With proceedings of the Odisha assembly remaining paralysed for the third consecutive day on Friday over the kidnapping and murder of a woman teacher in Kalahandi, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik broke his 53-day silence on the matter and asserted that the case is being 'politicised,' while urging the Opposition to cooperate for the smooth functioning of the House.
The teacher was kidnapped and murdered on October 8, while her body was exhumed from a school playground on October 19. Two people, including the prime accused, were arrested.
Patnaik, who spoke on the issue for the first time since the murder on October 8, said, "As the chief minister, I have always ensured that the police have full functional autonomy; that they do a professional job particularly in heinous offences relating to women, and take legal action without fear or favour against anybody if there is evidence, no matter how high and mighty he is."
Ruckus was witnessed in the winter session of the assembly, which commenced on December 1, as opposition MLAs demanded the removal and arrest of minister of state for home, DS Mishra, accusing him of shielding the prime accused.
The Bharatiya Janata Party members demanded that the case be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, alleging that the state police won't be able to impartially investigate the case.
The Congress, on the other hand, staged a protest to prevent Mishra from entering the assembly premises and demanded that an Orissa high court-monitored special investigation team be formed to investigate the case.
Both the Opposition parties have been demanding Mishra's resignation ever since the prime accused escaped from police custody on October 17.
The Opposition BJP and Congress rejected Patnaik's appeal, and stuck to their demands.
Hours after Patnaik's statement in the assembly, the BJP Legislature Party members, in a press conference, instead accused the chief minister of politicising the issue by 'shielding the minister.'
"How can the state police do professional investigation against the MoS, Home? Therefore, we demand that the case be handed over to the CBI after minister has been sacked," Opposition Chief Whip and BJP leader Mohan Majhi said.
Senior BJP member and former minister J N Mishra criticised Patnaik's statement, saying, "I want to ask the CM whether had he not given an Odisha bandh call to protest a gangrape case in 1999? Was it not politicisation of a heinous crime against a woman?"
Congress Legislature Party leader Narasingha Mishra also stood firm on the demand to sack Mishra.
"Patnaik's statement was not based on facts. The investigation into the murder case is not being done in a professional manner. Therefore, we demand a high court monitored Special Investigation Team probe after the minister has been sacked," he said.
Describing the incident as "sad and unfortunate", Patnaik said, "We are deeply anguished and pained by this heinous crime. She was a young and bright daughter of Odisha, and could have had a brilliant future. Her death is a terrible and irreparable loss. My heart goes out to the family of the victim."
He assured the assembly that his government will leave no stone unturned to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to the book in the shortest possible time, and that the case will be sent to a fast track court.
The chief minister, however, said that he, and the people of Odisha, were shocked by the manner in which such a sensitive case was 'politicised.'
"While dealing with such sensitive cases, we must never forget the family's pain and agony. Things went to such an extent that her parents had to request with folded hands not to do character assassination of their daughter or politicise her death. However, despite their appeal, politicisation of the case continues. The family wasn't allowed to mourn peacefully," he said.
Patnaik said that the state government had requested the high court to appoint a sitting or retired judge to monitor the probe into the case, and a district judge has been appointed for it.
"The entire police probe will be subjected to judicial scrutiny. We should respect and have faith in our independent judiciary," he said.
Patnaik claimed that during his 21-year-old rule, state agencies have never lacked professionalism while dealing with such sensitive cases.
"Now that the case is being monitored by the judiciary; if there is any evidence against anybody, let that be brought before the court," he said.
Patnaik strongly criticised the Congress's stir to prevent Mishra from entering the assembly.
"I am deeply concerned that there are attempts to prevent one of our colleagues – a member of the august House from discharging his duties. The Constitution has given crucial responsibility to the legislature, and its members enjoy certain safeguards and privileges for helping them discharge their duties without fear, intimidation and pressure," he said.
Patnaik, also the leader of the House, said that not allowing Mishra to enter the assembly creates a wrong precedent.
"I appeal to the respected members of the opposition parties to cooperate for the smooth functioning of the House so that people of Odisha are benefitted. I reiterate that my government is fully committed to ensuring justice to the slain woman teacher's family," he said.
The chief minister said that the state was facing a looming threat of a winter cyclone in the next 48 hours, and other issues such as sharp cut in central funds to the state, farmers' problems and price rise of fuel and other essential commodities be discussed in the assembly.
Earlier in the day, speaker SN Patro adjourned the House from 10.30 AM to 11.30 AM and then till 4 PM as BJP and Congress members created a ruckus demanding the removal of Mishra from the council of ministers.
As soon as the proceedings began, opposition legislators trooped down to the Well, urging the Speaker to take action against the minister. Some BJP MLAs sprinkled 'Gangajal' (holy water from Ganga) to purify the House which has been 'rendered impure by the tainted minister.'
"We demand Mishra's removal and CBI probe into the case. But when we raised the demands during the Question Hour, the Speaker adjourned the proceedings. The Naveen Patnaik government is shielding Mishra. We will continue our stir till our demands are met. Mishra's presence in the House in the last two days rendered it impure," Majhi said.
Outside the assembly, the BJP workers staged a protest at Master Canteen Square beating cymbals, to 'wake the state government up from its slumber.'