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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Ghost from the past


Prafulla Kumar Mahanta is attempting a comeback in Assam politics but the shadow of a 'marriage' that derailed him a decade ago could trip him again, reports Monalisa Gogoi
MONALISA GOGOI | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Asom Gana Parishad | AGP president | Lachit Bordoloi | Sanghamitra Bharali | Prafulla Kumar Mahanta | |

Sanghamitra Bharali, who hit the headlines in 2001 for her alleged secret liaison with two-time Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, is now cooling her heels in Guwahati Central Jail.

Bharali’s return to the media glare in a disproportionate assets case could cast a long shadow on the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) leader’s attempts to bounce back into the reckoning in Assam politics.  
Bharali, who was the assistant language officer in the state Assembly from 1991 to 2002, has been convicted by the court of the Special Judge, Assam on charges of possessing assets disproportionate to her known sources of income.

The court has handed her four years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10 lakh. If she fails to pay the fine, the convict’s jail term will be extended by a year.

During the course of the trial, her former husband, Dr Mondeep Das, appeared as witness and revealed that his wife had no property in her name at the time of their marriage.

In 2001, Bharali’s name made newspaper headlines because of her alleged extra-marital affair and so-called marriage with Mahanta. A popular weekly had broken the news of her controversial marriage with the former chief minister.

The editor of that weekly, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, said in a recent television talk show that Sanghamitra had written the story herself. She said: “Sanghamitra wrote that her marriage was solemnised at a Ganesh temple in Mumbai. She also wrote that though she wanted it to be public, she had no intention of claiming any  compensation from Mahanta. Photographs of their ‘marriage’ also featured one of Prafulla Mahanta’s cabinet colleagues, the late Sohidul Alam Choudhury.”

Pujari also mentioned that Mahanta had written a letter to her weekly claiming that he did not know any lady named Sanghamitra Bharali and that the periodical had carried this news at the instigation of a political rival. But Mahanta did not file a defamation suit either against the weekly or Bharali.

Another journalist, Atanu Bhuyan, who had visited the Mumbai temple at that time to file a report for a local daily, said that no marriage had taken place between Sanghamitra and the former CM. “I checked the register of the temple but did not find the name of Mahanta and Sanghamitra. The news was published under my byline and my role was criticised because most people thought that I had tried to protect Mahanta.”

A former colleague of Bharali says: “I met her in 1992 in the Assam Secretariat. She was a modern and fashion-conscious lady. Her husband used to drop her at her office and we knew that her family life was happy at the time.”

A senior AGP leader who does not want to disclose his name says: “A politician who leads a party should be cautious. Bigamy is not accepted in Assamese culture. So the controversy affected the party. Mahanta was once treated as God in the state. After this controversy I met some people personally who told me that they were disillusioned with the man. I think this was one of the reasons why the people of Assam rejected AGP.”

Meanwhile, another AGP leader Manuj Saikia says: “I was not aware of any relationship between Mahanta and Bharali. It was clearly a political conspiracy against Mahanta. So when he quit the party, I accompanied him. In any case, the media should keep off what a man does in his personal life.”

Sanghamitra had claimed that her marriage took place on March 11, 2001. She was absent from work during that period. She was served a show-cause notice by the then Speaker of the Assam Assembly Prithvi Majhi for her absence from duty.

In response to the notice, Bharali submitted a certificate pointing out that she was away because she was getting married. Mahanta, on his part, was forced by the controversy to step down as party president in early September that year.

The former CM had come in for sharp criticism from many party members for his alleged second marriage. Some accused him of damaging the reputation of the party in the eyes of the public.

However, AGP leader Lachit Bordoloi says: “This is not a matter of discussion at this point of time. Sanghamitra Bharali was sent to jail because of her disproportionate income and this matter is not related to Mahanta. That episode is over.”

Bordoloi alleges that Mahanta’s name is being raked up because his political rivals are intimidated by the signs that he is acquiring renewed strength. 

Mahanta was AGP president from the very day that it came into existence. When the secret marriage controversy erupted, he was charged with engaging in anti-party activities. He quit in protest. In 2005, the former CM formed a new party, AGP (Progressive).

On October 15, 2008, the two breakaway AGP factions – AGP(P) and TGP (Trinamool Gana Parishad) led by Atul Bora merged with the parent party under the leadership of Chandra Mohan Patuwary at Golaghat. But after the unification, AGP won only ten Assembly seats in the 2011 elections.

Having finished fourth in the elections, the party decided that it would hold an internal poll in order to overhaul its leadership structure. In the party election, Mahanta was chosen party president on April 27 this year.

The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) had vehemently protested against the return of Mahanta to the party fold in 2008  because they felt that Mahanta and his men were involved in secret killings during his second term as CM.

Moreover, it was felt that he had failed to detect and deport illegal migrants who had entered Assam after March 25, 1971. Prominent ex-AASU leaders like Prabin Boro and Sarbananda Sonowal left the party and joined Bodo Peoples’ Front and BJP respectively.

Mahanta is now striving to forge a united front against the ‘misrule’ of the Tarun Gogoi-led government. On November 26, AGP launched a movement to mobilise public opinion against the Congress. Mahanta addressed a rally in Nalbari. Among the 15,000 people who attended the meeting were hundreds of BJP and Trinamool Congress workers. But a ghost from the past still haunts Mahanta.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017