Kandhamal 2020: We live with the national shame of impunity in perpetuity

From the mass murder of Christians in Kandhamal to the killing of Graham Staines, Christian minorities remain at peril


There was national shame for many of us three days before Republic Day, January 23, 1999 when pastor Graham Staines along with his two young boys were burnt alive in the eastern state of Orissa.[1] Charred beyond recognition and reduced to ashes, the three bodies lay clinging to each other in what must have been a vain attempt to protect each other and escape the mob. Having surrounded them from all sides, a murderous crowd set on fire the old four-wheel drive station wagon in which the three had retired for the night. The incident took place on the night of January 22-23 in the wilderness of Manoharpur village in the sleepy rural outback of Orissa’s Keonjhar district. President K.R. Narayanan’s words ring loud and clear when he described the murder as “a monumental aberration of time-tested tolerance and harmony. The killings belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds”.

The killer of Staines, was none less than Dara Singh who had also been charged in the murder of Muslim trader, Shaikh Rahman in Mayurbhanj district of the state and also convicted in the murder of a Christian priest, Dr Arul Das in Orissa. Singh was arrested after a year long chase in January 2000 after the murder of Graham Staines and is now serving his life sentence in prison.[2]  The then home minister of india and deputy prime minister, LK Advani had given a clean chits to organisations like the Bajrang Dal and Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) even before the investigations had been completed.

A culture of impunity pervades with powerful perpetrators escaping the long arm of the law, especially when it comes to attacks against the minorities and India’s marginalised sections. Christians have also borne the attack of the political Hindutva right wing since 1998-99.[3] This was also the period of the first BJP dominated NDA I government.[4] A selective census of Christians that went against the Indian Constitution was begun in the state of Gujarat[5] and a spate of attacks on religious persons took place in that state, Orissa, Madhya Pradesha and Uttar Pradesh. Apart from the Staines’ murder, the brute killing of Sister Rani Mariam (Regina Mariam Vattali) in a bus at Nacanbore, Indore on Fenruary 25, 1995, at the hands of a hitman sent by powerful landlords, is another brute such act.

Thereafter, one of the most systemic and targeted attacks against Christians was in Kandhamal district, also in Orissa, almost a decade later in 2007-08: over 395 churches and nearly 6,500 houses were destroyed and more than 75,000 people were displaced. Several cases of forced conversion to Hinduism were reported and about 40 women were reportedly raped and sexually assaulted. This pogrom was declared a response to murder of a Hindu preacher as a result of a ‘Christian conspiracy’.[6] Twelve years down, justice has eluded the thousands of Christians impacted in that bout of targeted violence.[7] One hundred lives were lost in this frenzy of violence.

It is this anniversary of mass, targeted violence that will be commemorated this week end even as the guilty go unpunished. Some 70 organisations which started acting under the banner of National Solidarity Forum undertook various forms of actions soon after the Kandhamal pogrom. A People’s Tribunal was held in Delhi in 2010 headed by AP Shah, former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, Several exhibitions were organised in different parts of the country, different research studies on diverse issues related to Kandhamal were undertaken, effective documentation on different aspects of the pogrom was conducted, campaigns were held in colleges, universities and educational institutions, various organisations held public programmes, seminars and public debates in different parts of the country, many written reports in the mainstream media and social media appeared, video documentaries were made and exhibited in different parts of the country, books were released, support mechanisms, solidarity actions were organised in India and abroad, observing Kandhamal Day became a regular affair every year in Kandhamal, Bhubaneshwar and in many other parts of the country; and political leaders, cultural activists and celebrities extended their support to such events and so on.

I recall visits to the state of Orissa, Phulbani, Kandhamal a good eighteen hours away from the state capital, at the time and since. While politically, the Naveen Patnaik government cleansed itself by severing ties with the BJP, then an ally in the state, the inability of the state apparatus to actually punish the guilty stains its performance. The state of the relief camps remained a travesty on state accountability; women were forced to face de-humanising conditions there even as pre-natal, neo natal problems confronted a hapless female population. For months, the internally displaced who had fled the villages to faraway states could not return. The church and its outfits were compelled to labour on under vicious maligning and attack. 

Before and after this targeted attack of violence, we have had Delhi (2020), Muzaffarnagar (2013) Gujarat (2002), Delhi (1984), Nellie (1983) and Hashimpura-Meerut (1987) and Bhagalpur (1989) and Bombay 1992-93) in between. It was the nationwide outrage after Gujarat 2002 –to whch statutory institutions like the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and even the Supreme Court of India responded that pushed for a political demand to enact a law that, as Siddharth Vardarajan wrote in The Hindu, A Bill to settle a Terrible Debt. He wrote on June 21, 2011,

“In a vibrant and mature democracy, there would be no need to have special laws to prosecute the powerful or protect the weak. If a crime takes place, the law would simply take its course. In a country like ours, however, life is not so simple. Terrible crimes can be committed involving the murder of hundreds and even thousands of people, or the loot of billions of rupees. But the law in India does not take its course. More often than not, it stands still.

“If one were to abstract the single most important stylised fact from the Indian “riot system”, it is this: violence occurs and is not immediately controlled because policemen and local administrators refuse to do their duty. It is also evident that they do so because the victims belong to a minority group, precisely the kind of situation the Constituent Assembly had in mind when it wrote Article 15(1) of the Constitution: “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”.

“The CTV bill sets out to protect religious and linguistic minorities in any State in India, as well as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, from targeted violence, including organised violence. Apart from including the usual Indian Penal Code offences, the NAC draft modernises the definition of sexual assault to cover crimes other than rape and elaborates on the crime of hate propaganda already covered by Section 153A of the IPC. Most importantly, it broadens the definition of dereliction of duty — which is already a crime — and, for the first time in India, adds offences by public servants or other superiors for breach of command responsibility. “Where it is shown that continuous widespread or systematic unlawful activity has occurred,” the draft says, “it can be reasonably presumed that the superior in command of the public servant whose duty it was to prevent the commission of communal and targeted violence, failed to exercise supervision … and shall be guilty of the offence of breach of command responsibility.” With 10 years imprisonment prescribed for this offence, superiors will hopefully be deterred from allowing a Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002 to happen on their watch.

“Another important feature is the dilution of the standard requirement that officials can only be prosecuted with the prior sanction of the government. The CTV bill says no sanction will be required to prosecute officials charged with offences which broadly fall under the category of dereliction of duty. For other offences, sanction to prosecute must be given or denied within 30 days, failing which it is deemed to have been given. Although the bill says the reasons for denial of sanction must be recorded in writing, it should also explicitly say that this denial is open to judicial review.

“Another lacuna the bill fills is on compensation for those affected by communal and targeted violence. Today, the relief that victims get is decided by the government on an ad hoc and sometimes discriminatory basis. Section 90 and 102 of the CTV bill rectify this by prescribing an equal entitlement to relief, reparation, restitution and compensation for all persons who suffer physical, mental, psychological or monetary harm as a result of the violence, regardless of whether they belong to a minority group or not. While a review of existing state practice suggests victims who belong to a religious or linguistic ‘majority’ group in a given state do not require special legal crutches to get the police or administration to register and act on their complaints, the CTV bill correctly recognises that they are entitled to the same enhanced and prompt relief as minority victims. The language of these Sections could, however, be strengthened to bring this aspect out more strongly.

Today more than ever is the need for such a law. Since 2004, Communalism Combat  and I personally as an activist have been pushing for such an enactment. Between 2010-2011 we held and addressed over 300 meetings all over the country on the need for such a law. I wrote in November 2011,

“It is imperative that those concerned with justice and reparation join the campaign for the restoration of fair debate. Currently the proposed law has become the victim of hysterical propaganda – led, unsurprisingly, by players whose political trajectory gained momentum by legitimising irrational prejudice and even hatred, who rose to power on the wings of communal mob frenzy.

To enable a reasoned rational discourse on a long overdue law, the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill must be tabled in Parliament and be put before a Standing Committee forthwith. Any anomalies within it can be ironed out at that stage. We must not allow this process to be derailed by the same cynical political players who have gained political brownie points and mileage through the spread of hatred and the generation of mob frenzy.”

See also accompanying story originally published in Communalism Combat, 2011, ACT Now.

 Normalcy never really returns after such attacks unless there is some acknowledgement, recompense and reparation. For the many and repeated bouts of mass targeted violence against India’s religious minorities there has only ever been a grudging acceptance that these crimes were communally charged and targeted crimes. Justice has not been done or seen to be done except in the case of Gujarat 2002 where thanks to the efforts of survivors and Citizens for Justice and Peace (cjp.org.in) 172 powerful perpetrators were punished, 124 to life imprisonment. Many were released thereafter as the higher courts either granted bail or reversed sentences. This has gone hand in hand with the political ascendancy of the very forces that perpetuated the violence. 

Otherwise, there has been a deafening silence.



Remembering Kandhamal 

Kandhamal: 10 years later justice still eludes survivors 

Remembering the Graham Staines Murder 


[1] https://cjp.org.in/remembering-the-graham-staines-murder/; The then government counsel appearing in the judicial commission to investigate the triple murders by arson of missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, had found a link between arsonist/murderer, Dara Singh and the RSS. “Dara linked to Sangh: Government counsel”: The Indian Express, August 15, 1999

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dara_Singh_(Bajrang_Dal)

[3] https://www.sabrang.com/cc/comold/jan99/cover.htmhttps://www.sabrang.com/cc/comold/july00/storybox1.htm

[4] https://www.sabrang.com/cc/comold/july00/co-story.htm

[5] https://www.sabrang.com/cc/comold/feb99/doc.htm

[6] https://thewire.in/communalism/kandhamal-violence-anniversary-remembrance

[7] The National Solidarity Forum, representing 70 national and regional organisations, has issued a statement and appeal on the anniversary of the violence in 2020: according to the figures in the statement, there have been more than 3,300 complaints, but only 820 odd FIRs were registered. Of these, only 518 cases were charge sheeted. Of these 518 cases, 247 cases disposed off. Those cases disposed of have resulted in mass acquittals.A study conducted by SCI advocate, Vrinda Grover and professor of law, Saumya Uma, reveals that the conviction rate is as low as 5.13% in the charge sheeted cases. On August 2, 2016, the SCI stated in their judgement that the quantum and scope for compensation was not satisfactory and found that the court also found it disturbing that the offenders of law were not booked. The SC ordered a review of 315 cases of communal violence, however four years later, these cases have not been reopened. The SCI judgement did not set any deadline. There are houses, churches, institutions and volunteer organisations, whose properties were destroyed in targeted violence but who never received compensation despite the SC order.



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