In a setback to BJP national vice-president Baijayant Panda, the Orissa High Court has refused to intervene in a case of alleged grabbing of land belonging to people belonging to the Dalit community by a company owned by Panda.
The case is being investigated by Odisha Police under various sections of IPC and SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The court also cleared the way for the arrest of Panda and his wife Jagi, co-promoter of the company, Odisha Infratech Pvt Ltd (OIPL), by vacating all earlier interim orders. The HC had earlier passed an interim order granting them protection against arrest.
The Pandas had moved HC for quashing the FIR against them and OIPL.
On Saturday, the Pandas denied all allegations against them and blamed the development on Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s vendetta politics. “…There has been no wrongdoing by us and we are confident that this will ultimately be proved in the courts,” Jagi Panda said in a statement.
In the order pronounced on Friday, Justice B P Routray said: “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.”
The Pandas had alleged in their petition that the FIR was a result of “malice” and “ulterior motive” at the behest of “the ruling political party”. The court rejected the allegation on the ground that “the same is not found with supported materials”.
On October 31, the Economic Offence Wing of Odisha Police had registered an FIR alleging that one Rabindra Kumar Sethi, a person from Dalit community who was once a driver with Panda’s company ORTEL Communication Ltd, was allegedly pressured by the Pandas to purchase 7.294 acres of land from 22 Dalit people in Odisha’s Khurda district between 2010 and 2013. This was to allegedly circumvent state laws that prevent purchase of land owned by Dalits by non-Dalits.
The land was allegedly purchased at 50 per cent of the market value, according to the FIR. This land was later taken over by OIPL for real estate development from Sethi for declared consideration of Rs 65 lakh, even though no amount was allegedly paid to Sethi, according to the FIR .
Sources said Sethi was shown to have purchased this patch of land — falling in between a 100-acre plot that Pandas were developing – with his monthly salary of Rs 8,000.
“There is no financial transaction between Sethi and the people he purportedly bought land from,” a senior Odisha Police officer said. “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.”
In Odisha, under the Land Revenue Act, Dalits are not allowed to sell their entire land holding to non-Dalits without permission of the district collector, which is often a cumbersome process for the state has to be fully satisfied that the sale is for a cogent reason and purpose, and not under duress. “That is why they 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 officer said.
In a statement, Jagi Panda said: “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.”
On allegations in the FIR, the court order stated, “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 Pandas argued in court that none of the offences under SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is made out or constituted, but it has been deliberately added to deny them the benefit of anticipatory bail. The court rejected this and observed that the allegations “definitely fall within” specific clauses of the Act.
The Pandas had submitted that the FIR had been registered to settle a score, as OTV, owned by them, had broadcast a conversation of two friends relating to their experience at a Covid hospital.