Hindi film lyricist Anand Bakshi rose above the mundane for a change and wrote the following lines as part of a song for the film Amar Prem:

Humse mat puchho kaise
Mandir toota sapno ka
Logon ki baat nahin hai
Yeh kissa hai apno ka

These words encapsulate the disintegration of Dhanbad’s “first family” helmed by coal mafia don and politician Suryadeo Singh. Once both dreaded and loved in the coal belt town, now in Jharkhand, the Singh parivar stands fragmented today as a result of disputes from within – disputes that have led to the killing of members of the family, friends and associates. Suryadeo Singh succumbed to a heart disease in 1991, but the cycle of violence which began with him, initially targeting business and political rivals, eventually consumed key members of his own family.

Suryadeo Singh had four brothers. Vikram Singh was the eldest. The others are Bachcha Singh, Ramadhir Singh and Rajan Singh. They originally hailed from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, and barring Vikram Singh, the others migrated to Dhanbad and set up their respective families alongside Suryadeo Singh. The don constructed the sprawling Singh Mansion in the coal town and his brothers, along with their families, subsequently lived there. The Singh Mansion was, in its heyday, the fulcrum of political power in Dhanbad as well as the epicentre of Suryadeo’s firm hold in the region.

Somewhere along the way, following internal differences and other reasons, Ramadhir Singh, Bachcha Singh and Rajan Singh moved off. Rajan Singh located to a newly built house named Raghukul and continued with his business interests. Bachcha Singh became the urban development minister in Babulal Marandi’s government in 2000. He was an accused in the 1998–99 murders of two trade union leaders, but was acquitted by a court.

Ramadhir Singh proceeded to jail for the killing of a trade union leader Vinod Singh. Suryadeo Singh’s son is Sanjeev Singh, who became an MLA from Jharia on a BJP ticket in 2014. He was an accused in the murder of Congress leader Suresh Singh in 2011, but was acquitted by a court for want of evidence. Ramadhir Singh’s son Sashi Singh, who, too, was named in the case, turned fugitive. Rajan Singh’s son, Neeraj Singh, a former deputy mayor of Dhanbad, was shot dead in 2017 by hitmen, and rumour had it that Sanjeev Singh, against whom Neeraj nurtured political rivalry, had a hand in the incident. But the allegation was never proved.

From coal to gold

There were many strongmen in Dhanbad, including BP Sinha, before Suryadeo’s advent, but the latter “outshone” all of them in the course of time in both reach and scale. He became the ‘original coal mafia don’ of the region. Dhanbad’s story would perhaps have been different had a young Suryadeo not arrived in that coal town, looking for work. Had he remained in Ballia, like his eldest brother, and eventually found ways to make both ends meet, he would have probably remained anonymous. Or, had he, like hundreds of other workers in the coal mines of Dhanbad, remained confined to his work, only occasionally dabbling in union politics, he might have saved his family members and dozens of others from the tragic end they met.

He started off innocuously, as a loader. Over time, he came in touch with BP Sinha who was always on the lookout for firebrand employees to work as his foot soldiers. Suryadeo Singh was happy to be recognized and he went out of his way to please his mentor. The nationalisation of coal mines in the early 1970s fired his ambitions as he saw immense opportunities to make a killing.

Soon he was racing ahead of Sinha, forming his own union and arm-twisting authorities to grab contracts. By then he had acquired a gang of his own. In 1977, there was a clash over Bhuridih mines between Sinha’s supporters and Suryadeo Singh’s musclemen. Despite many hurdles, Suryadeo forged ahead and, with Sinha’s murder, he became the undisputed don of the coal region. Money, most of it illicit, began to fill his coffers.

Suryadeo Singh’s clout was all over Dhanbad, but the main battleground remained Jharia. And yet, the world at large has identified the coal mafia gang wars with a place called Wasseypur, thanks to the film, Gangs of Wasseypur, which was released in 2012, and its sequel. The film was inspired by the mafia conflicts featuring Suryadeo Singh and others in the coal town. Two important characters in the film were based on Sabir Alam and Faheem Khan, real-life personalities.

Incidentally, Faheem Khan is in prison while Sabir Ali received a life term behind bars in 2007 for the murder of Faheem Khan’s mother and sister. There is no coal mafia in Wasseypur of the kind that existed in Dhanbad. So, what is the connection between Suryadeo Singh and Faheem Khan? Nothing has been established as a fact but there have been rumours that Sabir Alam had been backed by Suryadeo Singh because the latter did not get along well with Khan.

Real versus reel

The people of Wasseypur were not amused by the filmmaker’s focus on their primarily Muslim-dominated township, and especially the film’s catchline: “In Wasseypur, crime is inherited.” They said it may have been true of Jharia. A resident of the place had this to say: “The reality in Wasseypur is different from what is depicted in the film. The film is based on the coal mafia, which has no presence here. It’s a conspiracy to bring a bad name to Wasseypur.”

Another resident pointed out that the big names of coal mafia were based outside Wasseypur. That does not mean the township has no association with crime. It has a flourishing scrap mafia, of which Faheem Khan and Sabir Alam are the key players. But residents insist that the bloody conflict shown in the film between the families of Suryadeo Singh and Faheem Khan are imaginary.

There is also the view that Gangs of Wasseypur actually dealt with Suryadeo Singh’s brother Ramadhir Singh, whose character inspired the filmmaker. He had absconded for two years after being named as an accused in the murder of trade union leader Binod Singh and sentenced to life imprisonment, and finally surrendered to the court. Binod Singh and his driver were killed in a shootout in April 2015, about 20 kilometres from Dhanbad.

In many ways, Ramadhir Singh was no less notorious than his brother Suryadeo Singh, but it was the latter who had prepared the ground for the clan’s mafia raj and turned Singh Mansion into the headquarters of his rein in Dhanbad. Whatever the case may have been, the film’s director and its writer had to pay a visit to Singh Mansion to clear the air. But they were not the only ones to do so; in the past, the who’s who of politics, sports and entertainment have gone to the palatial residence and interacted with key members of the house. And, despite its best days of glory behind it, it continues to attract attention.

Excerpted with permission from Baahubalis of Indian Politics: From Ballot to Bullet, Rajesh Singh, Rupa Publications.