As Loha Sahoo, 85, talks about her 34-year-old son Niranjan’s death, his wife Tapaswini and three children sit impassively on the floor next to her wicker cot in their two-room shanty in Phatamunda village in Subarnapur district of Odisha. They only flinch when Niranjan’s elder brother Nakula predicts a “tough” future.
Weighing on the minds of Loha and Nakula is how Niranjan died.
“People say he threw eggs and rocks at (Chief Minister) Naveen Patnaik’s bus when he passed by Loisingha (in the neighbouring district of Bolangir) on April 15. It is unlikely because Niranjan was not interested in political activities,” says Nakula. The family has alleged that within 10 days of being beaten up by police, Niranjan died of “unknown internal injuries”.
The family depends on a two-acre farm for a living, and now it is up to Nakula, 44, to support both his family of four and Niranjan’s children, who are between the ages of eight and 14.
In Odisha, authorities have been previously accused of high-handedness to ensure protesters don’t pelt eggs or wave black flags at the Chief Minister.
A senior police officer said, “An assistant commissioner of police and inspector were suspended and transferred in 2015 after eggs were thrown at the CM’s vehicle in Bhubaneswar. In 2016, former NSUI president Satyajeet Patnaik and in 2018, Rajeshwari Kamila, the wife of a BJP worker, were charged with attempt to murder for throwing eggs at the CM in Bhubaneswar and Balasore.”
Senior police officers say Patnaik, who enjoys Z-plus protection, generally moves in a convoy of eight vehicles, including an advance pilot car, a pilot car, a vehicle with the carcade-in-charge, a civil (dress) protection detail, a car with uniformed protection detail and a vehicle with jammers. In the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections that got over on April 29, Patnaik, who is seeking a fifth term in the state, took out the first bus yatra of his political career.
Former Janata Dal MP from Bolangir Balgopal Mishra, in whose house Niranjan was allegedly beaten up by police, denies the 34-year-old pelted Patnaik’s cavalcade with eggs. Saying police had no warrant to enter his house, Mishra says, “I was an eyewitness. Niranjan was inside my house (in Bolangir’s Salebhata village). Police had cordoned us off from all sides before the CM was to pass by. We had an argument with police, which objected to us putting up black flags above my house as a protest against the BJD’s decision to field Pradeep Behera, a non-local candidate, from the Loisingha Assembly constituency.”
Kunja Tripathy, a paan shop owner in Salebhata, says. “Seventeen of us, including Niranjan, were in Balgopal babu’s house and had put up black flags. None of us had pelted eggs or stones. Police entered and beat up everyone, and then again at the Loisingha police station.”
Bolangir SP Siva Subramani and Loisingha police did not respond to calls and messages.
“We have registered a UD (unnatural death) case. Doctors have told police they suspect death due to heat wave. Postmortem results are awaited,” says Subarnapur SP Debi Prasad Dash, adding Nakula himself wrote in the inquest report that Niranjan died due to heat stroke.
Dr Santanu Meher of the Dunguripalli Community Health Centre (CHC) at Subarnapur told The Sunday Express, “His brother brought Niranjan and explained that he had collapsed while walking outside in the daytime. Our CHC has no post-mortem facilities, but based on this information, I made a provisional diagnosis that death may be due to heat stroke.”
Nakula insists Niranjan had been on complete bed rest since April 16, and that his body had marks of beating. Asked why the family did not take Niranjan to hospital immediately, Nakula says, “We have no money. Niranjan suffered and died.”