The senior Congress leader feels the heat after inciting partymen to go on the rampage, Soumik Mukherjee and Debendra Prusty report
ON THE afternoon of 6 September, while the national media was abuzz with fierce political debates on coalgate, a shocking footage was played out on news channels; a woman constable of the Odisha Police was mercilessly beaten and molested by a mob of Congress supporters. More than 60,000 party supporters led by Congress leader Jagdish Tytler were rallying towards the Odisha Assembly, demanding Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s resignation for his alleged involvement in the coal scam.
However ironic, the fact remains that while the Congress-led mob was busy vandalising the state capital Bhubaneswar, the opposition parties were seeking the PM’s ouster, for what is said to be the biggest scam in the country’s history. The two-hour-long riot left 260 people injured, including 60 policemen. In the melee, a lady constable, Pramila Padhi, was severely beaten and molested. Narrating her ordeal, Padhi said: “About 30-40 youth attacked me, rained down blows and kicks as soon as Jagdish Tytler called on party workers to break the barricade.”
Given his controversial past in connection with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Tytler’s provocation of the mob has been condemned in all quarters. After being named in as many as eight FIRS for inciting violence, Tytler tried to retaliate by alleging that the entire episode was orchestrated by the ruling BJD. While addressing the media, Congress spokesperson Narasingha Mishra said that people at the rally heard slogans hailing Naveen Patnaik, indicating that the BJD had sent its men to create trouble.
But the incident has left the Congress red-faced. People in Odisha are not willing to buy the Congress’ allegations and counter-allegations. Faced with strong criticism from political circles as well as civil society groups, the Congress has tried to defend itself by alleging police brutality. “The police is working at the behest of the state government, but we are ready to face the judiciary,” said Niranjan Patnaik, president of the Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee (OPCC). Meanwhile, Tytler, who is also incharge of the state Congress, blamed the police for using water cannons and tear gas shells on party supporters.
Eyewitness accounts from the scene, however, counter Tytler’s claims. “The police retaliated only after the mob turned violent and started pelting stones and broke the barricades,” says a local journalist, who was present at the scene.
Meanwhile, the Congress has filed 17 FIRs against Chief Minister Patnaik and police personnel, including the Director General of Police and the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Bhubaneswar.
“This is outrageous and strongly condemnable,” says Prafulla Samanta, an eminent human rights activist from Odisha. “If the police had committed atrocities, the protesters could have courted arrest. This violence doesn’t fit in the realm of democracy,” he adds.
Political observers believe that for the Congress this was a die-hard attempt to make a comeback in the state, where the BJD has been in power for the past 12 years. “The Congress morale is very low. They had to pull off a stunt like this,” says Odisha-based political analyst Rabi Das.
The BJD reacted strongly to the allegations of a conspiracy. “The Congress has no support base in Odisha. They resorted to violence to garner some attention in the state,” says Kalikesh Singh Deo, a BJD MP. While condemning the brutality inflicted on the woman constable, he said, “Utter frustration has made them beat up and molest a woman. These are criminal elements, hooligans, not political workers.” Health Minister and BJD leader Damodar Rout also voiced similar sentiments.
Nihar Das, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Bhubaneswar, says that over 34 people have been arrested in this connection so far. He further states that more arrests are likely as the police is examining news and CCTV footage from that day.
A foolhardy bid to gain a foothold in the state has backfired for the Congress party
THE ODISHA Congress is a divided house. “In the party, Niranjan Patnaik is losing his support and credibility,” says Rabi Das. “It’s because of Tytler that Patnaik has managed to save himself so far.” After the Congress’ poor performance in the last panchayat election, one of its leaders reportedly admitted that he sabotaged some seats contested by the party to lessen Niranjan Patnaik’s influence in the OPCC.
Meanwhile, the Congress central leadership has distanced itself from the incident. While addressing the media, Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh went on to say that the party should take strong action against the culprits.
As of now, a foolhardy attempt to gain some foothold in the state has backfired for the Congress. Observers believe this will only strengthen the BJD’s position in Odisha.
Soumik Mukherjee is a Correspondent with Tehelka.