Down Memory Lane: When An Unconventional Approach Saved Rourkela The Day

After functioning as SDO of the mineral-rich and tribal-dominated subdivision of Bonai in Sundargarh district, I moved to the neighbouring subdivision of Panposh in the same district in 1970 as SDO on transfer. The subdivision was economically more prosperous and hosted large industries, including the steel and fertiliser plants. The Industrial Estate was inside the Uditnagar town. After over a year, I was made the Additional District Magistrate, Rourkela.

The city spoke many languages. In fact, among all urban centres of Odisha in the early seventies, Rourkela surely was home to people speaking the largest number of languages ranging from Odia to Malayalam, Hindi to Garhwali, Tamil to Bengali and many dialects spoken by people belonging to tribes like Munda, Kisan, Oraon, Bhuyan, Kisan etc. A few hundred families of Kumaon and Garhwal districts too lived in the city and made a homogeneous group. It soon discovered that my wife was from Garhwal district and I was treated as a son-in-law of the group. The group possessed many talents. Some members exhibited exceptional ability in reciting the Ramayan of Santh Tulsi Das and the Pahadi Samaj regularly organised Akhand Ramayan Paath. We hosted one such function in our house too. The Paath used to be accompanied by music and created a magical atmosphere the like of which I am yet to come across. The city was a safe home to different linguistic groups and faiths; it was a miniature India, I lived in for close to three years.

The city had many pandals during Durga Puja at different locations. One important location was Ambagan where one group erected the pandal while I was ADM. This created discontent among the larger linguistic group. Local administration apprehended that the issue could remain a bone of contention for years and therefore viewed the situation seriously and cautiously. After careful consideration, we had decided that the place would not be allotted in future to any organisation for puja. Just before Durga Puja was to be over, the minority group had, however, kept an Idol of Maa Kaali ready to be installed soon after the idol of Maa Durga was taken for immersion. This development didn’t remain a secret. Soon the pervading discontent turned to anger and distrust. Skirmishes started and spread. It kept the police on toes. Acts of hooliganism included throwing stones at someone’s house in the dark, physical assault by unknown people. The steel plant, as well as the fertiliser plant, ran on three shifts and this involved movement of a large number of people at night and early morning. Fear of assault had its impact on production and the state government would receive an anxious enquiry from Delhi and would like to be reassured that the situation was under control and fast returning to normal.

On one evening, temper ran high and there was a big crowd protesting against the surreptitious move by the minority group. Elaborate police arrangements had been made to prevent any untoward incident. The local administration had already decided to take control of the new idol and place it in a safe place. Gauging the mood of the crowd, I addressed them over the loudspeaker and assured them that the administration respected their sentiment and would do its best to avert action by anyone that would hurt it. This assurance had its effect and the crowd soon left peacefully on my appeal.

The police control room in Sector 19, however, functioned round-the-clock and during most parts of the day would have besides me, the Town Administrator of Steel Plant PC Hota, DIG Nilu Banerjee; Superintendent of Police Bala Subramaniam and SDO Santosh K Menon.

The city was shell shocked when the news of the rape of a girl spread like a wildfire. The victim girl was promptly shifted to the Ispat Hospital for the best medical attention. Police sprang into action with alacrity, but the pressure to bring the city back to normal mounted.

I thought of cracking the case in my way in addition to what the police was doing. Back in the office, I called BB Jena, the SUCI leader. Both as SDO and later as ADM, I had had many meetings with him on labour issues. He was a firebrand and was committed to the principles SUCI stood for. Negotiating with him on the demands of the trade union was always strenuous. He knew there was no love lost between him and the local administration. An invitation to him from me, therefore, took him by surprise. He came rushing. I needed his help, I told him. He looked embarrassed. I told him about the unfortunate case of rape and candidly said he with an army of dedicated workers and an immaculate network, had the capability to identify the culprit. I wanted a breakthrough by the evening I told him. He left, promising me all help. I went to the control room. By noon BB Jena called me and gave me details of the house where the culprit lived. He also gave me his name. I walked up to the next room and contacted VHF a mobile patrol, asked it to reach the house and arrest the youth.

There was jubilation among colleagues, particularly the elderly affable DIG Nilu Banerjee. Both PC Hota and Sanosh Menon rushed to the spot out of sheer excitement. The suspect was whisked away to the police outpost in Sector 3. A crack team started interrogating him in presence of Hota and Menon. The youth was tough, but broke down by the middle of the night and confessed. We had cracked the case within a day. I thanked BB Jena. He said it was his duty to be of help in such a situation.

The tension subsided; the new idol had been taken with due care to the police station. Mutual trust revived and the city came back to normal.

An abnormal field situation did warrant unconventional handling. This incident in the steel township at a time when the city was in tension could have snowballed into an explosive situation had the police investigation gone in a routine way and the culprit remained untraced. The speed at which the case was cracked and the culprit was arrested within hours did assure the population about the efficiency of the local administration. That helped in restoring normalcy in the steel city.

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