The AGP and some scandals

Print edition : September 01, 2001

The Asom Gana Parishad, already shaken by scandals, suffers a serious blow with reports of a second marriage by party chief and former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.

THE Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) is the strongest regional party in Assam and has ruled the State for 10 years. But within three months of its rout in the Assembly elections that were held in May, it has suffered successive blows, with three of its former Ministers, including former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, figuring in scandals involving women.

Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and wife Jayasree.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

A State government employee has claimed that Mahanta, also president of the party, married her secretly in March when he was still Chief Minister; Rajendra Mushahary, former Minister for Welfare of Plain Tribes and Backward Classes, has been charged with rape, and his former colleague Jatin Mali has been accused by a domestic help of making her pregnant. The AGP suspended Mushahary, and Mahanta stepped down as party president for a period of two months.

Mushahary, who was arrested on August 5, allegedly raped a Bodo teenager and fathered her baby when he was Minister. A DNA test, done at the Hyderabad-based Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, is said to have established that he is the biological father of the baby boy, born in October last year.

In the First Information Report (FIR) she lodged with the Gossaigaon police in Kokrajhar district, the young woman said Mushahary had raped her in a hotel in Warisa on the West Bengal-Assam border on two occasions, in February and March 2000. She filed the FIR only in September, after it was known that she was pregnant. The All Bodo Student's Union (ABSU) and the All Bodo Women's Welfare Federation (ABWWF) took up her case. Mushahary, however, insisted that he had not committed the offence and alleged that the ABSU and the ABWWF were trying to malign him. Three alleged accomplices of Mushahary were arrested almost immediately after the FIR was lodged, but in Mushahary's case the police apparently dragged their feet because he was a Minister.

The most recent charge of debauchery was against Jatin Mali. Guwahati-based newspapers went to town on August 14 with accusations made by Dipti Kalita, a domestic help, that he had a sexual relationship with her. She alleged that Mali forced her to go in for an abortion. Mali denied the charge, saying, "This is a Congress(I) conspiracy to malign my image."

But it is Mahanta's 'second marriage' that may have done the most damage to the AGP, with the ruling Congress(I) out to exploit the situation against its main political opponent. Stung by the charge, Mahanta handed over charge of the party presidentship to one of the vice-presidents, Biraj Sharma, until October.

Although some stories about his alleged second marriage have been in circulation for some time, Mahanta's reaction came after an Assamese weekly published on August 15 an interview given by Sanghamitra Bharali, an assistant language officer in the Assam Assembly. She claimed that she and Mahanta were married on March 11 at the Bigneshwar Ganesh Temple in Mumbai.

She claimed there were several witnesses to the marriage, including AGP general secretary and former Minister Sahidul Alam Chowdhury. Chowdhury later denied his presence at the reported marriage ceremony.

Mahanta dismissed Sanghamitra's allegations as "highly concocted, imaginary and baseless". "I believe that the truth will surface one day and my innocence will be established," he said. Claiming that he "headed a happy family" of three children and a loving wife, Mahanta said there was not a single incident in his long public life that could cast a shadow on his character. Mahanta's wife Jayasree, a former AGP Member of Parliament, is convinced that her husband is not guilty of bigamy. She defended Mahanta as a "responsible and faithful husband and a caring father". "I have full faith in him and I am convinced of his innocence. He is a victim of a deep-rooted conspiracy," she said.

Sanghamitra Bharali, a file photograph.-

Giving the weekly the interview at her posh apartment in an upmarket locality in Guwahati, Sanghamitra, who is in her 30s and has a 14-year-old son, claimed that their affair started in 1999. "His love for me made me crazy and I left my family for him. We married for love. We knew that it was illegal since both of us were already married," she said. She has been separated from her husband, but is yet to be divorced.

Sanghamitra said she had not wanted to disclose the fact of the marriage at this juncture. But Mahanta's denial, on August 13, of the rumours about the marriage and his assertion that he was content with life and with his family shocked her, she said.

The controversy has the potential to ruin Mahanta's political career and also cause severe damage to the AGP. Some party insiders said Mahanta might not be able to regain the post of party president. Some senior party leaders said Mahanta was virtually forced to relinquish charge until he cleared his name.

Although Mahanta escaped censure by his party colleagues, the AGP's central executive committee, which met on August 21 and 22, decided that all committee members would resign before the party's general council meeting on September 6 in order to facilitate "objective and unbiased" deliberations on the bigamy scandal.

Mahanta, who had earlier decided not to attend the meeting, changed his mind after a report appeared on a web portal, tehelka.com, on August 21 that senior State Congress(I) leader and Public Works Department Minister Sarat Barkakaty had paid Sanghamitra Bharali Rs.15 lakhs to slap the bigamy charge on Mahanta.

Barkakaty served notice on tehelka.com on August 23, asking the website to apologise for its "libellous" report or face a Rs.5-crore defamation suit. "Now that our government has been dragged into Mahanta's affairs, we shall go the whole hog. The allegations against me and the Congress(I) will not go unchallenged," he said. "The report was a product of the conspiracy hatched by Mahanta to get himself a breather at his party's central executive committee meeting," he alleged.

Meanwhile, AGP insiders said it was the anti-Mahanta lobby that managed to push through the resolution that all executive members would resign before the September 6 meeting in order to elect a new set of leaders. The move was ostensibly aimed at removing the members hand-picked by Mahanta at the party conference in January. At that time he had been "entrusted with the task of selecting the executive members himself instead of holding an election". The anti-Mahanta group believes that the presence of "Mahanta's men" in the executive will prevent the party from taking an objective decision on a change of leadership.

The fact that the AGP will hold its party conference - where the president is chosen - either by October end or early November is being seen as a victory of sorts for Mahanta's opponents. The anti-Mahanta camp, led by Zoinath Sharma, former Revenue Minister, and Brindaban Goswami, Education Minister in the first AGP government that took power in 1985, is actively campaigning for the replacement of Mahanta as party chief. It holds him responsible for the party's decision to have an electoral alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party for the Assembly elections and blames him for the party's debacle.

The AGP's former allies, the Left parties, broke off after the AGP allied itself with the BJP. Now the BJP has said that it will fight the panchayat elections, to be held in December, on its own. The BJP also maintains that the AGP has not yet been formally inducted into the National Democratic Alliance.

Politically isolated, and its leader battling a slur on his reputation, the AGP is today but a pale shadow of the organisation that captured the Assamese people's imagination as the spearhead of the 'anti-foreigner' agitation in the State in the early 1980s.

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