This was a day of high drama in courtrooms. While the TV channels were busy all day with the Sanjay Dutt acquittal in TADA cases and his conviction under the Indian Arms Act, there was yet another high-profile person who has also always been in news for all the wrong reasons: the 62 year-old Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief and union coal minister Shibu Soren, who was held guilty by a Delhi court for conspiring to kidnap and murder his private secretary Shashi Nath Jha 12 years ago.
In addition to the case he has been convicted in, the union minister — who also has had a brief stint as chief minister of Jharkhand — has at least two more criminal cases — the 1974 Chirrudih massacre and the 1975 Kudko murder case — registered against him in Jharkhand. He had earlier gone into hiding and then subsequently resigned from the union coal ministry in July 2004 when a non-bailable warrant was issued by a Jamtara court in connection with the Chirrudih massacre. He later surrendered on August 2, 2004 before the Jamtara court and the trial is still continuing. He faces the charge of killing ten persons in Chirrudih and also faces a triple-murder case in a Giridih court in connection with an incident in Kudko in 1975. Which is why his comeback in Manmohan Singh cabinet in January this year had raised an outcry against the presence of "tainted ministers" in the union cabinet.
One could say this marks a new low for Indian Parliament and the ruling coalition — but more realistically, perhaps, it is a day of celebration because finally the long arm of the law has, for the first time, convicted a union minister for murder. With law makers such as him in Parliament, is it any wonder that the Judiciary is seen as the only saviour — the last refuge — in keeping the Executive under check? Soren is also currently chairman of the UPA's steering committee in Jharkhand where his 17-member legislature party is part of the Madhu Koda-led state government.
Despite the murder charges, Soren had first hit national headlines after his name figured in the JMM bribery case during the P V Narasimha Rao regime at the centre, for which he was acquitted. He also faces a disproportionate assets case
The founder of the JMM, a major political party in Jharkhand, Soren's first foray into parliamentary politics was in 1980 when he was elected to the Lok Sabha from
Dumka. He became Jharkhand's chief minister for a brief period last year at the head of a coalition government that did not have majority,
drawing protests from the BJP-led NDA. However, he was forced to resign shortly before a trial of strength in the assembly.
Born into a Santhal school teacher's family at Nemra village in Hazaribagh district in 1944, Soren began his political career by launching a fight against money-lenders after his father Somlang's murder. He subsequently formed the Santhal Sudhav Samaj at Dhanbad and went on to found the JMM in 1972 to became its general secretary. Fifteen years later, he took over as its president, a post he continues to hold.
Soren saw the JMM at its peak when five of its members — Suraj Mandal, Krishna Mardi, Sailendra Mahto, Som Marandi and himself — were elected to the Lok Sabha and supported the Congress government under Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao in 1995. His political career suffered when the JMM bribery scandal surfaced, but survived this setback as well as the effect of four of his former Lok Sabha colleagues leaving the party.
If Soren resigns now, it will be the third time for him to quit the same ministry in the past two-and-half years. He had resigned for the first time after a non-bailable warrant was issued against him in connection with the Chirudih killings and then quit the union cabinet again to take oath as chief minister of Jharkhand in February 2005.
In many ways, the conviction today has direct linkages with the JMM bribery scandal. Special Judge B R Kedia found Shibu Soren guilty of conspiring to kidnap and murder his 40-year-old his private secretary Shashi Nath Jha, who was said to have been aware of the details about the bribe received by Soren to support the minority P V Narasimha Rao government in 1993.
CBI had said Jha's knowledge of the alleged deal between Congress and JMM to save the then P V Narasimha Rao government in the January 1993 no-confidence motion had led to his murder. The agency had also contended that three days before his mysterious disappearance, Jha had allegedly sodomised a JMM activist— a relative of Soren. The chargesheet had said that Jha was taken by Nandu, the prime accused and five others at a house at Piska in Ranchi on May 22, 1994 and after that they killed him in a nearby jungle and buried his body. CBI had exhumed a skeleton from Piska Nagari in 1998 and claimed it was that of Jha. Following the recovery of the skeleton, Soren and six others were arrested in the case. CBI had said Jha had on several occasions allegedly demanded money from Soren to suppress the facts relating to the no-confidence motion. The investigating agency had said that Soren initially paid Rs 15 lakh to Jha to establish a garment export factory in South Delhi and when the business failed, the victim began extorting money which finally led to his murder.
"Shibu Soren is convicted under sections 120-B (Criminal Conspiracy) read with 364 (kidnapping) and 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code," the Judge said. The quantum of sentence will be decided after arguments for which hearing has been fixed on November 30. The punishment under these sections ranges from life imprisonment to death penalty.
When the court ordered that he be taken into judicial custody, Soren pleaded uneasiness and was asked to be taken to AIIMS for check up. The coal minister had arrived at the Tis Hazari court premises in his swank Qualis. Perhaps it was in the fitness of things that even the beat-up jail vehicle refused to start. We do not know whether a fresh vehicle was called for or the convicted minister was made to wait for the jail bus to be set right before he could be transported to Tihar jail. Politics, they say, is the last refuge of the scoundrels. At least one seems to have found his in the precincts of Tihar jail, for now.
Expectedly, the main opposition BJP has renewed its assault on the government over criminalisation of the cabinet and demanded that all the "tainted" ministers be immediately sacked in the wake of conviction of coal minister Shibu Soren. "This is nothing but criminalisation of the cabinet. The government should drop all its tainted ministers like Soren in one go," senior BJP leader Vijay Kumar Malhtora has demanded. "Soren has to go... But along with him others too who face criminal charges must be dropped immediately from the Council of Ministers".
He cited the reinduction of the RJD's Jaiparakash Narayan Yadav, who had been booked on criminal charges during the Bihar elections, as a union minister in the recent cabinet reshuffle. "This is a strange phenomenon in the UPA government that it reinducts those very people as ministers whom it had dropped sometime ago. Let all facing criminal charges be dropped at one go."
He has a valid point, but the diktats of coalition politics would constrain the government from any precipitate action. The issue, as indicated by BJP leaders, is bound to be vociferously raised in Parliament tomorrow. As BJP genreal secretary Arun Jaitley puts it: "The Prime Minister should explain in Parliament how he misused his prerogative by inducting a criminal as minister. When we raised the issue of tainted ministers in the Union Cabinet in 2004, we were told that it was the Prime Minister's prerogative to choose ministers. The country should realise that the Prime Minister has no prerogative to induct criminals in his cabinet. The conviction will bring the tainted ministers issue back in focus in Parliament.
In the dying hours of today's session, when BJP member S S Ahluwalia asked in the Rajya Sabha whether the home minister knew if Soren had been arrested or not, Shivraj Patil did not answer, but only smiled weakly. "The Prime Minister has sought Shibu Soren's resignation," is what Sanjaya Baru, media adviser to Manmohan Singh, had to say later. Obviously, he would have to find some more convincing answers.
With inputs from agencies