Odisha Agriculture Minister Pradeep Maharathy resigned on Sunday after sparking a controversy for his remarks on the acquittal of the accused in a gang rape-and-murder case of 2011-2012, sources said. "Maharathy has sent his resignation letter to the chief minister's office. He has resigned on moral grounds," a source in the CMO said. Maharathy said he tendered resignation on his own and there was no pressure on him to step down.
"I have high respect for the chief minister and the BJD. I resigned voluntarily to ensure there is no pressure on the party," he told reporters. The development came a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a public meeting at Baripada on Saturday, accused the Odisha government of not being serious about the welfare of women and girls and urged it to re-investigate the Pipili gang rape-and-murder case.
"This (state) government failed to give justice to a girl in an incident that took place 7 to 8 years ago in Puri district. It is natural that women and girls are angry over laxity in investigation into the case for which the victim has been denied justice," Modi said at the BJP rally.
Reacting to Modi's remarks, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had said: "We are following the case vigorously."
A 19-year-old scheduled caste girl was raped in November, 2011, and died in June, 2012, after remaining in a semi-comatose state, sparking a state-wide furore. It was alleged that the accused in the case had been sheltered by Maharathy.
As the incident triggered massive public outcry amid allegation that Maharathy, the local BJD MLA and also a minister then, was sheltering the accused, the state government handed over the case to the crime branch of the police. Maharathy was also asked to put in his papers.
On December 24, 2018, the court of additional district judge in Bhubaneswar had acquitted the two persons arrested in the case for lack of evidence. Reacting to the court judgment, Maharathy had said, "I welcome the court judgment. It is victory of truth. The victim girl got justice."
Maharathy's statement had angered opposition political parties as well as the victim's family who had sought stringent action against the accused.
"How come the victim got justice when the accused persons are acquitted?" asked Odisha Mahila Congress president Sumitra Jena. The women's wings of both the BJP and the Congress had launched an agitation demanding Maharathy's resignation.
Though Maharathy, who represents Pipili in the assembly, had subsequently apologised for his remarks following widespread condemnation, opposition parties stepped up their demand for his removal as minister.
BJP activists in all urban centres in the state held candlelight rally, demanding the resignation of Maharathy, a six-time MLA, and handing over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Maharathy had to resign from the ministry then in the face of a state-wide hue and cry for allegedly sheltering the accused.
He again became a minister after the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) returned to power in 2014.
The resignation of Maharathy, however, failed to pacify the opposition parties who termed the development as nothing but a "drama" and asserted that their agitation for ensuring punishment to the accused would continue.
Family members of the deceased girl also maintained that Maharathy's regisnation would not give justice to the victim as long as the guilty go scot-free.
BJP leader and Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said resignation of the minister is not enough. "If the chief minister sincerely wants to give justice to the girl, he should get the matter re-investigated and hand over the case to the CBI."
The chief minister should also tender an apology as the resignation of Maharathy came only after the prime minister had raised the issue at a rally at Baripada on Saturday, Pradhan said.
State Congress women's wing President Sumitra Jena said the minister's resignation was only a drama and demanded that the case be handed over to the CBI. The role of Maharathy should also be investigated as the incident allegedly took place in his farm house, she claimed.
Former state minister Damodar Rout, who has formed Biju Samata Kranti Dal after being expelled from the ruling BJD last year, claimed that the chief minister tried his best to protect Maharathy but finally he had to ask the minister to step down bowing to mounting pressure.