Vandalism in Orissa

Print edition : March 30, 2002

The attack on the Orissa Assembly reflects the growing aggressiveness of the Sangh Parivar outfits.

AYODHYA has cast its disturbing shadow on Orissa, and West Bengal too. On March 16, a 500-strong mob comprising Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Durga Vahini activists stormed the Orissa Assembly building. Sporting saffron headbands and chanting "Jai Sriram" and "Atal Behari Vajpayee zindabad," the trident-wielding men rushed inside, indulging in vandalism for over 30 minutes. The incident made a mockery of stepped-up security measures in the State following the attack on Parliament building on December 13, 2001.

The activists, who had been on a dharna about 300 metres from the Assembly building, surged forth minutes after the House was adjourned for lunch. They forced their way past the main entrance as a posse of policemen looked on.

The dharna was held to demand the handing over of the disputed land in Ayodhya to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas for the construction of a Ram temple, the release of VHP leader Acharya Giriraj Kishore and the withdrawal of "anti-VHP" remarks made by some MLAs in the Orissa Assembly on the previous day.

The vandals armed with tridents and lathis, beat up every individual they came across, including Biju Janata Dal (BJD) legislator Ashok Panigrahi and two journalists. They broke glass doors and window panes, smashed flowerpots placed along the corridors, ransacked the library and the chambers of Ministers. The security personnel who were posted in and around the high-security complex did little to control the mob. After the mob left they resorted to a lathi-charge. This led to a pitched battle on the road, during which members of the saffron brigade threw stones at the police.

According to the VHP's Orissa unit president Bipin Bihari Rath, after observing a dharna outside the Assembly building those gathered had peacefully proceeded towards the Assembly to submit a memorandum to Chief Minister Navin Patnaik. "When we reached the Assembly gate we learnt that some people had already entered the Assembly premises. We know nothing about them. They are neither VHP followers nor Ram bhakts (devotees)," he said.

The day after the unprecedented attack on the Assembly the State government suspended 20 police personnel for dereliction of duty. Sixty-seven people, including Bipin Bihari Rath, Pratap Sarangi, who is the State unit president of the Bajrang Dal, and nine women were arrested on charges of rioting, arson, assault and damaging government property.

The attack on the Assembly has further weakened the BJD-BJP coalition arrangement in Orissa. Signs of a rift were already evident after the two sides failed to arrive at a seat-sharing formula in the recently concluded panchayat polls. The attack is being seen by BJD leaders as being part of a conspiracy to destabilise the State government.

Without directly accusing the BJP, secretary-general of the BJD Damodar Rout said that many "outsiders" had entered the House during the lunch hour as the BJP held its legislature party meeting. They then joined the VHP-Bajrang Dal-Durga Vahini mob, he charged. The Bajrang Dal and VHP activists were used by "narrow-minded, corrupt and power-hungry people", he said. Rout alleged that the miscreants wanted to destabilise the government. "The incident has not only damaged the secular image of the State but exposed the fascist face of Hindu fundamentalists," he said.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Biswabhusan Harichandan said that it had to be probed whether the vandals belonged to the VHP. He alleged that some people were trying to break up the alliance in order to bag ministerial berths. But this claim seems to be aimed at some BJD members who had been suggesting that the party get rid of the BJP and run the government on its own.

In a further blow to the BJD-BJP coalition, defying strong opposition from the BJD president and Chief Minister Navin Patnaik, six BJP MLAs signed the nomination paper of Dilip Ray, a BJD leader and former Union Minister, who is contesting the Rajya Sabha election as an independent candidate. Ray was among the founders of the BJD and was quite prominent till Patnaik asked him to quit as Union Minister. Ray had been waiting for an opportunity to turn the tables on Patnaik who was trying to prevent him from getting the minimum required support of 10 MLAs for his candidature.

Emboldened by the VHP's Ayodhya programme, Hindu fundamentalist forces, which hardly had any significant presence in West Bengal, have suddenly surfaced. In Taldi, a village in West Bengal's South 24 Parganas district, a yagna was organised by the VHP on March 10, at the Harisabha Mandir in connection with the March 15 shila daan ceremony at Ayodhya. Without seeking permission from the local administration, VHP activists started arriving at the yagna site in Taldi. When the police intervened, enraged VHP activists started throwing stones and even hurling bombs at the them. The police had to seek the help of a Rapid Action Force (RAF) team stationed close by. The RAF opened fire to disperse the crowd, killing a VHP activist. "We were determined not to allow the Ram yagna as it would have led to disturbances in a vast area where the population is mixed and sensitive to such things," said Chayan Mukherjee, Inspector-General of Police (Law and Order). "Before resorting to firing, we used teargas and lathis without success," he said.

In West Bengal, in view of the March 15 programme in Ayodhya, the Left Front government was alert against any effort to disturb communal harmony. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee asked the District Magistrates to deal firmly with attempts to provoke communal sentiments by organising Ram shila pujas in the State. The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) asked its workers to mobilise public opinion against the VHP's communal activities. The CPI(M) State unit secretary and Polit Bureau member Anil Biswas alleged that the VHP had been stockpiling arms to create disturbances in West Bengal, which has been largely free from communal tension.

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