The case against Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda for ‘flying low’ over the ecologically sensitive Chilika lake on September 15 looks almost certain to fall flat. There are far too many loopholes, besides changes made in the details by the police, for the case to result in anything other than acquittal. Even the case against his friend Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, who accompanied Panda on the helicopter ride, under various sections of the IPC, including Section 295A (hurting religious sentiments), is unlikely to hold considering a local court in Delhi granted him bail barely an hour or so after the Odisha Police arrested him in the national capital on September 20.
The Delhi-based journalist can at worst be reprimanded by the Odisha assembly, which summoned him to appear before it on September 28—the same day he would appear before the Konark police—on a breach of privilege motion moved by the Leader of Opposition, Narasingha Mishra of the Congress. The motion was adopted unanimously by the assembly on September 20.
But far from being embarrassed by the opprobrium he faced from the Delhi media over Iyer-Mitra’s arrest or the prospect of the two friends being exonerated, CM Naveen Patnaik would think the real purpose behind the cases has been served—to embarrass the former MP, who had been touring the state extensively on his helicopter since his suspension from the ruling BJD. The idea obviously was to ‘ground’ him—the police sealed three helicopters of his family-owned IMFA group and the company hangar at the Bhubaneswar airport, even though only one was implicated in the case filed at the Arakhakuda Marine police station.
The objective of the case against Iyer-Mitra, in contrast, was two-fold: to reaffirm the BJD government’s credentials as the sole upholder of Odia pride (Iyer-Mitra had made some disparaging comments about the Sun Temple and Puri that he claims were ‘satirical’), and to show the people the kind of ‘anti-Odia’ company Panda keeps.
Quick to sense an opportunity for making political capital out of an issue on which even the Opposition could not afford to be seen as being against the ruling party, Naveen got the unanimous resolution passed in the assembly and a six-member committee was formed to probe the charges against Iyer-Mitra. Alleging that Naveen has never been shy of letting the government machinery hound those who dare to take him on, some observers see the case as more personal than political. After he fell out with Naveen last year, there was an ‘egg attack’ on Panda in the Mahanga area of his former constituency by BJD workers, and the unrest at the IMFA plant in Therubali was also said to be sponsored by his former party.
In his deposition to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on September 24, Panda pointed out at least five changes in the government’s case. “First it was alleged that a seaplane landed on Chilika lake, which was subsequently changed to a helicopter. Later it said it had not landed in Chilika, but only flew at a low altitude,” he said. “The FIR said the event took place at 1.30 pm, but when the airport authorities made it clear that the chopper was back at the airport at 1.26 pm, they changed the timing to 9.30 am. They also said Chilika is a no-flying zone, which is false. All the allegations are completely baseless.”
Though the DGCA is yet to rule on the case, these discrepancies suggest it may not be possible to keep the IMFA hangar and its three helicopters sealed much longer. Airport authorities have clarified that Panda had obtained all the permissions required for the flight. So the case against Panda is most likely to die a natural death. The government, however, would be happy that the limited purpose for which it was lodged in the first place has already been fulfilled.
- The police sealed three choppers and IMFA’s company hangar, though only one chopper was involved in the incident.
- Section 295A (hurting religious sentiments) has been slapped on Jay Panda’s friend, Delhi-based journalist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra.
- Airport authorities clarified that Jay Panda had got all the permissions needed for the flight that led to the case against him.
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar