Op-Ed: Stock-taking of Ratna Bhandar Brooks No Delay

By Sandeep Sahu

It’s a real anti-climax. More than two months after they were found ‘missing’ and nine days after the Odisha government ordered a judicial inquiry to probe the circumstances under which they went missing, the keys to the Ratna Bhandar of the Jagannath Temple in Puri were suddenly found late on Wednesday evening. But far from bringing closure to the ugly controversy over the missing key, the recovery has actually thrown up more questions than it has answered.

How did the keys, supposed to be kept in the strong room of the district treasury, land in the record room meant for storage of revenue records? Where did the ‘duplicate’ keys come from when temple rules have no provision for any duplicates? Duplicate or otherwise, will these keys actually open the treasure trove? Even assuming that they keys found on Wednesday are indeed the keys to the Ratna Bhandar, would it not have been more prudent to wait to check that out before going public with the news? How come the district administration could not trace the keys for over two months? Did they not search the record room before? If not, why not? And lastly, what happens to the Inquiry Commission set up on June 4 now?

The proper course for the Collector would have been to inform the temple administration about the recovery and wait till the keys were tried out before breaking the news to the world. But it appears that the beleaguered Collector allowed his sense of relief at finding the keys to get the better of his sense of judgment. If it was meant to reassure the people that all is well, it has had the exact opposite effect. It has given rise to suspicion that the keys were never lost in the first place and were put back in place when things got too hot to handle. Conspiracy theorists are having a field day speculating about the possible link between the recovery of the keys on Wednesday to the change of guard at the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) two days before.

The state government has clearly landed in a real mess in the missing key affair, one it could have done without. But it has no one but itself to blame for the mess. Had it been upfront about the missing key, taken the people into confidence and informed the High Court about it immediately after the discovery that the keys were missing, it could have saved itself the embarrassment that followed. But more than the embarrassment, what is hurting the government at the moment is the near total loss of confidence among crores of Jagannath lovers about its intentions. The perception is growing that it has a lot to hide on the issue.

And there are sound reasons for the people viewing the government’s moves with suspicion. For nearly two months after it was discovered that the keys were missing, it neither lodged an FIR nor initiated an administrative inquiry to trace the keys and fix responsibility. It acted only after OTV broke the minutes of the emergency meeting of the temple committee to discuss the issue of the missing keys held on April 4, the day a 17-member ‘inspected’ the Ratna Bhandar with the help of search lights, which recorded, among other things, the concern expressed by the Gajapati King. And when it did, it chose to go for a judicial inquiry of all things, deepening the impression that it was keen to sweep the whole thing under the carpet. The sheer incongruity of the decision to go for a Commission of Inquiry, perhaps the first in the country on a missing key, takes one’s breath away.

The state government has already done immense damage to its credibility by the way it has handled the matter of the missing key. Unfortunately for it, the mishandling of l’ affaire missing key has only served to focus attention back on its grossly inept handling of the Nabakalebara in 2015, the biggest event in the Jagannath Temple in the 18 years of the BJD government. Suddenly, questions are being asked about the report of the inquiry conducted by the then chief administrator of SJTA Suresh Mohapatra into the monumental fiasco of the Brahma Parivartan, the all-important ritual of the Nabakalebara.

As anyone can see, it is damage control time for the government now. If it is really keen to prevent any further erosion of public confidence in its ability to handle the affairs of the 12th century shrine, it needs to do two things urgently. First, it should either wind up the judicial commission or set fresh terms of reference asking it to fix responsibility for the failure to trace the keys for two months after they were found missing. Second, it must order the opening of the Ratna Bhandar immediately – even if the keys found on Wednesday are not the real ones – and making of a fresh inventory to check if everything recorded in the previous inventory made in 1978 is in order. It has to be a fully transparent process, preferably video recorded, which inspires confidence and not a hush-hush one. Once this exercise is done, the findings must be shared immediately with the people, whether they throw up any pilferage or not. If there is discrepancy in the two inventories, a credible inquiry, ideally by an agency not under the control of the state government, must be instituted to identify and punish the wrongdoers. If everything is found in order, it would at least put on an end to loose talk about gold and diamond ornaments worth crores having been pilfered by a criminal nexus of servitors, temple officials and politicians.

Stock taking of the Ratna Bhandar brooks no delay.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)