by Sandeep Sahu
Bhubaneshwar: Harassment and loot of devotees is now passé. A section of the sevayats (servitors) in the holy Jagannath Temple in Puri has now graduated to bigger things: land deals, drug peddling, politics and even murder.
The dirty details of the things taking place in the Hindu shrine have been talked about in whispers in the pilgrim town for years now. Till Krushna Chandra alias ‘Kalia’ Pratihari, a temple servitor and a member of the temple management committee got arrested as the mastermind of the killing of another servitor and temple management committee member Talachhu Bhagaban Mohapatra alias ‘Guna Singhari’. It was then that the skeletons started tumbling out.
On the evening of August 22, Guna was gunned down by two unidentified gunmen at Gudiasahi in Puri, when he was coming out of an akhada. Five days after the killing, police arrested five persons including Sarbeswar Apat alias Duku and Debi Prasad Subudhhi, the two youths who allegedly fired the bullets at Guna. Based on their interrogation, Puri police arrested Kalia from Semiliguda in Koraput district, where he had fled after the murder.
Sources say the enmity between Guna and Kalia, both of whom were into the flourishing real estate business in the tourist town, was essentially over land deals. But there was a political angle to their rivalry as well. Guna had become a councilor from Ward No 1 after winning his election on a BJD ticket uncontested while Kalia had lost the election from another ward despite his BJD ticket and the alleged support of Tourism and Culture minister and Puri MLA Maheswar Mohanty. With the crores that he had made from his real estate deals, some legal and mostly illegal, Guna had begun to nurse ambitions of becoming the Chairperson of the Puri Municipality in the civic elections due later this year. In the end, it is his ambition that killed the man who used to brag that he had the bureaucracy, police and five High Court judges ‘in his pocket’.
By all accounts, Guna was a history-sheeter and was an accused in an attempt to murder case. He was known to have built up a whole army of goons who helped him run his real estate empire. Though Kalia had not been implicated in any criminal case – till he was arrested for the murder of Guna that is – he too is known to have his own army of goons, though not quite as big as that of his rival. But he had one thing that his bête noire lacked: the support of Mohanty without whose consent, it is widely believed, not a leaf moves in Puri town. Guna had reportedly fallen out with the minister after he backed Kalia.
The police, however, are tight-lipped about the political angle to the murder conspiracy. “It is too premature to say anything about the political angle as the investigation is now in a preliminary stage,” Puri SP Anup Sahu had said after the arrest of Kalia. But given Kalia’s powerful political connections, there is apprehension that he may, in the end, walk away scot-free from the murder charge. “Why have the police not conducted the mandatory ballistic test to determine if the shots were indeed fired from the purported murder weapon seized from the killers and presented before the media?” asks a lawyer of the town, who has been following the case closely, requesting anonymity.
But the bigger and far more important question is: how did people like Guna and Kalia manage to get into the temple management committee in the first place? Chief temple administrator Arabinda Padhee evades a direct answer to the question, but says; “We will soon fill up the two places that have fallen vacant because of the murder and I will not countenance any politics in the selection procedure.” Notwithstanding the CTA’s assertion, politics does not appear likely to be banished from the sacred precincts of the temple in a hurry.
Kalia and Guna were not the only servitors in the centuries-old temple with dubious credentials. Another servitor Madhab Khuntia, known as the ‘timber king’, has been in and out of jail for his illegal dealings in casuarina trees all along the Puri-Brahmagiri coast. There is talk of some servitors dealing in brown sugar and other narcotic substances instead of temple rituals as they are supposed to do.
“One of the factors that have led to the sorry state of affairs is that the sevayat system is not only hereditary, but also transferable. With the increase in their numbers, the sevayats now distribute the right to do the rituals among themselves with particular days assigned to members of the clan irrespective of whether they know anything about the rituals or not,” says Biswaraj Patnaik, a resident of Puri.