Crime and punishment have been relentlessly chasing the Sorens, the first family of Jharkhand. Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who is the latest to fall from grace, is accused of allotting a mining lease to himself in 2021 while holding the ministerial portfolio. The lease was later cancelled, but the damage was done.
Hemant is the second of Shibu Soren’s three sons and a daughter. He was pushed into politics following the sudden death of his elder brother Durga, who was being groomed as Shibu Soren’s political heir. Durga’s wife Sita Soren is a sitting MLA, and so is Hemant’s younger brother Basant. Hemant’s wife Kalpana Soren runs a school and keeps out of the limelight. But the entire family faces allegations and criminal charges. Some motivated, some indefensible.
Shibu Soren hogs national limelight
The family patriarch Shibu Soren, the architect of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, JMM, is credited with the bifurcation of the state, which was earlier part of Bihar. In 1993 it was the “JMM bribery case” which hit the headlines and shook national politics. JMM was charged with taking bribes to bail out P V Narasimha Rao’s government at the Centre.
Rao had stepped in as an accidental prime minister following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The Andhra veteran was heading into retirement when he was suddenly called in to contest as a prime ministerial candidate. He won the election and managed to form a minority government in 1991, and successfully steered India out of its worst financial crisis then.
The political situation began to turn for the worse for him when on December 6, 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished under his watch. Rao faced a backlash within the Congress party as a dominant faction, led by Arjun Singh, began to exert pressure on him. Sonia Gandhi was in a state of mourning and had not yet stepped into politics. As dissidents began to step up the heat on Rao, he found it necessary to shore up his support in the Lok Sabha to face a no-confidence motion. The party managers launched a disingenuous operation of buying MPs from smaller parties that included the JMM. Rao won the motion by a margin of 14 votes.
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Four JMM MPs — Shibu Soren, Shailendra Mahto, Suraj Mandal and Simon Marandi — voted for Rao. While Jharkhand politicians saved the day for Rao, they also willy-nilly engineered his downfall. Mahto switched sides, joined the BJP and turned an approver in the JMM case. He gave damning evidence in the court, revealing that he and his former JMM colleagues were each given a bribe of Rs 50 lakh to vote in favour of the Congress government headed by Rao.
The case, based on a PIL filed against Rao after he demitted office, singed the entire political system. Rao became the first ever prime minister who was convicted by a trial court for a three-year prison term along with Buta Singh, the then home minister. The CBI cited the money trail as important evidence as Soren and his JMM colleagues had happily reached the Naroji Nagar branch of Punjab National Bank in Delhi to deposit the ill-gotten cash.
Flurry of cases against Shibu Soren
The JMM MPs, including Shibu Soren, were let off the hook by the Supreme Court, citing immunity from Parliamentary proceedings. They could not be prosecuted under the prevention of corruption act as well. Contrary to this, a trial court convicted Rao and Buta and awarded a three-year jail term for criminal conspiracy. It was for the first time in the history of India that a prime minister was convicted, and that too in a bribery case. The Delhi High Court later acquitted Rao and Buta Singh, and the case fell through as the Atal Behari Vajpayee government chose not to appeal against the judgement.
In 1994 Shibu Soren was accused of murdering his personal secretary Shashi Kant Jha. A trial court accepted the charge of CBI that the secretary was kidnapped in Delhi and taken to Jharkhand, and allegedly murdered by people close to Soren. This was to silence Jha who was a witness when money changed hands in the JMM bribery case. The CBI pressed for his death sentence, but Soren was acquitted by the Delhi High Court, which pulled up the investigative agency for its shoddy investigation.
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Shibu Soren was the fourth accused in the 1975 Chirudih massacre in which 10 people were killed. Two groups, one of the tribals led by Soren and another of non-tribals led by the Communist Party of India (CPI), clashed in the hamlet. One of the victims, in his dying declaration, held Soren responsible for the killings. Soren was acquitted by the High Court due to lack of evidence.
Hemant Soren, too, has been facing a number of other cases besides the mining allocation scam. His aide Pankaj Mishra was arrested recently following allegations of running illegal mines. Enforcement agencies recovered Rs 5 crore worth cash, among other things. In a land allotment case citing irregularities, cases were filed against Pooja Singhal, state mining secretary. She was arrested by ED on money laundering charges. The BJP has also accused Hemant of allotting land to his wife Kalpana Soren to aid her business activities.
Family in trouble
The BJP has also filed cases against Hemant’s younger brother Basant Soren under the Representation of People’s Act, accusing him of holding an office of profit while being an MLA. The saffron party has sought his disqualification from the Assembly, saying he is a businessman, and this violates section 9A of the act.
Earlier Sita Soren, Hemant’s sister-in-law, was arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe from a Rajya Sabha candidate to vote in his favour. She spent seven months in jail over the case. She was also accused of fraud and a kidnapping case.
The Sorens have been dismissing allegations against them as political conspiracies. Hemant Soren has described the corruption charges against him as frame-ups and attempts by the BJP to topple his government.
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Hemant, even if disqualified, can contest elections once again and return as the chief minister in six months’ time. Jharkhand has a 26 per cent tribal population. Combined with schedule castes the numbers go up to 40 per cent. The Sorens hold a firm grip over the tribal voters in the state. But it could slip as BJP too has managed to win over some tribal leaders on its side and bagged a higher voter percentage as compared to JMM in the last Assembly polls.
Hemant Soren, in his defence, is likely to play the tribal card to the hilt. JMM leaders are accusing BJP of wreaking revenge on Jharkhand after failing in Bihar. Since former BJP chief minister Raghubeer Das is a non-tribal, the JMM is trying to convert the whole thing into a tribal versus non-tribal issue. Though Sorens have had their turn at brush with the law, their confrontation with the present BJP regime is a ball game that is entirely different.
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