IT seemed like a minor incident at the time. On June 22, 2020, businessman Sambhu Nandan Kumar filed a complaint against Pankaj Mishra, an aide of Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, accusing him of assault over the auction of a toll tax gate. Two years later, the Enforcement Directorate would begin an investigation against Mishra starting from this case, summoning Kumar as witness and impounding his phone as it contained recordings of the threat.
Now, the man once called ‘Santhal ka CM’ for being the most powerful man in the Santhal Parganas area, to which CM Soren belongs, finds himself behind bars, accused of illegally operating stone-crushers, and facing questions over 37 bank accounts containing Rs 11.88 crore in cash alone.
“No one ever thought that a powerful person like him would take a fall like this,” says an insider of Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), from Sahibganj district in which the CM’s constituency Barhait falls. “He was responsible for the election management of Hemant Soren. They were very close.”
In a sign perhaps of the change in Mishra’s fortunes, there has been no official reaction from the JMM to the charges against him. Soren, himself facing questions over the issue of mining leases, would not want the shadow of any other controversy as the poll countdown begins.
A native of Sakrogarh area of Sahibganj, with roots in Bihar, Mishra cut his teeth under the tutelage of Simon Marandi, one of the JMM’s founders whose politics revolved around Sahibganj and Pakur districts.
According to another insider, Mishra was the quintessential partyman, content being in the background, handling the “dirty work”, with no aspirations for electoral politics. “This was why Hemant trusted him completely, because of his lack of ambition. This is also how he remained close to both Shibu Soren and Hemant.”
That doesn’t mean proximity to power didn’t change him, say others, particularly after Soren became the CM in 2019 at the head of a JMM-Congress-RJD coalition government.
A source in the Chief Minister’s Office talked about a lasting image from the very first Cabinet meeting of the government. “Mishra walked behind CM Soren, his shirt collar up, two buttons open. Someone objected to this, and he became extremely angry.”
Over the past three years, Mishra is believed to have got close to many business owners in Sahibganj area, where stone chips are mined. Word on the street soon was that Mishra’s word counted on who could be in the business of stone and sand mining and its transportation to neighbouring states, and that rules could be “bent”.
As per sources, business owners in the field realised not to go against him in their own best interests.
On May 3 last year, a police officer in Sahibganj district, Rupa Tirkey, investigating a case against Mishra, died allegedly by suicide. Tirkey’s death is now being probed by the CBI, after the BJP took up the matter and her family approached the Jharkhand High Court.
Rajesh Agrawal, the Secretary of the Eastern Jharkhand Chamber of Commerce and Industries, based in Sahibganj, says: “We never came across any such complaints from any business owners. But we are aghast to know the amount of illegal mining that was happening, now that the ED has conducted raids and seized cash vis-a-vis Mishra’s arrest.”
On Tuesday, the ED said in a release that they had seized an inland vessel as part of the ongoing investigation, which was allegedly being operated without permit from Sukargarh Ghat in Sahebganj. The ED said Rajesh Yadav alis Dahu Yadav operated it in “collusion” with Mishra and others, for transporting mined stone chips or stone boulders.
The ED put the estimated cost of the vessel at Rs 30 crore, taking the total proceeds of this alleged scam to past the Rs 100 crore mark.