By Ajay Kumar Singh*
The August 25-28, 2008 anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, Odisha, took the lives of 39 persons, including two police personnel and three rioters. Human rights groups estimate over 100 persons were killed, including disabled and elderly persons, children, men and women. Communal frenzy engulfed more than 600 villages, at least 6,500 houses were looted and burnt, and 54,000 persons were rendered homeless. As many as 315 Churches and other places of worship were razed and gutted in fire. About 35 schools, philanthropic institutions, including leprosy homes and tuberculosis sanatoriums, were destroyed. A dozen of non-profit organisations were looted, their premises were damaged or burnt down. An estimated 10,000 children dropped out of schools due to displacement and security, while thousands were pushed into unhygienic relief camps for three years.
During the communal violence in Kandhamal, there have been more than 3,330 complaints, but only 820 FIRs were registered. Of these complaints, chargesheets were issued in just 518 cases. The remaining cases were treated as false reports. And out of the 518 cases, 247 cases were disposed of. Rest of the cases are pending before trial, sessions or magistrate’s courts. It is reported that only in one case – the gang rape of a Sister – the convicts are behind bars. As for the rest, even the convicts sentenced to life are on bail. As against this, the alleged killers in the Swami Swami Lakshmananda murder cases have been convicted, and life sentences awarded to all, based on very weak evidence. This despite the fact that Maoists have claimed the responsibility of killing the Swami, and senior advocates have argued that the convictions would not stand the scrutiny of higher judiciary.
“The police merely put their stamp and sign on the letter to give an impression to the victims that FIRs had been registered; but they deliberately do not enter in the case diaries. Worst still, there were erroneous details entered in with less serious offences thus making the case rather weak”, says advocate Dibakar Parichha., who handled cases on behalf of the Catholic Church. It is common knowledge that in many cases the police would deliberately omit naming the perpetrators in FIRs and chargesheets.
As many as 100-odd cases were closed, citing no evidence/witnesses, making a mockery of investigation. Out of 30 murder cases, except for a couple of them, all accused have been acquitted. There have been allegations that imaginary statements were recorded and produced in courts without visiting the crime sites or meeting the victims’ survivors. The acquittal of the accused in majority of cases is the test of the performance and efficiency of the cases. There are reports that prosecutors, instead of objecting to the witnesses being harassed, or arguing for the cancellation of bails, remain silent.
Even when witnesses testify, there are adverse judgments. In some cases, witnesses fail to withstand intimidation and threats, as they do not get any protection. In other cases, besides threats, monetary allurements are offered. Fast track courts were wound up abruptly halfway by the Odisha government on March 31, 2013. The pending cases were transferred to local courts that would drag processes for prolonged periods with no renewed emphasis of urgency and importance.
The National Alliance of Women (NAWO-Odisha), commissioned a study ,“Breaking the Shackled Silence: Unheard Voices of Women from Kandhamal”, researched and scripted by Saumya Uma on the status of women in Kandhamal six years after the violence. It has documented 40 cases of sexual assault of various kinds. We know that sexual violence and threat of sexual violence was rampant, yet it has taken so many years for women survivors to talk about it. Only two cases have been registered so far, which speaks volumes about the functioning of the criminal justice system in Kandhamal.
The author captures the agony of struggle for justice. “In Sister M’s case, three persons have been convicted by the sessions court at Cuttack – one for rape, two for molestation. Out of 33 persons, only nine have faced trial so far. Trial against all other persons remains pending. Since the cases have not been clubbed together and the accused persons are arrested and charge-sheeted at different points in time, Sister M has to go through the ordeal of giving her evidence in court against the accused. It is an absolutely crazy situation for any rape survivor!”
In the case of a young Dalit girl, who was gang-raped, as her Christian uncle did not become Hindu, she awaits for judgment even today. The state would have done well to at least pay compensation as per Prevention of Atrocities Act.
Violence has had catastrophic effect on young children, especially adolescent girls. Be it nine Kandhamal communal violence affected minor girls rescued by Catholic nuns from closed doors of a Mumbai fish processing firm, or other cases, quite alarmingly, the education of many such children has been disrupted, even as helpless and ignorant elders hope to salvage their life and livelihood. Some of them fall prey to trafficked rings.
Praful Digal of Budrukia village under Balliguda police station mustered courage to return to the village despite his house was destroyed twice previously in December 2007 and August 2008 communal violence. The small-time farmer wanted to bury his past history of violence and to pick up the thread for future, as he constructed a house for the third time. He was warned, “We do not want a Christian presence in the village; you better leave or face the consequences”.
The fanatics concluded presumed that Digal would not yield into their demands and pulled down the house in the late night on April 14, 2014. The destruction of their house came as a shock to the family for whom returning to their home village remains a dream. Unfortunately, the threats accompanying this most recent attack have left the family with little hope of realizing its dream. Three people were arrested, but were immediately released on bail. The fanatics, instead of accepting their folly, threatened to kill him and slap a counter case of land grabbing if he still remained in the village. Christians are refugee in their own land.
Uma, who visited the area last month, sums up, “While many survivors have returned to Kandhamal, they continue to live in fear and are subjected to threats of violence. Some have been accepted into the village after being forcibly converted to Hinduism. Some have compromised with their perpetrators, and decided not to follow up on their criminal complaints, prioritising issues of immediate survival over that of justice. Those who live outside Kandhamal have been having a tough time making ends meet, living on daily wage labour mostly. Deprived of land and housing, which they owned in their village, in places like Bhubaneswar, where many live in the slums of Salia Sahi, cost of living is extremely high”.
On the sixth anniversary of the violence, the campaign for justice and observance of Kandhamal Solidarity Day was initiated by several civil society groups rather than Christian groups. This is very welcome step. Civil society organized solidarity different parts of the country; such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Thane, Bangalore, Trivendrum, Kozhikore, Thiruvella, Hyderabad and host of other cities and countryside.
Intellectuals, political persons, activists such as Harsh Mander, Kavita Krishnan Ram Puniyani Saumya Uma Sudhir Pattnaik, Anni Raja, Charul Vinay, Prafulla Samantara,Sasi Kp, Kedar Mishra, Eminent Film Singer Praful Kar and his group to sing for Solidarity, Dr.Debi Prasan Patnaik, Abp Dr.John Barwa, Justice Choudhury PK Mishra, Dr.Bibhuti Patnaik, Dr.Mohini Patnaik, Baishnav Parida, MP, Jacob Pradhan, MLA, Com Janardan Pati, Pramila Swain and many others joined Bhubaneswar in day daylong programme with victims survivors.
Medha Patkar, Annie Raja, Subhasini Ali, Saumya Uma, Charul Vinay participated in the solidarity march in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamla with a resolution : No More Kandhamal; Never Kandhamal Again. More than 4,500 survivors marched for justice and peace and submitted a memorandum with seven demands to the President of India. The demands were:
* Appropriate legal action against all culprits who have been responsible for violence in Kandhamal.
* Protection of faith, culture, language, values and religions of adivasis and Dalits of Kandhamal.
* Stern action against politicians and organizations directly or indirectly involved in the violence or facilitated the communal violence.
* A high level enquiry into the human rights violations of the Kandhamal victims and survivors by reputed secular personalities with credentials, into the role of the administration and the police machinery and necessary actions to be initiated against the omissions and commissions of the police and the administration
* Proper compensation to all affected people including individuals, business as well as institutions in Kandhamal.
* Immediate release of all victims facing fabricated charges against village level Christian minority including the use of draconian law UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act).
* Complete package for dropout children, widows, old age and orphans for their sustainable development in the district in the aftermath of Kandhamal Anti-Christian violence.
*Human rights activist, Singh is from Kandhamal, and is a victim of the 2008 violence. This is an abridged and edited version of his article in countercurrents.org