The Don of Mokama

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The rise of Anant Singh and the sham of Nitish Kumar’s clean politics
‘It is not always the same thing to be a good man, and a good citizen’—Aristotle
So begins the man’s introduction on his blog, where he refers to himself as ‘Chote Sarkar’. Perhaps he reasons that his crimes are for the greater good; since justice usually means an endless wait, it may as well be dispensed in other ways. Faster ways. Efficient ways. With guns, and clout. He is a close aide of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. And in the parallel state that he runs in Mokama, law is what he decrees.

There are no nuanced conversations with Anant Singh. He says he swam across a river once to murder his brother’s killers; Naxal sympathisers had shot his eldest brother Birachi Singh.

Mokama, on the banks of the Ganges, is a place rife with legends of the man in control. That even Nitish Kumar can’t rein him in only adds to the mystique of the man who claims he kept a python in his house and danced with nautch girls, cigarette dangling from his lips, as he brandished an AK-47 in 2004. A case was registered, but nothing happened. Things are now in a state of flux. Singh has always been seen as a protector of Bhumihar interests in Mokama. But he says he is done with the JD-U, the state’s ruling party. It is mid-February, and he is working out his options.

Before he walks into this room at 1 Mall Road in Patna, gunmen position themselves. Guns are slung over their shoulders, and in the living room, a private militia seems to be in control.

Outside, a ferocious dog named Mary is held in chains by a man, even as an elephant is fed. There are four horses in a stable at his sprawling government bungalow. The Chief Minister’s patronage is no longer a given for Anant Singh. For long, the JD-U dodged questions about Anant Singh’s role, his criminal acts, and the patronage extended to the man. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had promised to rid the state of its criminals (and of corruption) when he fought against Lalu Prasad in 2005. According to Shaibal Gupta, a social scientist and founder of Asian Development Research Institute in Bihar, by June 2013, almost 83,000 criminals had been convicted by the state. The rule of law made a comeback in Bihar, says Gupta, who is also Nitish Kumar’s economic advisor. Thousands were arrested, trials were held, and many are serving time in jails across the state, including the once-dreaded mafia don Mohammad Shahabuddin, infamous as an aide of Lalu Prasad.

A senior police official says they can’t guarantee protection on Anant Singh’s turf. From such talk emerges the image of a man who knows no fear. After he came to power, Nitish Kumar held a meeting of senior police officials and briefed them to rid Bihar of its so-called ‘jungle raj’ and fix the law-and-order scenario as a priority. But even with the free hand he was given, Bihar DGP Abhyanand, who took over as the state’s top cop in 2011, has not been able to touch Anant Singh. More than a dozen cases list him as an accused, but he remains free. “He is a dangerous man,” explains DGP Abhyanand.

Those who are in the room stand up to acknowledge the man who twirls his moustache, smiles and folds his hands. I stand up too, confused and nervous about being here.

Before Nitish Kumar’s ‘Adhikar’ rally in November 2012 asking for ‘special status’ for Bihar, Patna had been plastered with posters. Among the faces that looked down from these, Singh’s was the most prominent—in his customary cowboy hat and dark glasses. Now, he is no longer a JD-U posterboy. With polls approaching and anti-incumbency working against him, Nitish Kumar knows he must tread cautiously.

“Nitish had to establish the rule of law. Earlier, if you’d committed murder, you would get a poll ticket. Now, [thugs] are feeling marginalised. I am not saying such criminals have been eliminated but they are not invincible anymore,” says Gupta. “Maybe there will be a temporary setback in these elections, but in the long run, there will be an advantage. Criminal politicians flourish because of state patronage.” Bihar’s dons have already become footnotes in the state’s history, Gupta says, and in a couple of years, they won’t even find footnote mentions.

Singh motions me to sit closer, and I shift to another sofa. But there is still a sofa between us. I am in a room with a dozen men—and Anant Singh. I have been told to be careful. A man would later bring in an AK-47 to show me.

“Is this yours?”

“I am the sarkar,” Anant Singh replies, and smiles.

On the walls, there are photos of Singh. There are horse-racing trophies he won. A man brings in his cowboy hat, and another gets his dark glasses. A third comes and lights his cigarette. The stage is set. Almost on cue, a woman—a “friend”— walks in and takes a seat.

He speaks in Magahi, the local dialect.

“You know he hasn’t studied much. Ask simple questions,” a front man had advised us before we entered the gates of his official residence, where he spends most of his time. Singh is from Barh, but he has enemies there. He got shot once. Ten years ago. Family feud, says Singh.

Mokama, not far from Patna, is where Singh holds sway. It is a rural belt, and the facts about his criminal background aren’t unknown to the people of the area. But he has emerged as a Robin Hood- figure who organises mass weddings and helps have-nots in the region. He claims he has organised 10,000 weddings in his constituency so far.

He says there were 150 cases against him. He has got bail in most of those, he adds with a smile. After he challenged Surajbhan Singh in 2005 and established himself as the next bahubali (strong man), both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad had approached him to lend their parties a hand. He has always been seen as Nitish Kumar’s man, though.

“They are a bunch of liars,” he says. “They ask you to work in politics for three months, and then keep extending it. I am not liking it. I want to go back and help the poor.”

Being an elected representative of people doesn’t mean much to him, he says. He has the area’s villages under his control anyway. It takes effort, at times. Once, a gunbattle had to be waged on his home turf at Nadma against the Special Task Force. From his house, his men had to fire bullets from holes punched into the walls in anticipation of such a battle. Eight of his men and one STF jawan were killed in the encounter. Some reports say that Singh suffered bullet injuries too.

Late last year, the JD-U welcomed three history-sheeters and bahubalis into its fold—Babloo Deo, Chunnu Thakur, and Shah Alam Saboo. In an interview, Nitish Kumar said he was unaware of this development.

While most academic literature has situated India’s criminal politicians in the context of ‘backward’ caste empowerment, insufficient attention has been paid to their ‘upper’ caste counterparts like Anant Singh and his brother Dilip Singh. It was the killing of the latter, a local don who rose to prominence over land issues, that drew Anant Singh into the game as his avenger and successor.

In 2005, Nitish Kumar used Anant Singh’s mass mobilisation skills in Barh to win an election. Guns and captured booths were deployed to dethrone Lalu Prasad. Nitish Kumar had said he would rid the state of the corrupt Prasad, and all means to that end stood justified.

But the man who is one of the most powerful leaders in Bihar, in terms of muscle power, is disgruntled at the moment. According to researchers, the era of bahubalis is on the wane. Even so, men like Anant Singh can’t be dismissed. When Munna Shukla, a criminal politician from Muzzaffarpur, was put behind bars in 2009 for masterminding the murder of an RJD leader, Nitish Kumar fielded his wife Annu Shukla in the Assembly polls of 2010. She won. There are other such instances of political patronage.

In 2007, the Chief Minister did not lift a finger or say anything when Anant Singh beat up two NDTV journalists who had inconvenient questions to ask about his alleged involvement in the rape and murder of Reshma Khatoon, a young woman. In another case, the family of a contractor called Sanjay Singh named Anant Singh in an FIR, but the police didn’t notice. There are many other such tales of how he acts with impunity.

“[Nitish Kumar] got me stuck in this politics mess. I wanted to be a saint once. I don’t like politicians. They say one thing, do another. At first, Nitish said ‘Three months as an MLA.’ Then, it became ‘six months’. Now, it is like forever. I want to go back. Politics makes you lie. I am religious. I don’t want to lie,” he says.

Guns were booming, and through a window, a few bullets hit him. But Anant Singh puffed away at his cigarette. He was taken to hospital later. He survived. This was ten years ago, he says.

So far, he has been shot 20 times, he says. “I always count day and night at a time. When death comes, I will deal with it,” he says. “What is fear? They tell me there is an emotion like fear. What does it feel like?” he asks.

“Weren’t you worried about your life?”

“No,” he replies. “Are you afraid?”

Asa young boy, he says, he would catch snakes in his village. Perhaps that is when fear parted ways with him.

That he was living with sadhus in Haridwar as a child and later in Ayodhya is something that is difficult to reconcile with his current role. Singh says he left with a sadhu in his village because he wanted to reach a higher consciousness. His father, he says, was a sadhu, a vow of renunciation he’d taken after Anant Singh was born. He was the youngest of four brothers. Three are dead. One died of a heart attack, he says. The deaths of the other two have been avenged.

He didn’t like school. He is almost unlettered. His election affidavit mentions ‘some education’. His cronies say he is an uneducated man. It seems they feel vindicated that a man who is known as Chote Sarkar despised education—a privilege of the elite that didn’t come in his way of getting to this Mall Road bungalow.

His eldest brother was killed when he was away. It was a time when land tensions were peaking. He just had to pay the killers back. He was 28 years old at the time. Legend has it that he swam across the river and gunned down his brother’s killers. His reputation spread, he began to be feared. That’s when power went to his head and fed an appetite for more. He became Chote Sarkar.

“You killed your brother’s murderer?”

“Yes, justice needed to be done,” he says.

Simple facts mixed with pride, and a sense of entitlement. A man intervenes and says this shouldn’t be reported in print. Singh isn’t bothered.

Bihar had slipped into anarchy long ago. Criminal politicians rose to power, there was a parallel form of ‘justice’. Milan Vaishnav, an associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explores how democracy co-exists with criminal politicians in India in The Merits of Money and ‘Muscle’: Essays on Criminality, Elections and Democracy in India. During interviews across the Mokama region to study why voters elected Anant Singh, Vaishnav found they were aware of his criminal acts and thought he could protect their interests. In a fractured society where caste and land are decisive points, Anant Singh’s criminality became his credibility. Since he was ‘upper’ caste, his supporters felt, he could contain Yadav power in his area. Local Yadavs resent him, but have not been able to challenge him yet. His archrival Viveka Pahalwan, also from the same village in Barh, is currently serving time in Beur Jail. Both Singh and Pahalwan are ‘upper’ caste tough guys.

“The poor vote for me. The rich don’t,” claims Singh.

Everything in the room appears to stand in veneration of the man. Not just the trophies and pictures. Just a whiff of the air in here suggests power of a sort few others wield.

Singh wants me to see some videos that his aides shot of him riding a buggy on the streets of Delhi. He used to drive a Mercedes that he claims someone left behind for him as a gift. But on a visit to Rashtrapati Bhavan, he was taken in by a buggy he saw. He says he tracked down the man who fashioned this vehicle and got him to make a similar one for him. He brought it to Patna and now rides it to the Vidhan Sabha.

A filmi number, Hum hain Magahia don, log kahen Chhote Sarkar (I am a don from Magadh, people call me junior boss), plays on. Singh is fond of cinema. He was supposed to act in a Bhojpuri movie once, but the film never materialised, so he got hold of the music score and made his people shoot a video of him riding his buggy. It is a long video.

Himmat na hari la zindagi ke jung mein (I don’t lose courage in life’s battle)”

The men clap.

There is a photo of Badal, a horse that belonged to Lalu Prasad. Singh bought it at Sonepur Mela in 2007 for Rs 1 lakh. The horse wasn’t worth it, since one of its legs was wounded. Moreover, Lalu Prasad— whose party was the one his murdered brother Dilip used to worked for—didn’t want to sell it to him. Singh says Lalu later turned on his men, and murderously so. “Lalu had called to say he will ruin me,” he says. “I just bought his horse on a whim. The horse died but here’s a photo of Badal.”

This is when Purvi walks into the room. An elephant, led by its mahout.

“Don’t be afraid,” Singh says.

The elephant looks awkward in the room. “I love animals,” says Singh, and pats Purvi to demonstrate as much. The elephant kneels compliantly at the don’s feet. Everyone seems to approve.

Distinctions are important, and so are places, and vantage points. Perceptions are important too. Especially perceptions of power.

But Singh is losing relevance in the politics of Bihar. With the state changing, the state’s infamous criminal-politician nexus has begun to weaken. Caste, which has always mattered in the state, is no longer the rallying point it once was.

“The JD-U is done for. When people get arrogant, God won’t let them live,” says Singh. “Nitish Kumar wasn’t so nice. I was misled. I don’t need politics. I will go back and help my people.”

For a rally in Delhi in 2012, Singh managed to mobilise a crowd of more than 100,000 people. That skill, he has not lost. He has done some work too, his flunkies claim. A man lists out his achievements in his constituency: Rs 3,000 crore has been spent on building bridges. Also, investment is coming in, he says. “If he were a criminal, why would people invest in the area?” asks the man.

Now 52 years old, the MLA has recently been charged with grabbing land in Patna. He faces a new extortion case too.

Still, it is too early to predict a jail term for him. It’s not clear if he is leaving the JD-U, or joining another party.

Another man gets up and lights yet another cigarette. Tea is served in steel glasses.

“What more can I do for you?”

The men with guns are smiling. He extends an invitation to Barh for me to visit his house, which he says is better than the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“That just looks like a house,” he says.

Albela hai, mast … goes the music in the background.