March 4: The assassins crept up from behind, unnoticed. As some of them reached out to touch the MP’s feet and daub his forehead with the colours of Holi, the others overpowered his bodyguards.
Then the burst of gunfire shattered the carnival spirit.
Jamshedpur MP and JMM leader Sunil Mahto was today shot dead by Maoist rebels at a football tournament in a village near Ghatshila, a favourite holiday destination before the Naxalite upsurge kept tourists away.
The 41-year-old was the chief guest at the prize distribution ceremony of the tournament, held in the memory of another Mahto — Santosh, of Nagrik Suraksha Samiti, an outfit backed by the administration to combat extremism — who was killed by Maoists a few months ago.
Officials said this could be the first time that a sitting MP has been killed by the rebels. The high-ranking victims so far included a minister in Madhya Pradesh and a former MP and Assembly legislators in Andhra.
The JMM has called a Jharkhand bandh tomorrow in protest against today’s attack that also claimed three of Mahto’s bodyguards and a fellow party member, Prabhakar Mahto. All parties have extended support to the bandh.
In Jamshedpur, the Tatas cancelled their ongoing founder’s day celebrations.
According to reports, the killers came from behind the pandal where Mahto was sitting. While some of them walked up to the unsuspecting MP, the others shot him with the weapons they had snatched from his bodyguards.
Police sources said the rebels pumped around eight rounds into Mahto’s chest and abdomen.
A PTI report said the killers also tried to garland Mahto. The tactic brought back memories of Rajiv Gandhi’s 1991 assassination by an LTTE suicide attacker who walked up to garland the former Prime Minister before triggering the explosives strapped to her body.
Ghatshila sub-divisional officer Ramesh Dubey said the rebels, who numbered about 30 and included three women, torched the MP’s vehicle before fleeing.
The shootings, which according to reports took place around 6 in the evening, disrupted Holi celebrations at the official residence of chief minister Madhu Koda, who ordered a manhunt to catch the killers.
Koda said the attack has “hurt” his government and it would take “all steps to curb extremism”.
The Jharkhand government has recommended a CBI probe. The home ministry has sought a report from the government.
Mahto, a first-time MP, is survived by his wife Suman and a daughter.
A senior police officer said Mahto was on the Maoist hit list as he openly opposed their ideology. “He had been warned not to take risks. But he went to this sensitive area without informing the local police station,” the officer added.
The village, near Purulia in Bengal, is considered a Naxalite stronghold.
In Jamshedpur, JMM workers burnt tyres and blocked roads. “It is an irreparable loss to the party,” said deputy chief minister S.K. Mahto.