Political heat rises in Odisha as EOW raids Soumya-owned newspaper

Soumya Ranjan

Soumya, a BJD leader and Khandapada MLA, who has been critical of the BJD government led by Naveen Patnaik for the past some time, has also written scathing articles targeting the CM’s private secretary VK Pandian. A report by Arabinda Mohapatra

Political atmosphere in Odisha has heated up following the recent raid of Economic Offences Wing (EOW) of Odisha Police at the office of leading Odia daily Sambad which is owned and edited by senior Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader and Khandapada MLA Soumya Ranjan Patnaik.

Soumya, who happens to be the son-in-law of former chief minister JB Patnaik, who was the face of the Congress party for a long time in Odisha, has been critical of the BJD government led by Naveen Patnaik for the past some time. He also wrote scathing articles targeting the chief minister’s private secretary VK Pandian, questioning his visits to different districts which allegedly undermined the authority of elected public representatives.

The raid on the Sambal office was conducted by separate teams of EOW on September 18 after the investigating wing of the state police registered a case under different sections of the IPC including 420 (cheating) and 120-B (conspiracy). The raiding parties are reported to have seized important documents.

Sambad, on the other hand, has clarified that the paper fully cooperated with the enforcement agency. It also termed the entire issue as “a clear case of political vendetta and an attack on the freedom of the press.” It is pertinent to mention that the ruling BJD on September 12 had removed Soumya from the post of party’s vice-president after he wrote some controversial editorial pieces targeting the government and made statements on television channels raising questions on the rising influence of bureaucrats in the government and the party.

The case against Sambad was  registered following allegations that a large number of employees of the paper were forced to take personal loans under threat. The loan amount running into crores of rupees was not given to the employees but allegedly used by their employer company Eastern Media Limited. The case was registered on September 16 this year against Baijayanti Kar (HR Manager), Soumya Ranjan Patnaik (Editor) and others following a complaint by Asim Mohapatra, an ex-employee of Sambad.

Mohapatra, in his complaint, made serious allegations of bank loan fraud involving cheating, forgery and criminal intimidation.  He said he was allegedly forced by the accused to sign some bank loan forms against his will and paying capacity. He was allegedly threatened that if he did not do what he was asked to he would lose his job. Under pressure, he was forced to sign many blank forms including some blank cheques. The former employee said he did not know the details, but later came to know that a loan of Rs 5 lakh was taken in his name but it was actually used by Sambad or Eastern Media Limited.  

“He did not get a single penny out of this loan. He was forced to sign for such loans on two different occasions in two different banks,” the investigating agency said adding that more than 300 employees of Sambad/Eastern Media limited were forced to sign on forged documents and about Rs 50 crore have thus been fraudulently secured by Soumya Ranjan Patnaik using these forged papers. During the course of the investigation, the EOW is said to have examined some vital witnesses.

The raids have triggered a political storm since Soumya has been critical of not only the style of chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s functioning but also his powerful private secretary, V.K. Pandian. The Congress and the BJP described the raid as political vendetta. “Why were the Sambad employees silent for such a long time? They have suddenly woken up. Are they being prompted by someone?” asked a veteran Congress leader.

Soumya became a thorn in the government’s side after he began questioning Pandian’s style of functioning and his visits to different districts at government’s expense. Soumya’s daughter,  Tanaya Patnaik wrote on social media that the government was using pressure tactics against her father and his media house.

Significantly, the raids come at a time when major parties in the state are busy preparing for the next general election which is going to be crucial for all of them but especially for chief minister Naveen Patnaik who will be seeking a straight sixth term in office. If he succeeds, he will become the longest serving chief minister of the country.

Soumya, who is a media baron, carries the tag of being a party hopper. He has had stints in the Congress and the BJP and had also floated his own party. He joined the BJD much later and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the party. He resigned his seat and contested and won the Khandapara assembly seat on BJD ticket in 2019.  

Sources said that Soumya had high hopes of getting a ministerial berth in the Naveen Patnaik government but he was disappointed when he was not included in the ministry. After that his paper gradually started criticizing the government on one pretext or the other. While he was critical of the chief minister’s style of functioning in his columns, trouble began when he began questioning the activities of CM’s private secretary VK Pandian who has been touring districts to know about the problems of people. Soumya questioned Pandian’s style of work despite the chief minister’s statement that his private secretary was visiting the districts on his instructions.

Many BJD leaders including some ministers and MLAs have targeted Soumya for making statements which would harm the image of the government and the chief minister. They feel that the editor-cum-politician is doing this deliberately to embarrass the government ahead of the elections. “This is an attempt to tarnish the image of the government and this is being done by Soumya because he knows that in all likelihood will not get a BJD ticket to contest the next elections. He wants to put pressure on the government but such tactics do not always work,” said a senior BJD leader who did not wish to be named.