New Delhi: The Orissa high court has cleared the path for the arrest of BJP national vice-president Baijayant Panda and his wife Jagi Mangat Panda in a case of alleged land fraud by a company owned by Panda. The court had earlier passed an interim order granting them protection against arrest. The Odisha Police is investigating the case under various sections of IPC and SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
On October 31, the Economic Offence Wing (EOW) of Odisha police had registered a FIR against the Pandas after one Rabindra Kumar Sethi, a former driver in Panda’s company ORTEL Communication Ltd, complained that he was forced by the Pandas to purchase 7.294 acres of land from 22 SC owners in Odisha’s Khurda district between 2010 and 2013.
Sethi had said by forcing him to make a deal, the Pandas circumvented the Odisha Land Reform Act and Land Revenue Act that barred non-Dalits to purchase land owned by Dalits without the permission of the district collector . The FIR notes that the contentious land was purchased at almost 50% of the market value by Sethi, and was subsequently taken over for real estate development by Odisha Infratech Pvt Ltd (OIPL), in which Pandas have a 90% stake, for Rs 65 lakh. The FIR also says that Sethi did not receive any amount for the transaction.
Sethi first went to the Khurda district collector to complain against this alleged illegal land deal. The collector recommended a Crime Branch enquiry which found these allegations of fraud to be true and arrested two persons – Manoranjan Sarangi, a director of OIPL, and another employee Siba Prasad Srichandan.
According to a senior police officer who spoke to The Wire, both the arrested persons have stated that they were not full-time employees of OIPL and that “all decisions and actions were undertaken as per the direction and instruction of the OIPL owners Baijayant Panda and Jagi Mangat Panda”.
The court order
The case is now being investigated by the EOW under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including non-bailable provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The Pandas also stand accused of having violated provisions of Scheduled Caste Atrocities Act, Odisha Land Reforms Act, Prohibition of Benami Properties Transaction Act and Income Tax Act. The EOW found that most of the transactions during the land deal were in cash.
Against this backdrop, the high court, on Friday, vacated its own previous interim order of November 5 that granted the Pandas protection against arrest, and refused to intervene with the case in case of any impending arrest of the duo.
“I am not inclined to interfere with the criminal proceedings, more particularly at the stage of pending investigation. Accordingly, the prayer of the petitioners is rejected and the criminal Misc. case is dismissed. All interim orders passed stand vacated,” Justice B.P Routray said in his order while dismissing the plea made by the Pandas for quashing the FIR.
The court order also noted, “In the context of the allegations, it is seen that the petitioners used opposite party No. 3 (Sethi) as an instrument or to say, as the ‘sham purchaser’ to get the land in their favour. When the investigation is still continuing and at the beginning [initial] stage, the contention that materials are not justifying for investigation is thus not found correct. It also cannot be said that the allegations are so absurd or inherently improbable.”
The contentious seven acre of land that Sethi purchased lay sandwiched between a 100-acre plot that the Pandas owned and were developing in Sarua, Khurda. Around 10 acres of land in the middle of this stretch belonged to Dalits which only a Dalit could have bought, the police official said.
“Sethi was only earning Rs 8,000 per month as salary, but lakhs of rupees were transacted in these land purchases,” he told The Wire.
“There is no financial transaction between Sethi and the people he purportedly bought land from,” a senior Odisha Police officer told the Indian Express. “No money was paid to Sethi by Pandas for further purchase either. Everything is just on paper, indicating (alleged) cash transactions and culpability under Benami Transactions Act. Sethi and others (from whom land was purchased) have already recorded their statements before a magistrate,” he added.
Odisha’s Land Revenue Act empowers the district collector to ensure that if at all Dalits sell a part of their land to non-Dalits, they do not do so under duress. “That is why they (Pandas) used Sethi, as he had some ancestral land of his own. Under the law, you can sell part of your land holding to a non-Dalit person, but not the entire possession,” the police official told the national daily.
The police official who spoke to The Wire said that a similar “benaami” land deal in which Pandas may have had a role to play have also come to light in Puri district three days ago. “It is possible that the Pandas used the same modus operandi across many places of Odisha,” he said.
Pandas hit back
In a statement released on Saturday, Jagi Panda said, “There has been no wrongdoing by us and we are confident that this will ultimately be proved in the courts.” She said that the allegations against them were nothing but the Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s “vendetta politics”.
Even in their plea to the court, the Pandas had said that the FIR was a result of “malice” and “ulterior motive” of the Biju Janata Dal, which Baijayant Panda left to join the BJP ahead of the 2019 parliamentary polls.
In court, the Pandas had said that SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was added to the case only to deny them anticipatory bail. However, the court rejected their plea and said that the offences made out in the FIR “definitely fall within” the Atrocities Act. The Pandas also said that the FIR was filed vindictively as OTV, a news channel owned by them, had been broadcasting critical reports against state government’s failures, including its recent coverage showing corruption in management of COVID-19 relief funds.
“In the past two months Odisha police have registered about 20 false cases against OTV, its sister companies, employees and my family members, including my 84-year-old father…. We vehemently deny these allegations…. We assert that these cases are being orchestrated by the 21-year-old BJD government in Odisha, because of CM Naveen Patnaik’s personal vendetta against us,” Jagi Panda said in her statement.
“It is no secret that ever since my husband Jay Panda started speaking out about BJD’s widespread corruption five years ago, and thereafter joined the BJP, the Odisha government and BJD have been targeting and harassing our family members and organisations and entities connected with us, as well as actual violence against us on several locations.
Meanwhile, BJP leaders like Ram Madhav have come out in support of Baijayant Panda, and have accused the Odisha government of vindictive action against him.
Orissa Govt is doing to OTV what Maharashtra did to Republic. Promoter of d channel n wife of BJP leader @PandaJay, @JagiPanda n her staff at OTV r facing harassment from police clearly bcoz of political vendetta. CM Naveen as a progressive leader shud not allow this in his state pic.twitter.com/iyX4QIeUhB
— Ram Madhav (@rammadhavbjp) November 22, 2020