Special Reports

Kandamal victims: action for reconciliation

Phulbani/Berhampur: A meeting of Priests, Pastors, community leaders and activists held at Berhampur on 7th December 2009 has endorsed the formation of the Sampradayik Hinsa Prapidita Sangathana [Association of Victims of Commuinal Violence in Kandhamal] formed earlier in Phulbani after a series of meetings in which human rights and civil society activists from Bhubaneswar and Cuttack also took part. All these meetings were the first of their kind since Hindutva violence against the Christian community in Kandhamal and other districts of Orissa left over 5347 houses looted and burnt, 295 churches destroyed, women and girls raped, and more than 75 people murdered in the name of religion and ethnicity. Large-scale displacement and migrations followed with over 50,000 people becoming refugees in their own motherland.

Two fast track courts set up in the aftermath of the violence have lost the confidence of the people because they included murderers, one of them a BJP legislator Manoj Pradhan, involved in several cases, with eye witnesses too scared to depose against the culprits. About 2500 complaints had been registered but only 823 FIR’s have been registered. All the cases were classified into murder (27 cases), attempt to murder, rape etc. The major task of the new association, working closely with clergy and civil society activists irrespective of religion, is to restore public confidence and to ensure that the victims and witnesses felt safe enough to depose in court. This grassroots action will also help in the process of reconciliation and hopefully allow people to come back to their villages which are now barred to them by Hindutva activists who are forcing them to first convert to Hinduism before assimilating in the old habitations. However, the Association has expressed its deep distrust in the current justice delivery system, saying the Fast Track Courts are working perhaps too fast in trying to finish off the cases without looking closely at the evidence. Of cases involving 12 murders, there has been conviction just in one case, for instance.

The Association has also decided to boycott  Justice Mohapatra commission probing the murder of VHP vice president Lakhmanananda Saraswati at the hands of a Maoist group on 23rd August 2008 and the violence that followed his death. They said the commission has preconceived notions and has already formed its conclusions without even waiting for examining the evidence. The meeting at Berhampur, presided over by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, was also attended by other Bishops and church leaders including Bishop Sarath Nayak of Berhampur and Believers Church bishop Bardhan, National Integration Council Member John Dayal, human rights activist Dhirendra Panda and senior lawyers from the Christian Law Association, Human Rights Law Network, and the All India Christian Council and all church groups represented in the region.

It was made clear at the various meetings that security of the people remained the main concern. The sense of insecurity is also leading to a gross miscarriage of justice in the two Fast Track courts. As victims have complained to the Orissa High Court separately, witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial. Shoddy police investigations have already created a crisis in the dispensation of justice, and even genuine eye witnesses are reneging in court as they see the court premises full of top activists of fundamentalist organisations and often the same persons who had burnt their houses. The police remain mute watchers, as always.

The witnesses are threatened in their homes, and even their distant relatives are being coerced. This requires urgent and immediate action by the District administration and the Police to ensure that the process of justice is not thwarted and sabotaged.

There are major lacunae in the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of mass arson. Not a single Christian place of worship or Christian NGO has been compensated for their tremendous loss. But even the compensations given to the poor victims are mockingly inadequate. The violation of principles of rehabilitation is at several levels. The first is in identifying the houses as fully or partially damaged. Secondly, houses by the dozens have not been enumerated by the government surveyors. Thirdly, the victims of the 2007 arson, especially in Barakhama have been criminally left out of the reckoning and for those 225 or so poor families, it has been second year without adequate shelter.

It costs about Rs. 85,000 to reconstruct a house and yet the government gives only Rs 50,000 in separate tranches. It is the duty of the state to give the full money. Just to save the people from the vagaries of the weather, the Church has sought to pitch in, but their resources are meagre and more than 2,500 families cannot be helped by the Church.

There is no information from government or the district administration about the livelihood of those affected by the violence. The administration without delay must conceive and execute a scheme so that every family affected by violence has at least one person, if not more, in gainful employment in government projects so that they can live a life of dignity, and to prevent large scale migration and pauperisation of victim families.

It was felt special projects for the women victims, and especially young girls, are also required urgently in Kandhamal. There are already rumours of human trafficking. I pray they remain rumours. The administration has to act swiftly on the issue of allotting land for homes to those persons who have fallen into the trap of the Forest Act, and have no land to build their houses. They have to be identified, allotted land so that they can live in peace without facing the perpetual threat of being ousted.

The authorities of civil administration and police have also to act with their full strength to stop the hate campaign that has been unleashed in the last one year, and which has penetrated distant villages, creating schism and hatred between communities. The law of the land must be implemented severely to contain and deter those indulging in this activity. (with inputs from Ajay Singh)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 January 2010 on page no. 13

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