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Sandeep Sahu

It is a fraud on people. First, the then chief administrator of the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) Suresh Mohapatra, for reasons that have never been explained, took over two years to complete the investigation into the fiasco in the all-important Brahma Parivartan ritual of the Holy Trinity during the Nabakalebara in 2015. [Considering that the whole thing took place under his watch, entrusting Mohapatra with the probe into it was a complete travesty of all principles of natural justice in the first place.] Next, a three-member sub-committee took another year to ‘review’ the findings of the inquiry by Mohapatra. And when the report was finally discussed in the Temple Management Committee on Thursday, the latter decided that the findings cannot be made public, not even under RTI!

Millions of Jagannath loving people, who had waited with bated breath to find out what exactly happened during that fateful night of June 15-16, 2015, must be feeling cheated at this brazen attempt to push the whole thing under the carpet. The ground on which the decision to keep the much-awaited report under wraps was taken was laughable to say the least. “The report cannot be made public since it relates to secret rituals and tradition of the temple,” incumbent chief administrator Pradeep Mohapatra told newsmen after the meeting of the Temple Management Committee. But who is asking for the ‘secret’ rituals to be made public, Mr. Mohapatra? All that the people are interested in is what transpired during the ritual; why was the ritual that must take place in the dead of the night as per temple traditions conducted the next afternoon and who were the servitors who created the mess. How the answer to any or all of these questions can violate temple tradition is beyond me.

I checked out the grounds on which information can be denied under the RTI Act to find out if the ‘secrecy’ of the temple rituals constitutes one such ground. I found none among the 15 grounds on which information can be denied to an RTI applicant. More importantly, I found Sec 8 (2) of the Act, which makes it abundantly clear that the decision of the temple committee was taken without due deliberations. Here is what this particular section says; “Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub-section (I), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.” The committee and the temple administration obviously think making the probe report is not a matter of ‘public interest’, but I have no doubt whatsoever that crores of Jagannath devotees have a completely different view on the issue. If such a major, unpardonable breach in the ritual that takes place once every 12 or 19 years is not a matter of public interest, only Lord Jagannath knows what ‘public interest’ is! The decision is certain to be challenged in court and I have little doubt that the verdict of the court will leave the SJTA, the temple management committee and the state government red-faced.

Curiously, even as he announced that the inquiry report cannot be made public, the temple administrator revealed that 10-15 servitors have been found guilty for the fiasco and disciplinary action would be taken against them. If the SJTA, which was authorized by the management committee to initiate action against the guilty at Thursday’s meeting, makes good its promise, it will give rise to a strange situation. The people will inevitably come to know the servitors responsible for the Brahma Parivartan mess, but not what they did to deserve the punishment!

But I have a hunch such a situation may not arise at all. If its past conduct is anything to go by, the SJTA may not take any action against the erring sevayats. [After all, the suspension of the two sevayats by the temple administration in the immediate aftermath of the fiasco – the father-son duo of Kashinath and Jayakrushna Damohapatra – was revoked by the SJTA on the eve of the Rath Yatra in 2016, even before the inquiry by the chief administrator was complete!] Even if it does take some action, it would be of a kind that the people would never know about it. In any case, the very fact that the guilty would be served notices ‘within three months’ suggests that the administrator is doing everything it can to postpone action till after the elections.

The fact of the matter is the SJTA has bungled big time – not just in this case, but also in the loss of the Ratna Bhandar keys. And caught with its pants down, it is now trying desperately to hush up the whole thing. If insiders are to be believed, the state government is wary of taking any action against the guilty, most of whom are believed to be aligned with the ruling party, in an election year.

Lord Jagannath must be fidgeting in his Ratna Simhaasan at this laughable attempt to keep the shenanigans of those who violated His key ritual ‘secret’.

(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)

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