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Row over Sambit Patra’s Comment on Lord Jagannath, Modi Rakes up Missing Keys of Temple Treasury Issue

Row over Sambit Patra’s Comment on Lord Jagannath, Modi Rakes up Missing Keys of Temple Treasury Issue

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, May 20: As a wave of indignation spread across the country over his close aide Sambit Patra, the BJP candidate for the Puri Lok Sabha seat, holding Lord Jagannath “a Modi Bhakt,” the Prime Minister Narendra Modi raked up a six year old issue of “missing keys” of Puri temple’s “Ratna Bhandar” to try to corner the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government in Odisha and its chief minister Naveen Patnaik.

Addressing a public meeting in Puri, the seat of Lord Jagannath, Mr Modi on Monday raked up the issue of Ratna Bhandar keys to stoke a controversy alleging the BJD had suppressed the judicial commission report.

“When the keys of houses are lost, we pray to Lord Jagannath and find them within one or two hours with the Lord’s blessing. But the keys of Lord Jagannath Ratna Bhandar are missing, and it has been six years now. The report of the commission of inquiry into the missing keys of Ratna Bhandar has been suppressed for six years as the keys have gone to Tamil Nadu,” alleged Mr Modi, while promising to make the report of the judicial report public after coming to power in Odisha. Reference apparently was to Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma making wild allegations against BJD accusing Tamil Nadu-born VK Pandian, a close aide of Mr Patnaik, of hiding the keys.

In April 2018, officials of the temple could not find the keys of the Ratna Bhandar, situated near the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, as they proceeded to do an inspection of its structural condition as per an order of the Orissa high court. Following a hue and cry, Mr Patnaik had ordered a judicial inquiry into the matter and the commission submitted a 324-page report in November 2018. The report is yet to be made public. Curiously, days after the judicial inquiry was ordered, the then Puri district Collector mysteriously found an envelope with “duplicate keys of inner Ratna Bhandar” written on it adding fuel to the lingering controversy over the treasure trove.

The attempt to raise a controversy over the missing keys followed a political row created over comments by Mr Patra, one of the national spokespersons of the BJP, that Lord Jagannath was a “Modi Bhakt.” “Lakhs of people have gathered here to see PM Modi. Jagannath is Modi’s bhakt and we are all PM Modi’s family. I cannot control my emotions and I think today is a momentous day for all Odias,” said Mr Patra.

It drew an immediate condemnation from Naveen Patnaik, who is hoping for a sixth consecutive term in the state. “Mahaprabhu Shree Jagannatha is the Lord of Universe. Calling Mahaprabhu a bhakt of another human being is an insult to the Lord. This has hurt the sentiments and demeaned the faith of crores of Jagannatha bhaktas and Odias across the world,” Mr Patnaik posted on social media.

“The Lord is the greatest Symbol of Odia Asmita. Calling Mahaprabhu a bhakt of another human being is totally condemnable. I strongly denounce the statement made by the BJP Puri Lok Sabha candidate and I appeal to the BJP to keep the Lord above any political discourse. By this you have deeply hurt Odia Asmita and this will be remembered and condemned by people of Odisha for a very long time,’ his post read.

Congress’s Supriya Shrinate also joined issue, posting, “Lord Jagannath is a devotee of Modi… What has happened to the BJP people? Such an insult to our beloved God? this arrogance will come to an end.” Mr Patra promptly issued a clarification that it was a mere “slip of tongue” but the wave of outrage continued.

A post by Kerala Congress read, “Sambit Patra says that Prabhu Jagannath is a Bhakt of Modi. @sambitswaraj, God sends no one away empty, except those who are full of themselves.” “According to Sambit Patra – “Modi’s bhakt is Jagannath”.. It’s a direct attack on Odia Asmita…… We want Sambit to apologies with folded hands in front of National Media and Each and every citizen of Odisha.  It’s very derogatory… You should mind your language,” Odisha Congress posted on X. On social media, many demanded a public apology from the BJP leader.

Mr Modi made no reference in his subsequent meetings to Mr Patra’s comment on Lord Jagannath but raked up the issue of missing keys. On May 11 too, addressing an election rally in Bolangir, Modi had asked if the state administration claims to have discovered duplicate keys for the Ratna Bhandar, how were they created? “There’s uncertainty surrounding whether they were utilised or not,” Modi said.

On May 15, Union home minister Amit Shah told a public meeting in Cuttack that the BJP government if voted to power would make public the report of the judicial commission set up to probe the missing keys of Ratna Bhandar. While launching the election manifesto for BJP in the state assembly polls early this month, party president JP Nadda said after BJP becomes victorious on June 4, BJP will initiate an investigation into the missing key of the Ratna Bhandar and procure the key while promising inventory of the jewlleries kept there.

BJP leaders like Shah and Nadda too have promised to open all the four gates of the temple easing the process of devotees who now can enter through the lion gate of the temple. The single gate entry has made it difficult for old devotees who wait for hours under a hot Sun.

Officially, BJD has not responded to the allegations. But a senior BJD leader said the party would rather ignore the accusations as the state government in March this year constituted a 12-member committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice Arijit Pasayat to supervise the inventory of Ratna Bhandar following the verdict by the Orissa high court over the issue last year.

“We know the issue would not have any bearing on the outcome of elections. Let BJP leaders and PM Modi make allegations,” said a BJD leader.

State BJP leaders, however, said as Modi has a very high appeal among people of the state, the allegations over Ratna Bhandar keys going missing would strike a chord. “The Lord is part and parcel of the social, religious and cultural ethos of the people of the state. Most politicians, including chief minister Naveen Patnaik, start their election campaigns seeking his blessings. Did not BJD try to gain political capital out of the Jagannath Parikrama project (by creating a corridor around the temple boundary wall for the devotees) early this year? Each and every Odia has a right to know about the treasure of Lord and whether they are safe or not,” said BJP leader Bhartruhari Mahtab.

The Ratna Bhandar has two chambers – ‘Bhitar Bhandar’ (Inner Treasury) and ‘Bahar Treasury’ (Outer Treasury). In accordance with the provisions of Sri Jagannath Temple Rules, 1960, the articles in Ratna Bhandar are classified under three categories – articles that are kept in Bhitar Bhandar and never used (category-I); those that are used only on ceremonial or festive occasion (category-II); and those that are for daily use of the deities (category-III).

According to the Jagannath Temple Act, 1955, the Ratna Bhandar needs to be opened for inventory every three years. The treasury was audited for the last time between May 13 and July 23, 1978. According to Madala Panji, the official chronicle of the temple, King Anangabhima Deva had donated nearly 1.5 quintals of gold for preparing the ornaments of the three deities. In an affidavit filed in high court last month, the temple administration said there was gold jewellery weighing about 149.47 kg and silver jewellery weighing 198.79 kg and utensils in the Ratna Bhandar.



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