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OPINION | Missing Key to Jagannath Temple Ratna Bhandar Could Pose Election Year Challenge to BJD

What surprised the people was the fact that in the nearly two months since it came to know about the missing keys, the state government had neither lodged an FIR nor initiated an administrative inquiry on the issue.

Sandeep Sahu |

Updated:June 16, 2018, 12:08 PM IST
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OPINION | Missing Key to Jagannath Temple Ratna Bhandar Could Pose Election Year Challenge to BJD
Representative image (Reuters)
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Just when it appeared that the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is cruising to an unprecedented fifth term in office, the unsavoury goings-on in the Jagannath Temple in Puri have thrown a spanner in the works of the ruling party in Odisha.

The sequence of events since the beginning of April this year have raised suspicions among crores of Jagannath-loving Odias that the Naveen Patnaik government is engaged in a desperate cover-up exercise to hide its failure in running the affairs of the 12th century shrine.

First came the startling revelation that the keys to the inner chamber of the Ratna Bhandar, the place where the immense wealth of the Jagannath Temple is stored in the form of gold and diamond ornaments, had been lost.

Speculation about the missing keys had been doing the rounds since April 4 when a 17-member team of officials from the state government, the temple administration and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) went in to ‘inspect’ the condition of the storehouse as per the order of the Orissa High Court but returned without going inside.

“The team did not feel the need to go in since we were able to assess the condition of the structure from outside with the help of search lights,” the then chief administrator (CA) of the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) Pradeep Jena told waiting journalists after the team came out. The explanation convinced no one.

Matters came to a head when leading news channel OTV broke the story on the proceedings of the emergency meeting of the temple management committee to discuss the issue of the missing keys the same evening (April 4) on June 1.

As per the minutes of the proceedings, Gajapati King Divyasingh Deb, the first servitor of the Lord, expressed serious concern at the meeting over the loss of the keys to the Ratna Bhandar.

Predictably, all hell broke loose with protests and demonstrations across the state by opposition parties and various organisations.

What surprised the people was the fact that in the nearly two months since it came to know about the missing keys, the state government had neither lodged an FIR nor initiated an administrative inquiry on the issue.

With the cat out of the bag following the OTV story, the government ordered, of all things, a judicial inquiry, making it the first Commission of Inquiry in the country to probe a missing key.

But far from addressing the disquiet in the public, the decision only helped deepen the impression that the government did not want the truth to come out.

And the ‘truth’, many suspected, was that at least some of the precious jewellery inside the Ratna Bhandar had been pilfered by a criminal nexus of temple officials and servitors.

Under fire from various quarters, an embarrassed government replaced Jena with senior IAS officer Pradipta Mohapatra as the chief administrator of SJTA on June 11.

Barely a day after Mohapatra’s appointment as CA, the Collector of Puri Arvind Agarwal stunned everyone with the revelation that the keys had been traced.

But there were two riders. First, the envelope containing the keys had “Duplicate Keys of Bhitara Bhandar” superscribed on it when there is no provision for any duplicate keys in temple rules. What it meant was that the original keys still remained untraced.

Second, it was traced in a locker of the Record Room inside the collectorate instead of the strong room of the district treasury where it is supposed to be.

A barrage of questions followed. Where did the ‘duplicate’ keys come from? How did they land in the record room? Will the keys recovered open the Ratna Bhandar? Why did the Collector go public without ascertaining it? Did the district administration not search hard enough before informing the temple administration about the loss of keys in April? And lastly, now that the keys had been traced, what would happen to the Commission of Inquiry constituted by the government?

The state government answered the last question by issuing the gazette notification for the Commission of Inquiry headed by retired judge of Orissa High Court Raghubir Das and setting the terms of reference for it the day after the revelation about the recovery of the keys.

But there are no answers forthcoming on any of the other questions. Doubts about the government’s intentions have persisted primarily because of its refusal even at this late stage to order the opening of the Ratna Bhandar and stock taking of the wealth stored inside it to see if everything recorded in the last inventory made way back in 1978 is intact or not.

Knowing the emotive appeal of the issue, the Opposition, the BJP in particular, has pounced on the missing keys to mount a concerted attack on the Naveen Patnaik government.

Having failed to dent the chief minister’s popularity on other issues, the opposition is hoping to cash in on the sentiments of the average Odia in the next elections.

But the BJD supremo can still turn the tables on the opposition if he orders a transparent stock taking of the ornaments inside the Ratna Bhandar to back its claim that everything is intact.
But if it fails to order a fresh inventory or if the stock taking reveals pilferage, the BJD may have to pay a heavy price for it in the 2019 polls.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

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