|FAMILY MATTERS: (From top) Roopi with her husband Shibu Soren; JMM’s Bokaro district committee president Montu Kumar Yadav; Shibu Soren’s sons; Shibu Soren’s Man Friday, Shambhu Yadav|
What Roopi Soren, wife of the jailed Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) boss Shibu Soren, cannot stand is filth. Not the political kind but the sort that makes her house dirty. From the moment she gets up at five in the morning and until she turns in at around 11 pm, she pads around what’s actually an officer’s quarters of the Bokaro steel plant — her home for 15 years — in Jharkhand, making sure all five rooms and the yard have been swept and mopped and the curtains and shelves dusted several times over.
At midday, Roopi Soren — Mataji to JMM workers, who call her husband Guruji — walks across to the party office in Bokaro’s Sector I, and checks that everything is in order. “Nowhere would you find a cowshed that is so clean,” says Shambhu Yadav, Shibu Soren’s Man Friday for the last 30 years, pointing to the stench-free shed holding six cows.
Roopi Soren makes no bones about her fetish, though. “I like everything in my house clean and in proper order,” says the diminutive woman, who makes it sound all very natural. After all, “keeping the house in order” is what she has done over the years. First when she lived years ago in a mud-and-thatch house in Nemra village in what was then Bihar with her husband, then a firebrand tribal leader fighting for a separate tribal state. She would do exactly this tomorrow, she insists, even if she were to take over the mantle from her husband, sentenced to life imprisonment by a Delhi court for conspiring to murder his former private secretary Shashi Nath Jha.
Shibu Soren is in Tihar jail and all eyes are now on his wife, who, many believe, could succeed Soren as the JMM chief. “I wouldn’t mind (leading the JMM) if my husband asks me,” says the woman, with an air of resignation, something Rabri Devi had displayed when she “came out of the kitchen” to be the chief minister of Bihar at the bidding of her husband Lalu Prasad, then tossed into jail in the Rs 1,000-crore fodder scam case. If that should happen, it would only be a matter of time before Soren’s wife had her vehicle fitted with a flashing red light and a wailing siren. After all, the JMM is not only part of the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre but of the Madhu Kora government in Jharkhand as well.
But it may not be easy. “I don’t think she will be anointed anytime soon,” says Harivansh, chief editor of the Ranchi-based Prabhat Khabar, a leading Hindi newspaper in Jharkhand. He says Soren is likely to “exhaust all legal options to try and get out of jail” before passing the baton to his wife as “he knows only he can hold the JMM together.”
Yet the writing is clearly on the wall, albeit literally. An oversized family portrait hangs over the door of the JMM office in Bokaro, with Shibu Soren and his wife standing with their three sons in the laminated photograph. To the JMM chief, his family, clearly, comes first — sometimes even before the party, his detractors say. His two sons, Durga and Hemant, are already in the party and, in a way, Soren inducted his wife into politics a long time ago.
Prodded by her husband, Roopi fought the Lok Sabha election from Dumka in the mid-nineties only to lose to Babulal Marandi, former Jharkhand chief minister and a popular tribal leader. “Shibu Soren has always promoted his family, putting his wife and children before the party,” says Ramdayal Munda, former Ranchi University vice- chancellor and once a Soren confidant. The brain behind the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) which spearheaded the movement for Jharkhand, Munda says he and a few other leaders were expelled from the party after they protested against Roopi’s candidacy from Dumka.
But for many party workers, Roopi Soren carries her husband’s legacy. They believe that the former Union minister, who is set to appeal against the life sentence in high court, might decide to hold on to power “through his wife” if he fails to walk out of jail. “Mataji is very much in politics and in the party and we will do whatever Guruji decides,” says Montu Kumar Yadav, president of the JMM’s Bokaro district committee.
Yet Roopi Soren stresses that she has “no interest” in politics. The only daughter of a poor peasant from Chandil near Jamshedpur, she was yanked out of school when she was in class two. She was barely 10 years old when she was married off. Her greatest regret — to this day — is that she was not allowed to finish school. “I kept telling my husband that he should not have married me so young and that he should have let me continue with my studies,” she says. Soren, 62, is a matriculate.
For her, it’s been a long and tortuous journey through the rocky, undulating terrain of the tribal heartland — a route she says she has traversed successfully with her husband. She distinctly remembers those days in Nemra when her husband collected firewood from forests to sell and keep the chula burning at home. Almost single-handedly, she raised her four children — three of them are graduates and the fourth is an engineer — as her husband, determined to avenge his father’s murder by village money lenders, fought the sahukars and mahajans, the loan sharks and the landlords. Then, there were those heady days when Soren was made Union coal minister and later chief minister of Jharkhand for all of nine days in 2005. Through thick and thin, Roopi has stuck by her husband.
Over the years, she has, however, learnt to sign her name in Hindi and to read newspaper headlines. Even though her husband has, in the meanwhile, got embroiled in a few cases of bribery and murder, she cannot bring herself to believe these. “He is innocent. He has never swatted a fly in his life,” Roopi, in her fifties, says. Every morning, she prays to goddess Durga and to her late mother-in-law Sonamuni Devi for his release from jail.
Puja over, she turns her attention to water — she needs plenty of it to keep the house clean. Four overhead tanks could not do the job, so a tube well was dug a couple of years ago. Still, it doesn’t seem enough.
To clean up her husband’s name, she will now need more than water.