New Delhi: The prime accused in a sensational gangrape that shook Odisha in its aftermath in 1999 and resulted in the resignation of the then Congress chief minister J.B. Patnaik is finally in the police net.
While the two other accused, who were later convicted, had been arrested within weeks after the crime in 1999, the prime accused had been evading arrest for over two decades. One of the convicts had even died last year while serving life imprisonment, while the other is still lodged in jail. Police who nabbed the prime accused say that he was “sure” that he would not be caught in his lifetime, and had taken over a new identity and had procured an Aadhar Card, among other documents.
According to Indian Express, the case dates back to January 9, 1999 when an estranged wife of an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer was travelling to Cuttack from Bhubaneshwar with a driver and her journalist friend in a car. When their car reached the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar, the accused on the scooter had intercepted it and threatened the driver and her friend at a gunpoint before dragging her out and raping her by turns.
However, there are different versions of how the crime took place. According to The Times of India, the three of them were returning to Bhubaneshwar from Cuttack in the car, when she was raped in Baranga, Cuttack. The Hindu report mentions that she was kidnapped by the criminals when she was having tea at a roadside stall in Baranga.
After the incident, the victim alleged that she was raped at the orders of former advocate general of Odisha, Indrajit Ray, whom she had accused of molestation and a rape attempt in 1997.
On July 19, 1997, she had filed a first information report (FIR) against Ray at the Cantonment police station in Cuttack. The woman accused the then chief minister J.B. Patnaik of shielding Ray, who was a close associate of the former.
Following widespread outrage against Ray in Odisha, he quit his post, and the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In February 2000, a CBI court convicted Ray and sentenced him to three years’ rigorous imprisonment.
With assembly elections due in 2000 and the opposition accusing the Congress government of siding with the criminals, the party forced Patnaik to step down and replaced him with Giridhar Gamang in February 1999.
Meanwhile, the two accused, Pradip Sahoo and Dhirendra Mohanty, who were later convicted, were arrested by the Odisha Police on January 26, 1999. The Odisha high court transferred the case to the CBI for investigation on February 26, 1999. The chargesheet in the case was filed on May 5, 1999.
On April 29, 2002, Khurda district and sessions Judge Mahendra Nath Patnaik sentenced Sahoo and Mohanty to life imprisonment and levied a fine of Rs 5,000 each. The high court upheld the convictions and sentences in 2010.
In 2020, Sahoo died while undergoing treatment at Capital Hospital, Bhubaneswar. He had been referred to the hospital from Jharpada jail after he complained of chest pain.
Operation ‘Silent Viper’
While the CBI could not track down the prime accused, Bibekananda Biswal alias Biban, for years, the police commissionerate in-charge of Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack launched a secret operation codenamed ‘Silent Viper’ when it traced Biswal to Lonavala in Maharashtra.
“We came to know Biswal was staying in Lonavala under the fake identity of Jalandhara Swain. With the help of the Maharashtra Police, we detained him. Our personnel achieved what CBI could not do all these years,” commissioner of police, Sudhanshu Sarangi, was quoted as saying by The Times of India.
An Odisha police team recently with the help of Maharashtra Police reached the Ambi Valley project between Mumbai and Pune where Biswal, who has taken up the new identity of Jalandhara Swain, was residing and working as a plumber at the project. Biswal had already procured new documents, including Aadhar Card and bank account, to prove his new identity, however, he did not change his village address.
The police team which arrived recently at the project in plainclothes could not trace Biswal among 14,000 employees there. But sensing danger, Biswal began running after seeing the policemen, Sarangi was quoted as saying by The Hindu.
Although it is not known how the Odisha Police tracked Biswal, however, The Times of India report says that the police were alerted when his family in Odisha had applied for his ‘death certificate’. Biswal had been in touch with his family back home via some unidentified persons. However, police could not explain why his family was in a hurry to apply for his death certificate. The police handed over Biswal to the CBI.
‘Relieved,’ says victim
According to The Hindu, the victim said she was relieved by the arrest of the prime accused. “It has been a long battle of 22 years. I had lost hopes that the criminal would be caught. It brings happiness to me. I am relieved. I would not settle on anything less than capital punishment for Biswal. I have died thousand times in all these years,” the daily quoted her as saying.
The victim added that in the face of public humiliation, she said she had stood her ground and challenged the powerful system that tried to bring her down. She also said there had been many murderous attacks against her, and the police did not act.
‘Turning point in Odisha political history’
Describing the Baranga gangrape as a “turning point” in the Odisha political history, political parties in the state hailed the arrest of Biswal. A perception that the Congress party was in cahoots with criminals and did not allow police to work independently gained traction in the aftermath of the incident in 1999, which prevented the grand old party from regaining power in the state ever after.
Opposition parties, CPI, CPI(M) and Janata Dal, organised huge rallies and protests across the state after the incident, and a statewide band had been called. Patnaik had been forced to order a judicial inquiry into the incident.
Only days after the gangrape, the gruesome murders of Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons shook the state. Staines was burnt alive along with his boys in his car in a tribal village in Keonjhar. The murders increased the pressure on Patnaik to step down.
With assembly elections round the corner in 2000, Patnaik had been forced to step down as chief minister, and the Congress party replaced him with Giridhar Gamang, who was the last serving Congress chief minister of Odisha.