Still smouldering

Following a February 2008 visit to Kandhamal district, Orissa, the scene of violent anti-Christian attacks in December 2007, some major issues of culpability, impunity and human rights remain unanswered

When we first came to the Kandhamal hill district of Orissa on December 29, 2007, we thought that the worst had been seen of human nature when impelled by political brinkmanship, bigotry and hatred. Last week my colleagues, advocate Nicholas Barla, social worker Hemant Nayak, and I discovered how wrong we were.

On a second visit to Kandhamal we again surveyed the aftermath of the carnage, arson, desecration and assault of human dignity evident in the Christmas week violence by Hindutva gangs in district forests and villages. This time again we saw almost every single church, house, school or building that had been targeted by the mobs as also the refugee camp in the Barakhama township high school.

We had expected some decrease in tension in the villages and hamlets. We thought there would be some evidence of probity and transparency in the criminal investigation and justice delivery system, some compassion in the relief and rehabilitation process, some formal questioning of matters of impunity of police and magistracy, some sense of responsibility in instruments of governance. And we had hoped for some contrition in political parties and some conscience in the politicians and civil society in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa state.

We were disappointed on every single point. It is only a larger faith in the Indian Constitution, higher judiciary and national civil society that prevents utter frustration and dismay.

I narrate here just a small part of the continuing misery and trauma in Kandhamal district, for information and partly for the record, as truth too fades from memory and from the record books in the face of the constant deluge of falsehood in a large section of the local media inventing an anthropological and sociological fiction in its attempts at rewriting the past.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, who first came to Orissa close to four decades ago as a priest of the Society of the Divine Word, has described these incidents as diabolic violence, a conspiracy.

In the aftermath, one sees even in the official response hints of a fascist thesis. The men who masterminded and inspired the violence, and the fountainhead of this hate, roam the forests free of any restraint, without fear even of the Constitution of India.

The refugee camp at Barakhama

This is the only refugee camp ever organised in India for Christian victims of communal violence. Forty-two days after the attacks, Archbishop Cheenath is at last allowed to visit his people in the affected area despite my repeated pleas to the state administration. Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, was also barred from coming to Kandhamal to see the situation for himself. He could visit only on January 29, 2008, more than a month after the atrocities.

The district magistrate has ordered that only the state government can distribute relief, through the Red Cross. NGOs and church institutions that were in the vanguard of relief operations in the state during past calamities such as the super cyclone are still not allowed to bring any relief material. The government is distributing the very basic level of relief. The people feel that it is not enough to meet their current needs. It does not cover many issues: health, hygiene and human dignity.

On my first visit I had seen several pregnant women and at least five very sick men. I ask about them. Three of the men have died since I met them. One of them died of an unknown illness. Two others died of injuries they had sustained in the attacks by members of the sangh parivar, trained and motivated by the self-styled swami, Lakshmanananda Saraswati, the local head now of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Why did these men die in the camp and not at a hospital in Bhubaneswar or the district capital, Phulbani? No one seems to know. Were the bodies examined in a forensic autopsy to find the cause of death? Apparently not. Have people been charged with the murder of these two men? The police and magistracy are not telling. Under Indian law, cases of criminal assault or attempted murder are automatically, so to say, re-registered as cases of murder with clauses of criminal conspiracy added on. No one seems to know if the police have done so and are looking for the murderers.

The plight of the pregnant women and of women in the camp in general is possibly worse. Because they are living and have to suffer the pangs of being a woman in an absolutely primitive situation. The women have no gynaecological experts available on hand, it seems. There are not even toilets for them to go to at night. They have to go out into the fields to answer calls of nature. This, some officials say, is exactly what they do in normal times. But times have changed. When they and their menfolk go out to the forest they now face hostile mobs who question their coming out of the camp. The taunts can be dangerous. The union government’s police force stands guard but it is only for so long that they can keep the peace. Even central police officers are worried about what could happen once they leave.

There is no effort at even beginning a process of dialogue and reconciliation.

Quite the contrary.

The government’s rehabilitation attempt is designed to push the Christian refugees into a ghetto.

Not all refugees have land of their own. They cannot buy land in the area even if they want to because the local people’s minds have been poisoned by the sangh parivar. The district administration therefore wants many dozens of them to be settled in a Christian conclave with about 400 square feet of land for a two-room house each, a house with a kitchenette but, of course, without a toilet.

The administration however has not been able to find even this plot of land for them because villagers do not allow the tehsildar, the junior revenue magistrate, to even measure out the land from tracts owned by the government. The last time the tehsildar dared to go and measure the land, the link chain measure being used was snatched and he was chased away. The police are sheepish. They had blithely looked on as the majesty of the law retreated before the terror of the sangh parivar’s goons. And so the refugees stay in the safety of the camp, under tents, in the cold, without too many blankets. And without toilets.

The plight of students

Repeat visits confirm once again what the prime minister of India has been told by the church in their representations. How deep the impact of the violence goes can be gauged by the fact that in the refugee camp and elsewhere the students face annual exams without books and without stationery. Many of them will miss out on the matriculation and secondary examinations; will have to drop an academic year. The older children may miss out on career opportunities. No one in the administration seems to care. There is no answer to questions about whether examinations for these unfortunate students will be postponed for a few months as was done in Gujarat 2002 or in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

The case of the missing men

Several villages are without men once the sun sets. Such is the terror of the police against the Christians that the men just cannot sleep in their own homes. They remain in the forested hills.

Forced conversion to Hinduism

A dozen times and more, we hear stories of isolated Christian families being made to shave their heads. They are being told to convert to Hinduism. These stories are repeated all the way from Phulbani, at one end of Kandhamal district, to Brahmanigaon at the other end in the east. Archbishop Cheenath, with whom we travelled to some of the areas to see people’s interaction with him, agrees that their most urgent need is security, not only for their personal lives but for their existence in Kandhamal district. "The people are terribly frightened, as if they are still expecting another onslaught, because the perpetrators of these despicable crimes on the occasion of Christmas are freely moving about, brandishing their weapons and shouting slogans and conducting clandestine meetings. Such were the preparations that ultimately led to this diabolic attack. And in some areas, in spite of the presence of the so-called force, looting is still going on from the vandalised locations. The sangh parivar organised several yagnas or prayer assemblies where hate is spewed against Christians."

A more detailed questioning of eyewitnesses, and going through copies of several affidavits and first information reports (FIRs) that have been posted to senior officers because the local police do not register the complaints, makes it clear that the attacks were orchestrated and involved a well-trained core cadre that had been given physical training and been brainwashed at secret meetings. Eyewitnesses, even at the leprosarium managed by brothers of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa, confirmed that the attackers had consumed liquor. They had gathered first in small groups in different places, waited for their leaders and then marched towards their target amidst loud shouts of their Hindutva slogans. Magistrates present in the leprosarium made off as the mobs collected. The mobs destroyed and burnt everything, and looted all that they could lay their hands on, including live goats, chickens, rabbits, and grain and powdered milk meant for the patients. Another whistle and they melted away into the forest.

In January this year my colleagues and I brought out a non-government white paper on the Christmas 2007 violence in Kandhamal.

The Christian legal response is slowly taking shape, but not fast enough, and requires senior guidance. Civil society response is still non-existent.

The following questions remain:

Culpability of central government

  • Intelligence agencies, as also central government agencies working in the area, are culpable for inaction or complicity as the activities of the sangh parivar, especially the Bajrang Dal, VHP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were carried out openly and with aggressive bravado, including the final planning and details of the attacks.
  • The honourable governor has been empowered to ensure peace and good governance of the scheduled areas under the fifth schedule of the Constitution. Kandhamal district is a scheduled district. When the violence took place it should have automatically invoked gubernatorial action. There is no transparency on the nature of communications between the district authorities and the state government with the governor.
  • Culpability of state government, especially its agents in the district, the collector and superintendent of police
  • Why did the superintendent of police and collector of Kandhamal district permit the bandh or agitation called by the Kui Vikas Samaj on December 25 and 26, 2007, which are government-acknowledged religious holidays of the Christian community?
  • The superintendent of police and the district collector had been repeatedly informed by the people and people in position in the church about the possible attack on them by sangh parivar followers of Lakshmanananda Saraswati but they did not order any preventive or pre-emptive official steps, neither did they arrange for any security measures for the Christian community.
  • In Brahmanigaon, Balliguda, Daringbari, Phiringia, the inspector in-charge (IIC) of the police or the officer in-charge (OIC) of the police post were aware of the possible attacks on Christians in the areas within their jurisdiction. Despite this prior knowledge, the subdivisional police officer and the subcollector, who are directly responsible for maintaining peace and supervising the law and order situation, did not take necessary and appropriate action.
  • The state police intelligence organisations, criminal intelligence and investigation units, the bureau of intelligence, apparently either did not know about the impending clash or did not understand the significance of the information or did not bother to inform superior authorities.
  •  What was the role of the forest department offices and staff, as much of the sangh parivar’s activities were taking place there, including training camps, the plot to cut trees to block roads and to cut telephone lines, including WLL (wireless local loop) village telephone systems owned by the Government of India, and telephone structures for mobile phone transmissions being switched off at strategic times? No action has been taken to trace the criminals.
  • The state highways and national highway No. 317 passing through the affected areas were blocked by trees. How do the authorities explain the delay in removing the roadblocks, most of which could have been easily done to allow access to police forces? What is the total number of trees so felled by the sangh parivar? What action have the district forest officer and his subordinate officers taken? What was the role of the forest rangers?
  • We understand that the ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Agency) of the state government, which is directly responsible for the tribal areas, should have been informing their superiors about developments but failed to do so.
  • The state home ministry, which is directly concerned with issues of law and order, has a full record of past acts of violence by the Bajrang Dal, VHP and RSS, and of Lakshmanananda Saraswati, and has been extremely indulgent towards them. It has also been very kind to Saraswati’s lieutenants, Giani Sahoo, Ramesh Sahoo, Shivananda Patnaik, Sarupanda Patnaik, Pati.
  • How many people have been rendered permanently or temporarily unemployed because of the violence?
  • Why were the BJP and some other political parties allowed to tour the affected areas during curfew?
  • What is the status of the "Danda Daba" (sacred groves) of the ancient religions of the Adivasis in the region? Have they been recorded, documented, protected and preserved? How many have been destroyed, and why, and by whom? Have any cases been registered against offenders?
  • What is the number of cases that have been registered also under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 against aggressors who injured Christians and others?
  •  Has the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 – OFRA – the so-called ‘religious freedom law’, been applied against the sangh parivar? If not, why not?
  • There has been gender violence against Christian religious women and other women.
  • What action has the government taken so far against hate speeches made by Lakshmanananda Saraswati and recorded by policemen accompanying him after the December 24 violence?
  • What steps has the government taken to improve communications in Kandhamal, including installing more towers for mobile phones and WLL phones?
  • Has a case been registered against offenders for the death of a cow killed in the arson at the convent in Balliguda?
  • What provisions has the government made for security once the Central Reserve Police Force leaves the area?
  • What are Lakshmanananda Saraswati’s sources of income?

(Dr John Dayal, member, National Integration Council, and national president, All India Catholic Union, led an independent fact-finding team to visit Kandhamal district, Orissa on December 29 and from January 1 to January 3, 2008 (see CC, January 2008). Subsequently, the team made another visit to the area from February 3 to February 7, 2008, which included a daylong stay at the refugee camp in Barakhama. The above article is excerpted from their follow-up account of the situation in Kandhamal, "A second postcard from the Kandhamal forests of Orissa", dated February 10, 2008.)
Archived from Communalism Combat,  February 2008  Year 14    No.128, Update





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