Jharia (Dhanbad): A family blood feud, murder, intrigue, a Gangs of Wasseypur link and a battle of wives. Together, they make for a high-pitched election contest at Jharia in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district.
At the heart of the tussle are two cousins closely related to former MLA Suryadeo Singh, a trade union leader who was allegedly involved in the illegal coal trade in the region and controlled much of the coal business during the late 70s & 80s.
Suryadeo is believed to be the inspiration behind the character, Ramadhir Singh, in Anurag Kashyap’s cult-classic Gangs of Wasseypur.
His elder son, Sanjeev Singh, the sitting MLA, is currently in jail and awaiting trial for the alleged murder of his cousin, Neeraj Singh, who was killed in 2017.
With the two male heirs out of the picture, the onus has now fallen on the daughters-in-law to carry forward the family’s political legacy.
Ragini Singh, Sanjeev’s wife, is the BJP candidate from Jharia and is pitted against the Congress’ Purnima Singh, wife of Neeraj.
“Because Sanjeev can’t contest, the party had decided to give the ticket to his wife Ragini,” said a BJP leader who is part of Ragini’s campaign team.
Locals say the Jharia poll battle is more about establishing the supremacy of Suryadeo Singh’s son, whose clout is slowly diminishing.
“The Singh clan once ruled Dhanbad, politically and economically,” said an old associate of the family, who did not want to be named. “From the time of Suryadeo Singh, the Jharia assembly seat has mostly remained with the Singh household. He wielded great influence over the coal business in the region.”
Jharia, one of the five assembly seats in Dhanbad, votes Monday, in the fourth phase of the Jharkhand assembly elections.
The sisters-in-law turned arch political rivals
For Ragini, the poll battle is a fight to “reclaim the family honour” that she says has been tarnished by the murder.
“I am fighting to restore my family’s honour,” says Ragini while taking a break from her campaign at the BJP office in Jharia.
Fighting on a BJP ticket, she says people of Jharia are very happy with the work that the party has done in the last five years. “I am sure that people will vote for me. People have seen how nothing used to move during Congress rule,” she says. “We gave them houses, toilets, cylinders, free healthcare in just five years.”
Purnima, a teacher who was married to the murdered cousin Neeraj, blames Sanjeev’s family for the extreme backwardness of the coal town.
“There is hardly any basic amenities here. Youngsters are idling because of unemployment. Pollution is making living difficult here,” says Purnima, who has a mass communications degree from Noida’s Amity University.
Purnima says it is the love for her late husband that has motivated her to contest. “I am hopeful that people of Jharia will do justice to me.”
But for the locals, despite an abundance of resources in the form of coal, Jharia hasn’t changed a bit. They say they have got used to the dirty narrow roads, perennial water shortage, abysmal level of basic amenities and high pollution.
“Nothing much has happened here in more than a decade. MLAs have come but our situation continues to be the same,” says Munna Lal Barnwal, a shopkeeper in Jharia. “Our children don’t have jobs. After completing their education either they open some small shop or sit idle at home.”
How it all began
In 2014, Sanjeev, who runs a coal transport business, won the seat defeating Neeraj, Dhanbad’s former deputy mayor.
Neeraj was the son of Rajan Singh, one of Suryadeo Singh’s five brothers.
Under mysterious circumstances, Neeraj was murdered in 2017 along with his two bodyguards. Local news reports suggest 67 bullets were pumped into Neeraj’s body by his killers.
According to a relative of Neeraj, his murder was a revenge killing. “Ranjay Singh, a close aide of Sanjeev, was killed in January 2017. Sanjeev suspected Neeraj’s role in the murder,” said the relative, who did not want to be named.
Sanjeev, along with some other accused, were subsequently arrested by the police and are awaiting trial.
Suryadeo’s death and a family split
The Singhs are a politically influential family and have a long association with the Jharia assembly seat, from the time it was a part of Bihar.
Suryadeo retained Jharia from 1977 and until he died in 1991. The seat, however, went out of his immediate family after his death. In 1999 again, one of his five brothers, Bachcha Singh, won the seat.
In 2004, after Jharia became a part of Jharkhand, Suryadeo’s wife, Kunti Singh, reclaimed the seat for the family. She held onto it until 2014 when Sanjeev won the seat.
Throughout those years, Singh Mansion, the palatial bungalow built by Suryadeo in the heart of Dhanbad, used to be the centre of power. The Singh clan — him and his brothers’ families — lived there.
“But infighting for controlling the family fortune and the coal business, after the death of Suryadeo, led to a split. In 2004, two of his brothers moved out,” the old associate added.
Sanjeev’s family continues to live in the mansion while Neeraj’s family moved out along with father and lives in Raghukul, another palatial mansion located a kilometre away.
Purnima says the region has a history of bloodshed but rules out any reconciliation with Sanjeev’s family. “A person has to live to end the feud. If the person (Neeraj) is not there, how will it end,” she said.
There are at least a dozen cases of murder, extortion and other crime registered against various members of the Singh clan in Dhanbad. Currently, one of Suryadeo Singh’s brothers, Ramadhir, is serving a life term for a murder.