Motive Unclear as Police Investigate Killing of Odisha Health Minister Naba Kisore Das

Though Gopal Das was subjected to intensive questioning on Monday, the policeman is yet to provide a clear clue about his motives.

Bhubaneswar: The killing of Odisha health and family welfare minister Naba Kisore Das, who was shot from point-blank range by an assistant sub-inspector (ASI) of police in the western Odisha town of Brajarajnagar on Sunday, January 29, has sent shockwaves through the state.

However, even as the minister’s mortal remains were consigned to flames at his native village in Jharsuguda district on January 30, mystery continues to surround his death as the motive behind the accused ASI Gopal Das’s action is still unclear. This is the first case of a minister being shot dead in the state.

Though Das was subjected to intensive questioning by Crime Branch additional director general (ADG) of police Arun Bothra in Jharsuguda on Monday, the ASI, who had started his career as a constable, is yet to provide a clear clue about his motives. However, the FIR filed in connection with the case by the inspector in-charge (IIC) of Brajarajnagar police station, Pradyumna Swain, is very clear that Das had fired at the minister with his 9 mm service pistol with the intention to kill.

According to the FIR, the minister was scheduled to inaugurate the office of Chairperson/Vice Chairperson of Brajrajnagar in the Lift and Shift Building at Gandhi Chowk in the town on Sunday. Das, the ASI of Gandhi Chowk Police Outpost, was deployed for traffic clearance duty in the area. However, as the minister was stepping out of his car at the venue of the function, Das came close to him and opened fire at him from close range with his service pistol. A case has been registered under Section 307 of the IPC and 27 (1) of the Arms Act.

The minister, whose chest the bullet pierced, was first rushed to the local hospital from where he was airlifted to Bhubaneswar. He succumbed to his wounds at a private hospital in the capital city on the same night.

According to the FIR, the accused ASI fired two rounds from his pistol at the minister. Another person, identified as Jibanlal Nayak (Rintu) of Kalinagar also sustained a bullet injury. The accused also fired two rounds when the IIC and a constable tried to overpower him. The IIC and another person also sustained injuries in the firing.

ASI was undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder

Though the accused ASI has no known past record of violence, his wife Jayanti, who lives in Berhampur with her family, told a local news channel that her husband was undergoing treatment for mental problems for the past many years. “He was under treatment but did not take medicines regularly,” said Jayanti, adding that even though Das showed signs of violence and restlessness at times he had no animosity towards the minister and had never said anything against him.

The head of the psychiatry department at the MKCG Medical College and Hospital, Berhampur, Dr Chandra Sekhar Tripathy, told reporters that the ASI was suffering from bipolar disorder. “He used to get angry very easily and was undergoing treatment for this,” said Tripathy, adding that Das had first visited his clinic about eight to ten years ago. The doctor was not sure if the officer was taking his medicines regularly. Bipolar disorder causes extreme mood swings ranging from hyper-mania to depression.

Even Gupteswar Bhoi, the sub-divisional police officer of Brajrajnagar, appeared unsure about the motives of the accused. “ The motive behind the attack remains unclear. We are investigating the matter,” he said.

While leaders across the political spectrum have expressed grief and shock at the minister’s killing, which they have condemned unequivocally, most of them have pointed to serious security lapses in the entire episode.

Leader of opposition and Sambalpur MLA Jayanarayan Mishra questioned the wisdom of issuing a firearm to a police officer who was undergoing treatment for mental illness. “How can you issue an official weapon to such a person?” asked Mishra pointing accusing fingers at the government. Former Congress MLA Dr Lalatendu Mohapartra, who has known Naba Das since his days in the Congress, also appeared perplexed. “Either they were not aware of his (the accused’s) mental state or they acted in an irresponsible manner by issuing him a weapon. A precious life has been lost,” said Mohapatra.

Das’s meteoric rise

A powerful political leader from Jharsuguda, Naba Das began his political career as a youth leader of the Student Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), during his college days at Sambalpur’s Gangadhar Meher College, where he studied law. He later joined the Congress and became the vice president of Odisha NSUI and Odisha Youth Congress.

His rise in Congress was proverbially meteoric – he was first made the State Congress vice president and then working president. He won the Jharsuguda assembly seat on the Congress’s ticket in 2009 and 2014 by defeating the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate Kishore Kumar Mohanty. Bollywood actors Shakti Kapoor and Asrani were among those who campaigned in 2009.

In 2019, he shifted allegiance to the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD and won the Jharsuguda seat on the ruling party’s ticket. Bollywood actors Suniel Shetty and Mahima Chaudhry had campaigned for him in these elections. He was made the health minister of the state in 2019 and retained his portfolio even after the chief minister overhauled his cabinet.

A businessman-turned-politician, 61-year-old Das was the second richest minister in the state with declared assets worth Rs 34 crore. He owned a fleet of cars and also three firearms – including a revolver, a rifle and a double-barrel gun. He had grabbed the headlines recently for donating an urn made of gold and silver worth around Rs 1 crore to a temple in Maharashtra on Triveni Amavasya. He, however, claimed that the entire donation to the Shani Temple at Shinganapur was around Rs 10 lakh.

Not first politician to be targeted

Since Naba Das was a sitting minister, his killing has expectedly sent shockwaves through the state, forcing the chief minister to order a Crime Branch probe. But this certainly is not the first case of an attack on a politician in the state. One of the most sensational attacks was on the ruling BJD MLA Jagabandhu Majhi back in 2011. Majhi, an MLA from the Umerkote assembly constituency, was gunned down on September 24, 2011 in his constituency while he was handing over land documents to members of tribal communities in Nabarangpur district. Later, Maoists claimed responsibility for his killing, accusing him of tarnishing their image by collecting money from people in their name.

Former Puri MLA and minister Maheswar Mohanty, a powerful BJD leader, was shot at when he was the law, culture and tourism minister of the state in 2014. Two bullets were fired at him – one hitting his shoulder and another his arm – while he was returning home on his scooter at night. He survived and his assailants were later arrested by the police.

Senior BJD leader and minister Sudam Marndi was fired upon in his native Mayurbhanj district in 2009 when he was a Lok Sabha member on the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) ticket. Alleged Maoists had targeted him during his visit to a local football tournament, where he was the guest of honour.

Former Congress MLA from Keonjhar Dhanurjay Sidhu was shot at by unidentified assailants near the mining town of Barbil on February 26 in 2007. The gun attack took place when he was travelling in his car. Some motorcycle-borne assailants sprayed bullets at his vehicle near Bhadrasahi Chhak, about 6 km from Barbil town. He was rushed to the government hospital at Barbil and later shifted to Tisco hospital at Joda where he was operated upon. He survived the attack.