He disclaimed his own words saying it was just ‘a joke’! And yet Odias from all across the globe found it unpalatable to relish the supposedly minor jest that former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju had targeted at them through a post on Facebook on October 10th that read: “I was asked to write about the Oriyas (Odias). What is there to write about these poor chaps? Ever since they got a thrashing at the hands of Ashoka in the battle of Kalinga they have been a dejected lot. Now all they have with them are a lot of pots (Patras), big pots (Mahapatras) and supposedly intelligent kings (Patnaiks). And of course they have Lord Jagannath, to whom they pray every day for revenge on the abominable Biharis.”
Quite anticipated, his anti-Odia remark met with vehement online protest and public outcry to the extent of burning effigies of the former SC judge. Angry Odias left no stone unturned to display their indignation over Katju’s misinformed comment. Not to mention the barrage of abuses that flooded his Facebook account.
Twitter too was pouring in several anti-Katju tweets with leaders of different political parties also not refraining from reacting sharply to his remark. Journalist and BJD leader Tathagat Satpathy who was at his stinging best tweeted “Mr Katju, you sound like a smelly ‘A__hole’! PS: All this is a joke. Plllleease do not file charges against me.”
BJD leader Baijayant Jay Panda tweeted, “Foolish, juvenile comments deserve contempt, not a response. Clearly, neither years nor a career in law can be relied upon to impart wisdom!”
In fact, most politicians stand united on their opinion about Katju. Senior Congress leader Kailash Acharya feels Katju has been rightly been taught a lesson by the people of Odisha. “He might also face the music at the court of law soon. It is a waste of time paying attention to such trivial theatrics which have become a habit for the man. It wouldn’t have hurt him to read the history of Odisha before commenting, even if what he said was a ‘joke’. If he had, then probably it would have been received better by the people,” states Acharya.
However, senior media professional Sumitra Nandan Agragami feels that since such theatrics are common for Katju, he should not become a cause for an outrage. “He is nothing but a mercurial quixotic and is best ignored! Let’s train our guns at more relevant issues for our progress and not on his regressive comments.”
So, while some have ignored his deplorable fun and some have reverted with scathing comments, there were others like the Delhi Odia Students’ Association (DOSA) who took to polite rebuke by presenting a sweet “Get well soon Mr. Katju. Jai Jagannath” note and a beautiful large bouquet at his residence in Noida.
Surprisingly, Mr. Katju was sensible enough to respond to the note with a certain grace. “While earlier I regarded most of you as stupid and humourless, now I regard you as smart and with a sense of humour (as all intelligent people have). And my perception about you changed suddenly due to an event which happened in the last half an hour or so,” wrote Katju on his Facebook post.
But the seething descendants of ancient Kalinga kingdom, (supposedly defeated at the hands of emperor Ashoka) did not appear interested in his good humour and eventually Katju furnished an apology on Facebook by writing, “I had written my post in lighter vein. However, if Odia people are feeling hurt I apologise. I had no intention to hurt their feelings, and was only joking, just as I had joked about Biharis, Tamilians, etc. People should develop a sense of humour.”
But with this apology the abuses, far from dying down, snowballed into an unending controversy maintaining ‘viral’ status on social media platforms.
As Sajjan Sharma, a spokesperson for BJP, Odisha puts it, “It is a case where a single man is audaciously pointing his finger at an entire community, and wrongly so. So what is wrong if the community stands up to such an undeserving comment on itself. This issue would have died down early on, had he tendered a sincere apology. Conditional apologies are not apologies at all.”
Captain Dibya Shankar Mishra, MLA Junagarh (Kalahandi) and spokesperson, BJD has a similar observation as he points out, “One cannot have such comments on a clan or region until you have individually lived their lives and cultures. Even the President of America despite all his powers and authority cannot voice such social opinions on any section of the society. But Katju, a retired judge with no appropriate authority and senile, has precisely done that. There is a huge difference between his judgement in the court and on social media, even more when he is targeting a particular set of people.”
“Second, his comment was also based on misinformed facts. Odias have been a very powerful community in ancient India and still continue to contribute significantly to the Indian society. He has tried to judge Odias from only a single event of the Kalinga war with a misconstrued conclusion. So it is natural that Odias take to the defensive mode. The assault on Katju should be a lesson for those maligning any clan. However, I do not appreciate the cross firing on social media and if anybody wants to take him to task, they should approach our legal system,” adds Mishra.
Echoing Mishra’s statement, city based journalist Tazeen Qureshy who penned an open letter to Katju says, “It’s not just about Katju but my letter was also directed to all who generally think that Odisha is nothing but a poor and tribal state. True that the statistics reveal that to an extent but our state is not only about negatives. Regarding Katju, what hurt me in spite of knowing his trend of commenting deprecatingly on all kinds of people is that he gets away plainly by saying “it’s a joke.” There is a limit to making fun and certainly not on an issue like development. Also coming from a person who has held a prestigious position formerly is sad and disrespecting to the institution called ‘justice’.”
Sulochana Das, spokesperson and General Secretary of Congress (Odisha) says, “Paying attention means feeding fuel to the mileage he wants for his attention seeking behavior. The court of law should take him to task.”
So, can the man of law be booked under law? “Yes, taking the legal recourse through a defamation case can be a solution to Katju’s sharp tongue, but wading through the lengthy legal proceedings is not as easy as it seems. For one who files a petition also has to pursue the same for all the while it takes. By the time the verdict comes, it is unlikely to have the required impact. Moreover, he has already been summoned by the apex court which is the most appropriate body to take action against him,” informs Cuttack based senior advocate Jaydeep Pal.
“Rather, we should consider him a senile and insensitive old fellow who is not in office anymore and ignore him. Even the media should boycott him,” he adds.
On the contrary, Sajjan Sharma feels that taking certain assertive steps against such loose talking people is necessary to send a strong message to others who misutilise public forums to malign communities and their sentiments on the lines of racist ideas.”
The controversy however seems to have opened up another perspective to it where some have expressed their disappointment over the issue being blown out of proportions with never-ending hurling of abuses at Katju.
But Acharya points out, “Such degenerate comments will always see an eruption of communal emotions and the anger of the people will manifest in various ways, and public’s sentiments cannot always be streamlined.”
Mrityunjay Sahu, a PHD student based in New Zealand, however, has an interesting observation and different take on this issue. Says Sahu, “His comments have indeed been sarcastic and not at all expected from a learned person like him. But it is also true that our media is not strong and the government too incumbent to project the pros and cons of modern Odisha. We have abundant number of noted writers, actors, singers, innovators and much more, but the nation hardly recognises their relation to the state. Justice Katju’s message clearly indicates that something is lacking within us. If a person of such a stature is not aware or is aware but trying to be sarcastic, then it is a matter of concern. Rather than blatantly suppressing his point of view, it is time we should think of ways to project our strength, not the weakness.”
Odia stand-up comedian based in Hyderabad, Hriday Ranjan, however feels that the Katju remark should have been taken only as he has put it, ‘a joke’. “I am an Odia and have been involved in writing and performing humour for nearly a decade now. I have always been proud that we Odias have a rich tradition of humour, satire and sarcasm. In fact, if you go to villages, you’ll find ‘palla – nacho’, where the performers are taking jabs at gods, rishis and goddesses. Katju clearly mentioned it was a joke, so obviously there wasn’t any ill-intent there. And even if you got offended, I have just one question. When was the last time you cracked a Sardar joke? And what about Marwaris-are-miserly jokes? Or jokes on Bengalis??” It was a harmless joke – probably unfunny, but a joke nevertheless,” he adds.
Meanwhile, amidst all the non-conforming voices, stands out a funny suggestion on this by a student, Aishwarya Chowdhury, who says, “He seems to be sparing none. So I am waiting for him to comment on Islam and see if he remains unharmed to even laugh at his self-claimed harmless jokes.”