprawling Singh Mansion in the 1970s — working his way up from forming a coal trade union, the Janata Mazdoor Sangh, and eventually dethroning his mentor and the original coal mafia baron B P Sinha. Sinha was killed outside his house in 1979. Suryadeo was charged with Sinha’s murder, but acquitted later.
Suryadeo was the first bahubali in the area and from help for medical treatment and unpaid debt to resolving long-standing rivalries, all of Dhanbad would come to Suryadeo to make their problems go away. His turf war with Shafiq Khan, the kingpin of the scrap-dealing empire in Wasseypur on the outskirts of Dhanbad was portrayed in the five-and-half-hour ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’.
Since the 1970s, Singh Mansion has produced five MLAs — one was a minister in the Babulal Marandi government — and wields absolute control over the political corridors of Dhanbad, right from the municipal to the national level. The Singh Mansion’s approval seals every deal here.
Just outside the town, in Jharia, which sits above a hellfire raging for more than 100 years, people are clear about their choice. “Kunti ji,” says Manoj Kumar Barnwal, a shop owner in the Jharia market. But Kunti Devi, Suryadeo’s wife, is not even contesting the elections. “Then BJP,” he clarifies. The Modi wave has not touched this real-life Mordor. The Jharia assembly segment, which holds India’s largest coal reserves, is one of six that make up the Dhanbad Lok Sabha constituency. BJP has held on to it since 1977, when it had no presence in the state — all because of the Singh family.
This time, though, there are cracks in Singh Mansion — Siddhartha Gautam, Suryadeo’s youngest son, has decided to go against a family tradition. Unlike the rest of his family, which has been with BJP since its Janata Party days, Siddhartha has chosen to contest the Lok Sabha election as an independent against BJP’s re-contesting candidate P N Singh. Siddhartha, however, is keen to dissociate political fissures and family ties. “Matbhed hai, manbhed nahin,” he says.
Siddhartha has been managing campaigns for his mother Kunti Devi since he was 19. After his father’s death in 1991, his elder brother Rajiv Ranjan Singh took over the political legacy. He went missing in 2003 and was presumed dead. His brother Sanjeev took up the reins and became the Jharia MLA on a BJP in 2014. In 2017, he was jailed on charges of murdering his cousin — Congress leader and former deputy mayor Neeraj Singh, shot at 27 times a few metres from Singh Mansion. Urban legend goes that the contract killer was paid a lakh per bullet he pumped into Neeraj.
“I never wanted the spotlight, but with everyone gone, I had to step in,” says Siddhartha. He is soft-spoken, approachable and very clear about every point he wants to put across. “No one can save a country where the Prime Minister’s popularity rests on the death of 40 soldiers. For the first time, people are voting to prove their patriotism... To those who claim there is a Modi wave, I ask — if Modi has to do all of Dhanbad’s work, why do we elect MPs? Make Modi contest all 543 seats,” he adds.
But there is more to Siddhartha’s campaign than an ideological stand. “BJP did nothing for my brother when he was charged with murder. No one met him. No one met my mother. Now, they are eager to show how close they are to Singh Mansion. I won’t spare those who enter my house to divide us,” he says.
This Lok Sabha election, every branch of the Singh family has bet on a different contender. Siddhartha’s mother, Kunti, has been campaigning for him. But his incarcerated brother Sanjeev has thrown his weight behind P N Singh. If the message was not clear enough, Sanjeev’s wife, Ragini, joined BJP the day Siddhartha filed his nomination.
Another faction of the family, led by Suryadeo’s brother and former state minister Bachcha Singh, is backing Congress candidate Kirti Azad, who left BJP and joined Congress last month. Bachcha has been at odds with his brother’s side of the family since Suryadeo’s death. In the battle of succession, Kunti Devi emerged victorious and Bachcha had to look for a new political space. He threw in his lot with Congress and now leads one of the two trade union factions of Janata Mazdoor Sangh; the other is led by Kunti Devi. Bachcha now leads the brigade seeking Sanjeev’s conviction.
“All this proves is that every political party needs the Singh Mansion to stay relevant,” says Siddhartha. He does too. The flag on his car, with the symbol of a farmer on a truck, says “Singh Mansion”. The car is one of many registered with the same last four digits — 4700 — it is difficult to guess which member of the family is actually in it.
It’s a prudent move. Rivalries don’t end well in this town.