JAGARNATH Mahto, 47, has always walked the line. His most talked about contribution as the two-time Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MLA from Dumri has been the janata durbars he presides over, handing out punishment to alleged molesters and alcoholic husbands, with law-enforcing agencies looking the other way.
Then, on March 20, someone crossed the line. A durbar was held outside Jagarnath’s ancestral house in Chandrapura block’s Alargo village to decide the fate of Santosh Pandey, 25, who had been kept without food and water for the third day.
His crime: eloping with a girl from Simratoli in the village. His captors, most of them the girl’s relatives and residents of Simratoli — where Jagarnath, belonging to the dominant caste Kurmi, also stays — beat Santosh with sticks. At some point, he was bundled into a car and taken to DVC Hospital in Chandrapura. Suraj Puri, one of his alleged attackers, admitted Santosh at around 10 am and disappeared immediately. Santosh died hours later.
The police, that had reached the hospital shortly after Santosh was admitted failed, to record his dying declaration.
Nine people, including Jagarnath and his brother Baidyanath, have been named in the FIR. All, except the brothers, are relatives of the girl.
She recently told reporters that she was drugged by Santosh. Baidyanath was arrested. The MLA and another individual are the only accused at large now.
This is not the first time Jagarnath has been accused of murder. In August 1985, he was accused of murdering one Dilu Mahto. An arrest warrant was issued against him in 2003 but he was never placed under arrest. In 2005, he was elected to the Assembly for the first time.
Only when the District Judge of Bokaro pursued the matter in 2008 did Jagarnath surrender. He has since appealed against the charge before the Jharkhand High Court. The petition is pending.
Dressed almost always in white full-sleeve shirts, Jagarnath is one of Jharkhand’s most colourful legislators, in a state no stranger to them. In August 2011, he had threatened to immolate himself on the Assembly premises unless his demands regarding regularisation of para teachers were accepted.
In September the same year, he organised a programme in Bokaro in the memory of JMM founder Binod Behari Mahato where he reportedly danced with scantily clad performers. In April 2013, at Chirudih village in Nawadih block, he bought all the balloons from a vendor during the Bhokta festival, climbed up a bamboo pole, tied himself to it and threw down balloons, sweets — and, according to some, money — to people.
In October that year, in the same block, he rode piggyback on a villager to cross a stream to save his all-whites. And in November, as the chief guest at Sohrai festival in Chirudih, he decided to perform a ritual where one dances before a bull tied to a tree.
While the dancing has ensured he stays in the news, the janata durbars are how Jagarnath enforces his writ. No one remembers when they began — certainly after he became a legislator. Alarm bells should have gone off sooner, as this is not the first time the durbars have attracted criticism. The then DGP had promised action after Jagarnath caned two youngsters for alleged sexual assault on a woman on January 11 this year. On March 2 last year, he had ordered that one Jitendra Choudhary be tied to a tree for an hour after his wife complained about his alcoholism. Police excused themselves saying that the assault was not a cognisable offence; it required a complaint, which was never made. “I threatened Jagarnath with dire consequences. He never listened,” admits an IPS officer who has served in Bokaro district.
In August 1995, Bokaro’s District Magistrate had sent Jagarnath to jail declaring him an “anti-social element” and a “terror in the area”. Jagarnath was then Bermo block secretary of the JMM (Mardi group) and a member of the Jharkhand Colliery Shramik Union. In 1996, Jagarnath went to the Patna High Court and got the order overturned.
At some point, Jagarnath came to be called Tiger, and apparently even the Maoists refer to him by that name. In 2000, he left the JMM to contest the Assembly polls from Dumri on a Samata Party ticket, but lost. He rejoined the JMM and won in 2005, a significant year for the party too. It was the first time Shibu Soren became the CM and Hemant contested for the first time, but lost. Jagarnath has since then remained loyal to Hemant.
“The story here is that he had become such a nuisance that the police wanted to finish him off in an encounter. He was saved because a journalist warned him ahead of the police operation,” says a person who has tracked Jagarnath’s political life but doesn’t wish to be named.
Jagarnath’s younger brother Ganesh was gunned down in August 2009. Police said some men who had constructed a petrol pump for the brothers but were not paid for their work were behind the murder. Six persons were sentenced to life on September 28, 2012, in the case. The next day, a bomb was found near Alargo, reportedly intended for Jagarnath. He has since built a gate there with ‘Shaheed Ganesh Mahto’ inscribed on it.
A local Hindi channel reporter was the first to reach the hospital after Santosh was admitted. After ensuring no one else was around, he told the reporter: “I fell in love with a girl; I was her tutor. When I got a job in Chennai, she insisted that she wanted to come with me. If she were here, she would explain it to you.” He named five people as his attackers, including Baidyanath.
A senior medical officer at the hospital, S Hembrom, says, “We considered him out of danger after an initial examination. Nevertheless, I recommended that he be taken to a better hospital. Later, he developed complications, possibly due to internal injuries. He was black and blue all over.”
Anant Lal, Santosh’s elder brother who filed a police complaint naming Jagarnath, says the mob acted on the MLA’s orders. “Baidyanath is nothing without his brother. Jagarnath was there; he ordered that my brother be killed,” Anant claims.
Santosh and the girl — both Brahmins, but from different sub-castes — had eloped on March 12 to Chennai, where he had secured a job with an automobile firm. When news broke that the girl’s family had found the couple, Santosh’s mother had rushed to the mukhiya. “I fell at his feet and pleaded with him for Santosh’s safety,” says Jayanti Devi, adding that Jagarnath may have borne a previous grouse against Santosh. “He did not like the way Santosh beat the drums during the Ram Navami festival two years ago. He had threatened him.”
Santosh’s family also claims he was taken to the hospital in the MLA’s car, with one of his bodyguards accompanying him.
Jagarnath insists he was not in the village on that day. “I was not even aware of any jan adalat. I can’t speak for my brother. If he is guilty, he should be sent to jail,” he told
The Sunday Express over the phone.
Jagarnath’s alibi is that on the day of incident, he was in Bokaro, completing formalities to contest from the Giridih Lok Sabha seat. Bhubaneshwar Mahto, the mukhiya of Alargo, backs him. “The MLA was in Bokaro, collecting his nomination papers. This is a conspiracy hatched by his opponents,” the mukhiya says.
However, a villager who was present says: “This adalat happened in front of the legislator’s house, but much before the usual time, which is around 9 am. So, only a handful of people was present. Baidyanath declared that Santosh be beaten to death. Later, the legislator came out of his house and ordered that the boy be rushed to the hospital.”
Incidentally, Chief Minister Hemant Soren was in Bokaro as Jagarnath submitted his nomination papers the day after Santosh died, but avoided travelling with him. The CM met Jagarnath later and has since defended him, calling the allegations a political conspiracy.