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Surendra Dash may have been elected to the Puri Municipal Council (pmc) four times from Ward No. 28. But in the fatherhood stakes, he is still the "unlucky" father of three daughters. Unfortunately, the desire for a son has almost ended his political career. A recent judgement of the Puri District Election Tribunal led to his dismissal from the chairmanship of the municipal council last week for begetting more than two children, under the 1994 amendment of the Orissa Municipality Act. The judgement, unprecedented in the sense that this is the first time the clause has been invoked against a people's representative of the rank of chairman, has shocked many.
Dash, a member of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (bjd), points out that if the clause was invoked across the board, a majority of zilla parishad members, sarpanches and councillors all over the country would have to vacate their posts. However, the judgement is not without precedent in the state. Puri's public prosecutor, Dillip Chotray, points out at least five cases, including that of a sarpanch, who have been disqualified from holding office under this provision.
The district sessions judge who delivered the judgement, Justice Bijay Krishna Patel, added that after the amendment to the Representation of People Act was passed, the state Zilla Parishad, Gram Panchayat and Municipal Acts were amended to include the clause which debarred people's representatives from office if they begot more than two children after the date of the amendment.
The clause was obviously incorporated to create a greater awareness of population control. But so far, only a few states have actually amended their laws to include the clause or actually enforce it. Dash was dismissed under Section 16 (1, XVII) of the act. The cut off date for enforcement of the law was May 31, 1994. Though the amendment actually came into force on March 31, 1994, there was a one-year moratorium to cover those who had already conceived children on this date or before it. Dash's son was allegedly born on June 2, 1996.
Though there is no scope of appeal against the tribunal's judgement, Dash has already filed a writ petition in the high court claiming that the facts of the case were misrepresented. The case against Dash is based on the evidence that his wife Anita was admitted to the labour ward of the Puri District General Hospital and that a male child was born to her on June 2, 1996. However, Dash claims that the Anita Dash mentioned in the hospital records has no connection with him. He says that his last offspring, a daughter named Sucharita, now aged eight, was born in 1992. However, the doctor on duty, Dr Jeetendra Nayak, identified Anita as the defendant's wife and Dash as the father of the infant. The doctor's evidence clinched the case against Dash as he knew the defendant for over 10 years and has even attended on his family earlier.
Dash also maintains that the boy represented as his son—four-year-old Biswanath, now studying in the dav school at Puri—is actually his elder brother Bansidhar Dash's son. However, he never produced the admission records to prove this and nor were testimonies of his brother or his wife presented in the court.
The judgement came after Laxmidhar Sahu, the independent candidate who contested the elections against Dash, filed a petition before the tribunal. His earlier complaint before the bdo had been dismissed. Sahu claimed that there was an attempt to tamper with evidence and that hospital records have been fudged.He filed his complaint after Dash was elected on July 11, 1997, and Sahu claimed that Dash has violated the spirit of the Representation of People Act and failed to fulfil his responsibility as a leader of the people. "If we do not show responsible behaviour in planning our families, how can we impose family planning programmes on the people?" he asks.
The bjd legislator from Puri and district president, Maheswar Mohanty, on his part, says his party fully supports the spirit of the act but feels that it should apply equally to all across the country. "Why should legislators and parliamentarians not be brought under its ambit?" he asks.
For Dash, who hails from a conservative joint family of six Puri Brahmin brothers who stay together with their children, the joy of having a son has turned sour. He is in an unenviable position where he is forced to deny that he has fathered the child. While none of his brothers are ready to comment on the controversy, they certainly sympathise with him and don't believe that Dash has done anything wrong. The bjd leader also enjoys considerable support in the town with most people feeling that he has been unfairly targeted. The general view is that it is a case of much ado about nothing and that if Dash can support his children, there is no harm in having an extra child!
Public sympathy not withstanding, Dash, a lawyer himself, knows his legal position is weak. He claims he's a victim of political rivalry. But surely this argument cannot hold in a court of law?