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How a felicitation ceremony has turned into a BJP-BJD slugfest in Odisha

On April 16 during a visit to Bhubaneswar, Modi felicitated the family members of Laxmi Indira Panda, a noted freedom fighter. But after the function was over, one of the family members went missing and hasn’t been found yet.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2017 10:25 IST
K Mohanty
K Mohanty
Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar
Narendra Modi,Odisha,BJP in Odisha
Prime Minister Narendra Modi felicitates the relatives of freedom fighters from Odisha, at a special programme, in Bhubaneswar on April 16.(PTI Photo)

It was supposed to be a regular felicitation ceremony where Prime Minister Narendra Modi honours freedom fighters and buoys the BJP’s nationalism agenda in Odisha.

Instead, the event has turned into a public relations nightmare for the saffron party and given a chance to the ruling Biju Janata Dal, still smarting from recent reverses in rural polls, to hit back.

On April 16 during a visit to Bhubaneswar, Modi felicitated the family members of Laxmi Indira Panda, a noted freedom fighter from the coastal state who joined Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in the 1930s.

The BJP was hoping to get a good bump from the event as Panda, also known as the Iron Lady of Koraput, died in 2008 in penury, waiting for a government pension. Panda’s family was called to Bhubaneswar, along with kin of 15 other heroes who were a part of the 1817 Paika rebellion against British forces. But the plans started unraveling soon after.

First, a relative of Panda, Bulu Sahoo, left Bhubaneswar in a huff after not being allowed to be a part of the ceremony.

Then, Panda’s daughter-in-law Sujata accidentally boarded a wrong train at Bhubaneswar railway station and didn’t reach her home in Jeypore. The 57-year-old accidentally boarded the Haridwar-bound Utkal Express and was forced to get down at Balasore railway station by the ticket examiner as she was travelling ticketless. She was later “rescued” by some local youth in Balasore.

Sujata’s husband Surendra Panda too said he had a tough time reaching his home as he boarded a train till Vizianagaram and then took a ride in a truck to Jeypore. On top of that, Sujata’s son Babula has gone missing.

The BJD has lost no time in capitalizing on the situation and has blamed the saffron party of paying lip service to freedom fighters, pointing out that the plaque honouring Panda has no mention of her role in the INA.

“The BJP had forgotten its duty and did not take care to send them back to their homes with dignity,” alleged BJD spokesman Pratap Deb. Apart from asking the Balasore district administration to send the 57-year-old woman to her home in Jeypore, chief minister Naveen Patnaik also felicitated the youth who rescued the woman. Former BJD minister and party’s senior leader in Koraput Rabi Nanda too gave Rs 50000 to the Panda family.

The Congress has also jumped into the fray, lodging an FIR against Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan at Bhubaneswar’s Capital Police Station for insulting the family of a freedom fighter.

The BJP has now accused Rabi Nanda and state energy minister Pranab Prakash Das for having a hand in Babula not being found. “An intolerant BJD is now trying to hide Babula to defame BJP. Government should order a probe and call records of these leaders should be verified,” said BJP MLA Pradip Purohit. He also alleged that there is a threat to Babula’s life. BJP Odisha vice-president Samir Mohanty asked: “Is it a crime to honour the family members who had sacrificed a lot for the country?”

To make the matter murkier, Odisha Director General of Police KB Singh has said Babula had criminal antecedents and was in touch with his family.

“We are tracking his mobile phone. During our investigation we came to know that he has talked to a woman and we are interrogating her to reach Babula,” said Singh. “From preliminary investigation we came to know that there was a quarrel between Babula and his brother over his absence at the railway station. I think this is the main issue (behind his hiding) and he was upset over this,” said the DGP.

The public-sector unit Nalco, which was asked to look after Panda’s family, said it extended all facilities for their boarding and lodging at its guesthouse. “Though we had wanted to tansport them by our own vehicle, the Pandas wanted to travel by train ad were given Rs 6000 as travel and food expenses. After taking lunch at the guest house, they had left the place around 4 pm to go to visit some other places in Bhubaneswar and then proceed to the railway station to board the Hirakhand Express to Jeypore,” Nalco said.

Meanwhile, the BJD has again tried to embarrass the BJP by alleging that three of the 16 martyrs families were “fake”. Former BJD minister Surya Patro alleged that the family members of Jayee Rajguru of Puri district, Chakara Bisoyee of Ganjam district and Rendo Majhi of Kalahandi district were not their real inheritors.

“It is an unfortunate incident. How come the so-called nationalist party failed to recognise the real family members of the martyrs? Above all, the three martyrs were unmarried,” Patro said.

First Published: Apr 27, 2017 19:55 IST