The arrest of Biban Biswal from Aamby Valley near Lonavala, Maharashtra, did not get as much play in national media as it ought to have. Biswal, the prime accused in the 1999 gangrape case in Odisha, had successfully evaded arrest for 22-long years. But thanks to Bhubaneswar-Cuttack Police Commissioner Sudhanshu Sarangi’s determined effort, the long arm of the law finally caught up with Biswal, who was working as a plumber with a forged identity.
Sarangi, who had helmed the top-secret operation called Silent Viper, said, while it was commendable the way his team worked for three months and managed to nab Biswal, he thought it was his duty as a police officer to bring to justice the perpetrator of such a heinous crime. Biswal must not go unpunished and the survivor, who faced such brutality, must get justice, he said.
Sarangi during a visit to the Choudwar jail in Cuttack last November, had a chance meeting with one of Biswal’s accomplices, Dhirendra Mohanty, who is serving a life term. The other convict, Pradeep Sahoo, died last year. It occurred to Sarangi that the prime accused was still missing and must be tracked down at the earliest. Soon, he reopened the case that led to Biswal’s arrest.
Nine months before the super cyclone, the gang rape incident had shaken Odisha in 1999. Married off at 17, the convent-educated woman, who hailed from an affluent family, faced unspeakable torture. She was tortured and harassed for dowry by her Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer husband, who allegedly had an illicit affair with his sister-in-law. When the woman protested, the harassment intensified. The woman, a mother of two, was dubbed insane and packed off to a Ranchi psychiatry hospital and then on to a destitute home.
She filed a dowry harassment case in 1997, resulting in the arrest of her husband and his sister-in-law.
The high-profile case became a raging issue in Odisha and the woman came under tremendous pressure to drop the case. The powerful state advocate-general Indrajit Ray intervened to “settle” the matter. Ray was a close friend of the then Congress chief minister Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, better known as JB Patnaik.
Ray called her to his office and attempted to rape her. She filed a first information report (FIR) against Ray in 1997. Despite massive public outcry, Patnaik strongly defended Ray and refused to remove him.
The pressure on her to drop the charges further intensified after she called out Ray and filed the FIR. She faced rape and death threats. Not the sort to give up so easily, the woman single-handedly carried on her fight. Her children were snatched away from her and her own family had disowned her by then.
But little did anyone imagine that the threats will actually be carried out. In January 1999, while on her way to Cuttack with a journalist friend to meet her lawyer, her car was intercepted by Biswal and two others at a desolate place near Barang on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. It was pre-planned. The friend and the driver were assaulted and held at gunpoint. The attackers took turns to rape her and the ordeal lasted four hours. And all through the torture, they allegedly told her to drop the charges and lead a life of luxury or face further torture.
The horror story had sent shockwaves through the state. The woman claimed that CM Patnaik and Ray had a role in the incident to silence her. While two of Biswal’s associates were apprehended soon after and sentenced to life, the prime accused, who called himself the Barang King or BK absconded. Retired Odisha DGP A B Tripathy had filed an affidavit saying JB Patnaik and Ray were close friends and he was under pressure to go slow in the case.
Opposition parties, which were a powerful force in Odisha back in the day, joined hands and mounted pressure on the government. The case was handed to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). But the CBI could never catch Biswal.
The Congress high command woke up from its slumber and replaced Patnaik as the CM. But it was too little, too late. Patnaik, who was serving his third term after surprising everyone by returning as chief minister in 1995 was replaced by Giridhar Gamang. And that was Congress’s last act in Odisha. The gang rape, Graham Staines’s burning and the mishandling of the 1999 super cyclone, changed the script for the Congress in Odisha paving the way for the political greenhorn Naveen Patnaik in 2000 assembly elections to assume power. He has been ruling Odisha uninterrupted ever since.
Ray was sentenced to a three-year jail term but taking full advantage of the loopholes in the criminal justice system he soon got bail and even went back to court for practice without spending a single day in jail. Now, he is dead.
Ex-CM Patnaik died in 2015 after serving as Assam governor and also a Congress Working Committee (CWC) member prior to that.
Today the survivor would have been hailed as a hero for her exemplary courage of speaking truth to power and taking on her powerful adversaries and not to mention the patriarchal system against all odds. In 1999 there was no social media to amplify her horror story and start a “Justice for her” campaign.
She has already demanded the death penalty for Biswal, and Sarangi has said Odisha Police have enough proof and he would see to it that Biswal spends his entire life behind the bars after having a good time for 22 years.
Recounting her tormented life, the survivor had said in 2000, “I seek relief, support and understanding. There is still a long way to go and the struggle continues.”
The arrest of “Barang King” Biban Biswal will hopefully heal her and bring closure to one of the most heinous crimes committed in peace-loving Odisha.