Scandal buffets Odisha palace

A scandal fuelled by suspected suicides, political connections and dramatic dismissals from a faraway hospital bed has exploded on an Odisha palace that presides over properties valued at Rs 500 crore.

By SUNIL PATNAIK
  • Published 22.08.16
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The Gajapati palace

Paralakhemundi, Aug. 21: A scandal fuelled by suspected suicides, political connections and dramatic dismissals from a faraway hospital bed has exploded on an Odisha palace that presides over properties valued at Rs 500 crore.

Once the nerve centre of the freedom movement and home to the first Prime Minister of Odisha, the historical Gajapati Palace at Paralakhemundi, 284km from Bhubaneswar, is now at the centre of a raging controversy.

The immediate flashpoint was the discovery of the bodies of the former manager of the Gajapati Palace, Ananga Manjari Patra, her sister Bijayalaxmi Patra and brother Sanjaya Patra from their house located 500 metres from the palace this afternoon. All three were unmarried siblings aged between 35 and 54.

The three are said to have committed suicide while another sibling is battling for his life. Two relatives of the Patras accused local politicians and a TV channel of tarnishing Ananga's image, which "drove them to suicide".

Ananga was the manager to Gopinath Gajapati, the head of the royal family, while her younger brother Sanjaya was the personal assistant to the patriarch. Gopinath's surname is Deo but he is referred to as the Gajapati (the king) although no such official title exists in the country now.

Ananga was also the president of the Mahila Congress in Ganjam and Gajapati districts in the mid-1990s. Gopinath, the head of the royal family, was the Congress MP from neighbouring Berhampore from 1989-96, during which period the two came to know each other.

(Then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had contested from Berhampore in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections after Gopinath vacated the seat. Rao, who had also won from Nandyal in Andhra, retained Berhampore though the Congress did not return to power at the Centre.)

The 73-year-old Gopinath is the grandson of the late Maharaja Krushna Chandra Gajapati Narayan Deo, considered an architect of modern Odisha and the first premier of the state. Krushna Chandra Gajapati had led the movement for separate statehood for Odisha.

Matters came to a head last week when Gopinath was shifted to a private hospital in Chennai after he took ill following alleged confinement by Ananga, whose rise to a position of influence in the palace after joining as a personal assistant to the MP has always been a subject of intrigue in the town.

Unconfirmed reports said rumours of "house arrest" had prompted the district administration to step in and shift the ailing Gopinath to Chennai. Gopinath was taken to Chennai probably because his daughter Kalyani, a spinster, lives in the southern city. Kalyani is taking care of her ailing father at a Chennai hospital.

Gopinath was married to Rani Purna Devi, the princess of Dharampur, in 1967. Gopinath's son Digvijay had committed suicide last year.

A dramatic element was injected from the southern city when Gopinath sacked his manager Ananga and personal assistant Sanjaya from the hospital bed.

Around the same time, Kalyani had urged chief minister Naveen Patnaik to inquire into all transactions involving royal properties over the past 35 years.

Kalyani levelled allegations of mismanagement of royal property by Ananga and her brothers.

Last week, when the palace intrigue became public, people loyal to the royal family took to the streets. Local MLA and Congress leader K. Surya Rao and his supporters demanded the arrest and dismissal of Ananga and Sanjaya.

"Gopinath Gajapati was seriously ill and was kept in solitary confinement inside the palace by Ananga Manjari," said Rao.

Over the years, Gopinath had switched his political affiliation more than once, switching from the Congress to the BJP and then to the BJD that now rules Odisha. The state government had decided to pick up his hospital bills and health minister Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak had called on Gopinath in Chennai.

Gopinath has a sibling, Sarbajgan Jagannath Narayana Deo, but the brothers are locked in a legal dispute over the royal properties valued at Rs 500 crore.