Odisha forgives Abhijit Iyer-Mitra: The timing of the pardon and mercurial system of punishing dissent merits examination

Devparna Acharya
First arrested in September this year for alleged derogatory comments on the Konark Sun Temple, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra was granted bail by the Orissa High Court on Wednesday. Iyer-Mitra was lodged at the Jharpada Jail in Bhubaneswar and was in in judicial custody since 24 October.

First arrested in September this year for alleged derogatory comments on the Konark Sun Temple, Delhi-based journalist and defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra was granted bail by the Orissa High Court on Wednesday. Iyer-Mitra was lodged at the Jharpada Jail in Bhubaneswar and was in in judicial custody since 24 October.

However, before the court's decided to grant bail to the journalist, Odisha government led by Naveen Patnaik decided to withdraw cases against Iyer-Mitra. The move reportedly came after Mitra, who is currently in jail, had made an appeal to the Odisha government to consider withholding sanction to prosecute him in certain criminal cases.

Iyer-Mitra, who faced severe backlash for his comments on Konark Temple, also garnered quite a support base from those who were outraged at the government-chosen retribution that the journalist receieved. The video, released in September, 2018, showed Iyer-Mitra giving an informal tour of the Konark temple where the journalist said, "Ye temple nahi, humple hai... jahan log hump kar rahein hain..."

Not only did the Odisha government have the journalist arrested, the state Assembly also passed a privilege motion against him and for what? For looking at our own ancestral liberty of thought and joking about it in the context of the troubled times we live in €" times when saying anything against Hindus/Hinduism/Hindu culture is considered to be an act of treason and betrayal to our country.

In addition, he made known his low opinion of Odias and their political leadership, for which he was summoned before a privileges committee of the state Assembly. In an exemplary display of unity, the ruling Biju Janata Dal and the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress all backed this action.

Then why did the ruling BJD led by Patnaik decide to suddenly go easy on Iyer-Mitra? Could it have to do anything with the fact that the chief minister has been trying to pitch Odisha as a potential hub for investors. Inaugurated in November, Patnaik's flagship summit Make in Odisha offered fiscal incentives in the form of capital subsidies, power tariff reimbursement and training subsidies to manufacturing units. "This is arguably the best policy in the country," experts were quoted as saying.

Apart from this, the state is also hosting the Hockey World Cup. Reportedly, at least 200 journalists have been accredited, of whom more than 40 are foreigners, and more are due to attend the knockout games. As reports have noted it is difficult to estimate how wide the foreign journalists' reach is but the International Hockey Federation (FIH) has secured television coverage in 194 countries, a 150 percent increase over 2014. Such statistics do impact a second-tier rising city because branding is everything.

"Bhubaneswar is a city ready to welcome the world," authorities were quoted as saying. Clearly, controversies don't form part of that welcome kit.

The timing of the pardon does raise a few questions especially when members of the ruling party were hell-bent on sending Iyer-Mitra to prison under Section 295A of the IPC which deals with 'deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.'

Of course, there were a few things which happened before the arrest of Iyer-Mitra which makes this case curious and his sudden-state-offered-pardon extremely suspicious. More than Iyer-Mitra's video, it was a helicopter ride with former close aide of Patnaik, Jay Panda, that probably irritated the BJD. From Abhijit's twitter updates, it seems that a day before the Konark episode, he had taken a joy ride in Panda's helicopter, flying around Chilika lake. BJP had suspended Panda in May this year.

Whatever the reason maybe behind Iyer-Mitra's pardon and bail, it's definitely not out of the goodness of the  Patnaik-led Odisha government's heart. Considering the amount of outrage that was heaped on Iyer-Mitra for the video, the apology came without any particular fuss. It also highlights how mercurial our system is €" punishments are dished out as easily as they are withdrawn.

Also See: Abhijit Iyer-Mitra admitted to Odisha hospital after complaining of stomach pain; scribe has been in judicial custody since 24 October

Orissa High Court grants bail to Abhijit Iyer-Mitra day after state govt pardons journalist for 'derogatory' comments

Odisha government pardons journalist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra for derogatory remarks, withdraws all cases against him

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