Odisha rape: Meeting in jail, bank transfers led police to accused

The rape case rocked Odisha in 1999 and led to the resignation of then Chief Minister J B Patnaik.

AN UNEXPECTED encounter inside a jail, a crucial mistake spotted in records, an elaborate three-month intelligence operation in an Odisha village, suspicious bank transfers — and a last-minute escape bid.

These are the key turning points on the trail that led a police team from Bhubaneswar to Lonavala in Maharashtra last weekend and finally to the prime accused in a rape case that had rocked Odisha in 1999 and led to the resignation of then Chief Minister J B Patnaik.

On Monday, Odisha Police formally recorded the arrest of Bibekananda Biswal alias Biban, 50, in Bhubaneswar after bringing him from Aamby Valley where he was working as a plumber earning Rs 17,000 a month and holding an Aadhaar card in the name of “Jalandhar Swain”.

“He was identified as Biban by multiple sources, including his family. Following identification, Biban was formally arrested and handed over to the CBI for further investigation,” said Dr Sudhanshu Sarangi, Police Commissioner, Bhubaneshwar-Cuttack.

But not without a few last-minute jitters, said an officer in Lonavala. At the workers’ barracks in Aamby Valley, Biban tried to mislead a joint police team, including officers from Maharashtra, by claiming that he did not have a cellphone, and pointed to the wrong bed fearing a search — when cornered, he even tried to flee. “He was immediately apprehended again,” said the officer.

For nearly 22 years, there had been no leads in the case — the gangrape of an IFS officer’s estranged wife in Cuttack’s Baranga — after the CBI took over the investigation in 1999 following orders from the Orissa High Court. But just three months ago, the Bhubaneswar Police Commissionerate reopened the case following a “chance meeting” between Sarangi and a co-accused at Choudwar jail in Cuttack.

Sarangi had visited the jail last November as part of a probe into an armed dacoity of Rs 12 crore from IIFL, a leading non-banking finance company. “I wanted to show the inmates some pictures of the accused in the dacoity case from a CCTV camera. That was when I came across one of the co-accused in the 1999 rape case, Dhirendra Mohanty. The jailer informed me that he was one of the oldest inmates, serving a life term. When we looked at the case file, we learnt that the main accused was still absconding,” Sarangi said.

That was the beginning of Operation Silent Viper, led by Sarangi and involving three other officers: Deputy Commissioner of Police, Cuttack; Special Squad Inspector, Cuttack; and Inspector In-charge, Baranga police station.

The case was particularly sensitive, police sources said, because of the impact it had on the state’s politics at the time. The victim had accused Patnaik and former advocate general Indrajit Ray of having played a role in the incident to intimidate her. Two years earlier, in July 1997, she had accused Ray of attempting to molest her and the Chief Minister of shielding him. In 2000, a CBI court sentenced Ray to three years rigrous imprisonment, charging him with attempted rape.

In the Baranga case, two of the accused, Mohanty and Pradip Sahu, were arrested 17 days after the incident while Biban managed to escape. In February last year, Sahu died while undergoing treatment for chest pain at a Bhubaneswar hospital.

“In all the case documents, Biban was referred to as ‘VK’. But while interacting with Dhirendra during our meeting in jail, he informed us that it was actually ‘BK’ for Baranga King,” Sarangi said.

That was the first break. The next step, an officer said, was to mobilise a network in Baranga, the area where Biban hails from, and gather information discreetly about his family. “We suspected that the family could have been in touch with him,” another officer said.

Soon, the police came to know that Biban’s wife was trying to sell a piece of land that belonged to him and had applied for a death certificate to facilitate the sale. And, a closer look at the family’s finances led them to believe that they had access to another source of income.

“Biban has a wife and two sons, with the elder son married. We learnt that none of the sons had a regular source of income or job and yet, there was a constant flow of financial support. This strengthened our suspicion that the family was in touch with Biban,” Sarangi said.

The team then zeroed in on the family’s bank details and found cash transfers of amounts ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000 to the account of Biban’s elder son.

“We activated a network in Pune to learn more about Swain. As per his Aadhaar card, he was a native of Naranpur village in Baranga, which is where Biban’s home is located. It identified his father’s name as ‘P Swain’, and the initial matched the name of Biban’s father, Purnanda Biswal. Finally, we confirmed that there was no person named Jalandhar Swain in the village,” an officer said.

On Friday, a three-member team from Odisha reached Mumbai, and a joint coordination meeting was held at the regional office of Pune Rural police in Lonavala. “We provided them local support and information,” said DySP Lonavala, Navneet Kanwat.

Dressed in plainclothes, the joint team reached Aamby Valley on Saturday, and found the name “Jalandhar Swain” after a three-hour search of employee records. They took the help of another worker from Odisha to locate the barracks where they found Biban and started questioning him.

“We said it was a routine procedure and asked for his phone. He said he did not have one. When we asked him to point to his bed, he pointed to the wrong one where we found a phone that was not working. Then, we asked another employee to call his number and found the phone ringing from another bed. We brought him to a company office around evening. While the team was preparing to leave, he tried to run out of the room,” said an officer.

Workers at the site described Biban as a “secretive person” who “avoided being photographed” and “changed his appearance at least twice”. “Once he grew his hair and kept a beard. Another time, he kept short hair and was clean-shaven,” said a worker.

Supervisors said workers from Odisha started coming to the site in groups about 10-12 years ago. “He (Biban) used to work earlier on general maintenance jobs. He took up plumbing around six years ago,” said a worker.

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