Forty three days after he was arrested and sent to jail for some tasteless and rather mischievous tweets on Odisha, its history and its people, Delhi based defence analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra was granted bail by the Orissa High Court on Wednesday. The decision came barely hours after the Odisha government suddenly had a change of heart and decided to refuse sanction for prosecution in the two serious charges that required such sanction and drop all other charges that didn’t.
However, Abhijjit’s release from the Jharpada jail in Bhubaneswar, where he has been languishing for the better part of his six-week long ordeal, may take some more time. “Sanction for the two non-bailable charges against him – sec 295 (A) and 153 – have been refused. But charge sheets have already been filed in the other, bailable cases. So, some legal formalities still have to be completed before he is released,” Abhijit’s lawyer Nikhil Mehra said.
The alacrity with which it acted after receiving Abhijit’s petition seeking mercy on Monday was in stark contrast to the snail’s pace at which the petition moved from the Jharpada jail to the state secretariat (it took an incredible 13 days). Such alacrity was seen only at the beginning of the case on September 20 when a team from Puri police landed in Delhi and arrested him from his Nizamuddin residence hours after a case was registered against him at the Konark police station for ‘hurting Odia sentiments’.
So how did the Naveen Patnaik government, which had gone after him with a vengeance, suddenly decide to act magnanimous? The answer lies in politics, which had prompted the pressing of the serious, non-bailable charges in the first place and has now led to the change of heart. Naveen Patnaik was quick to see in his video post, which made some disparaging and mischievous comments on the sex scenes carved on the walls of the famous Sun Temple at Konark, a heaven-sent opportunity to refurbish his Odia credentials. Canny politician that he is, the Odisha Chief Minister was quick to realize he had a winner on his hands. He knew this was one issue on which even the Opposition would find it hard to oppose him since it involved Odia ‘asmita’. The whole of Odisha was outraged and started baying for Abhijit’s blood after some one-year old tweets where he had made similarly sarcastic and disparaging comments about Odisha and its people were ferreted out by Twitteratti. The decision to go after Abhijit had the added advantage of embarrassing his bête noire Jay Panda, who has had a bitter fall out with him, since it was he who hosted Abhijjit and Delhi based journalist Arti Singh Tikoo during their visit to the state in the middle of September.
But the tide began to turn after a few weeks when Abhijit was denied bail by the SDJM court here and waited endlessly for the lawyers’ strike to end for his appeal to be taken up by the High Court. Odias, being Odias, never known as an aggressive community, began to feel a lump in the throat and began sympathising with him when they saw him on TV being taken to the hospital. He looked a pale shadow of his former self. The fact that he had apologized repeatedly, unreservedly and unconditionally for what he called his ‘stupid’ comments certainly helped in the change of heart.
The change of heart in the government, however, appears to have come when it came to light on Monday that his petition seeking withdrawal of sanction for prosecution had taken 13 long days to travel from the jail to the secretariat, barely 6 kms away. People began to see a ‘conspiracy’ to keep him in jail indefinitely.
And it was this, more than anything else, which made Naveen Patnaik, who also happens to be the Home minister, to order dropping of charges against Abhijit last evening. He realized that every additional day that Abhijit stayed in jail would help public sympathy for him and resentment against the government grow further. In any case, there was no further political mileage to be had by keeping him in jail any longer.