Unfairness as justice

Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice 2007-2015
Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma
United Christian Forum & Media House

Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice 2007-2015 Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma United Christian Forum & Media House ₹595

India has a communal violence problem. We have seen it happen time and again—from the 1983 Nellie massacre, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the 1992 attack on Muslims in Mumbai, the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, and the violent uprooting of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, to mention only a few of the most infamous cases.

Let’s assume that it may not always be possible for the state to prevent communal incidents. Let’s also assume that it cannot always protect minorities when such violence breaks out. What about after the violence? How about delivering justice to victim-survivors? Well, here too, the Indian state is a colossal failure.

It is clueless, pathetic, and phenomenally inept in accomplishing routine tasks like gathering evidence, arresting suspects, registering an FIR, protecting witnesses, preparing charge-sheets, and providing compensation. Its stupidity is so epic that it goes after the victims and protects the accused. This is, of course, a highly charitable interpretation of the facts documented by lawyer Vrinda Grover and researcher Saumya Uma in Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice . A less charitable interpretation would conclude that the Indian criminal justice system is biased against religious minorities.

In December 2007, Dalit and Adivasi Christians in Odisha’s Kandhamal district were subjected to horrific violence. The magnitude of the attacks increased in August 2008. The ostensible pretext for the carnage was the murder of a Hindu religious leader, Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati. Despite the state government clarifying that Naxals had carried out the killing, vicious anti-Christian propaganda was unleashed.

From August to December 2008, roving mobs of Hindutva-affiliated men killed, looted, burnt, and raped members of the Christian community. Around 75 to 100 people were murdered; several girls and nuns gang-raped; 600 villages ransacked; 5,600 houses looted; 54,000 people left homeless; 295 churches destroyed; and 2,000 people forced to renounce their Christian faith.

Life after violence

Eight years have passed since these mass crimes were committed. Neither have the perpetrators been brought to justice, nor have the victims been rehabilitated. Grover and Uma document in painful, and painstaking, detail how the Indian state and the judiciary responded to the victim-survivors’ quest for justice.

In six chapters with multiple sub-sections, the authors take us on a tour of the various tricks and stratagems by means of which the guardians of the law derail it. For instance, a favourite manoeuvre after communal violence is the setting up of a commission of inquiry, whose report may never see the light of day. There were two such commissions in the case of Kandhamal and neither accomplished anything of note.

Even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the authors note, “released a report which served more as a public relations exercise on behalf of the state government.” They cite its treatment of the gangrape and murder of CC. Instead of recommending that the perpetrators be brought to book, the NHRC in its report stated, “A twenty year-old late Ms. CC sacrificed her life to save the life of the children living in the orphanage…”

They narrate the heart-wrenching saga of Sister AA’s courageous struggle for justice. A gang-rape survivor, she spent six years filing petition after petition, in court after court, all the way to the Supreme Court, to rectify wilful procedural mischief that the lower courts overlooked.

Another egregious tactic is the filing of false counter-cases to discourage victims from seeking justice. The authors narrate the story of Prakash Naik, a Christian leader, against whom the cops filed a false murder case. Naik’s case, according to the authors, illustrates “the four important aspects” that contributed to acquittals: partisan attitude of the police, the collusion of the public prosecutor with the accused, judicial bias, and limited recourse when the prosecutor fails to conduct the prosecution in a professional manner.

Terrified to testify

Yet another factor responsible for mass acquittals is the lack of a witness protection programme. In many cases, the accused knew the victims, and threatened them—sometimes in open court—with death or rape if they testified against them. The authors note that the judges seemed perfectly willing to let the judicial process be compromised by witnesses too terrified to testify truthfully.

But the subversion of justice begins much earlier. While 3,300 complaints were received from the victim-survivors, the Odisha police registered only 832 FIRs. In many cases, the police did not record all the facts stated by the informant, “or intentionally omitted the name of the accused and instead recorded it as a FIR against a faceless mob.”

In 2016, the then Chief Justice of India, Justice T.S. Thakur, termed as “very disturbing” the state’s failure to bring to justice such a large number of perpetrators of criminal violence.

So this is where we stand today—saddled with a system that systematically provides impunity for communal attacks against minorities. Studies have shown that religious violence just before elections benefits the majoritarian party by polarising the electorate. The two factors taken together—impunity and political dividend—are a recipe for recurrence of communal violence.

The 2007-08 violence of Kandhamal is to India’s Christians what 1984 is to India’s Sikhs, and Gujarat 2002 is to India’s Muslims—a traumatic iteration of their status as minorities in a Hindu-majority state.

This book is a timely, and disturbing, reminder that if India is serious about protecting the human rights of its minorities—it is no longer obvious that it is—then it must find a way to end the regime of impunity for perpetrators of communal atrocities.

: Introspection of Initiative for Justice 2007-2015 ; Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma, United Christian Forum & Media House, ₹595.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2022 5:41:18 pm |