A tall, black grill guarding Panna Lal Mahto’s residence in Shakurpur’s J J Colony makes the ground-plus-one structure conspicuous in the humble neighbourhood. There, Mahto’s second wife Hiramani (25) can be seen with her one-year-old son, climbing down to the door and unlocking it.
“I don’t know why police arrested my husband. Police told me that they will give me money to send my children to school,” the mother of three says when approached by this reporter.
Mahto and his other wife Sunita Kumari were arrested on Saturday from near Shakurpur on the charge of trafficking minor girls from Jharkhand to other states. According to police, Kumari and Mahto, who is a close aide of former minister and sitting Jharkhand MLA Yogendra Sao, had set up a vast interstate network in Delhi and had allegedly trafficked around 5,000 women and girls since 2002.
Sao was arrested on October 6 from Mahto’s house in Shakurpur for his alleged role in founding of the Jharkhand Tiger — a banned criminal gang and a left-wing extremist group.
But when she is asked about Mahto’s line of work, Hiramani says she is uneducated and does not know what he does. However, she says, sometimes girls came to their house, though she did not know what their business was. She now lives with her children — two daughters and a son — and Mahto’s aged mother.
Mahto’s neighbours describe him as an extrovert who never let outsiders inside his home. “He has been living here for five-six years. But no one knows what his home looks like inside,” Mahto’s neighbour Harish Kumar says. “However, he was friendly with everyone in the neighbourhood. We never imagined he would be involved in such activities.”
Shobhraj Sahni, who runs a garments business from a tenement opposite Mahto’s home, however, had a different story. “Some people had seen girls trying to escape from the rear side of the house. There was talk of girls trying to jump out of the window. Mahto claimed he ran a placement agency, but had removed the board from his door,” Sahni says.
Satish Nagpal, who has been running a home furnishings business in J J Colony for over two decades, says, “Sometimes we could hear the sound of girls crying coming from Mahto’s house. Young girls from Jharkhand would keep going to his house. He has a car and two bikes for his employees. They dropped the girls off to various places on their bikes.”
Mamta Mahajan, Mahto’s immediate neighbour, says he married Hiramani because his first wife Sunita was unable to bear a child.
“They (Mahto and Sunita) ran a placement agency called ‘Laxmi’. Their clients were very well-dressed and would often come from posh localities,” Mamta says.
Mahajan’s mother says she had asked Mahto to find her a domestic help. “Since he ran a placement agency, I asked him if he could help me find a domestic help. He asked me for Rs 35,000 as security. For a trained maid, he said, I would have to pay Rs 6,000 a month. It was unaffordable so I never asked again,” she says.