Harsh Mander

Barefoot — Kandhamal: The aftermath

Inhuman conditions at the relief camps. File Photo: PTI  

In these columns previously (December 18), I tracked disturbing parallels between the carnage targeting dalits and adivasis of Christian faith in Kandhamal in 2007-08, and the brutal slaughter of Muslims five years earlier in Gujarat. These included the systematic creation of hatred against religious minorities by Right wing organisations, rigorous planning of the carnage, the stunning brutality of the violence, often targeting women and girls, the unprecedented mobilisation of women to actively participate in the violence, and, above all, the open complicity of the state administration in enabling the violence to continue for weeks and months. The parallels with Gujarat continued in events which unfolded after the massacre.

In the wake of the violence, as tens of thousands were driven out of their homes, the Gujarat government initially refused to establish relief camps. In Odisha, government camps were established. But in both states, camps were incompatible with human dignity, over-crowded, under-served and particularly insensitive to women and children. The National People's Tribunal on Kandhamal, chaired by Justice A.P. Shah (of which I was also a member) records: ‘A common living space for both men and women in the relief camps, some places having just two bathrooms without roofs for 5,000 people and no toilets facilities as well meant a total lack of privacy for women, insufficient or no place to sleep, difficulties in staying and also no privacy for women. Inadequate sanitary supplies caused women difficulties during their menstruation'. These could be reports of any camp established in Gujarat. In addition, ‘ women were reportedly given 30 minutes to go out of the relief camps for toilet, and if they failed to return within the stipulated time, they were reportedly punished by the CRPF personnel who were guarding the camps'. And in both, the camps were prematurely closed, and people driven out before they felt secure enough to return to their homelands.

Not welcome

Another extraordinary similarity between the two carnages is that even long after the violence finally abated, the persons evicted from their homes were not welcomed back. In order to return, stringent and humiliating conditions were laid down in both states. In Gujarat, they were required to not pursue legal justice against their tormentors, and to live separately, in perpetual economic and cultural subordination. In Odisha, the requirement was a ‘reconversion' to Hinduism (even though many were animists and were never of Hindu faith in the first place). As testified by Deobhanja, ‘We are not allowed to enter our native village and stay there in our patta land, unless we embrace Hinduism. We have no access to forest to get firewood and minor forest produce for daily use and drinking water, tube wells and wells for water. We are socially boycotted by them'. If they still chose to return, they faced social and economic boycott, and lived in fear of recurrent attacks.

The objective of such boycott in both states is to ensure that the targeted populations are damaged not just at the time of the hate attacks, but are prevented actively from rebuilding their livelihoods again, and therefore continue to languish in extreme poverty. This aim was fulfilled substantially in Gujarat, but was further damaging in Kandhamal, because of the extreme poverty to start with of the victims. As the Tribunal notes, more than half the victim-survivor population worked as daily wage labourers, which made them dependent on other communities to employ them. Following the violence in Kandhamal, and the subsequent and ongoing socio-economic boycott, many of them have difficulties finding a job as daily wage labourers in Kandhamal, due to which they have to migrate to other parts of the state and country.

The next category was of small famers. Those who were engaged in agriculture and had their own plots of land have now lost the land as they have been forcibly displaced from their villages due to the violence. Many of them are unable to return to their villages unless they convert to Hinduism, and therefore unable to access the land that they had previously owned. Several owned cattle as well as agricultural products such as fertilizer, all of which were either looted by the violent mob or destroyed. Even small traders were devastated. A woman testifies that she lost her business of selling dry fish etc., and her husband is no longer appointed as the ration seller at the gram panchayat because the Hindus refused to buy things from him.

In this climate of organised social boycott, efforts of victims in both states were further hampered by meagre and reluctant state reparations. As in Gujarat, fully damaged homes were paid a maximum of just Rs. 50,000, even though the cost of damaged property sometimes ran into several lakhs. Even these were routinely under-valued. The state had no standard procedures for assessment, and appeal. There was no programme to restore damaged livelihoods. There was no support also for the schools, hostels, clinics, hospitals and orphanages damaged.

Of the 92 deaths, only for 39 have families received compensation. The others were declared missing and their deaths are under dispute, or they died in relief camps or in hospitals. They are not considered to have been killed during the time of violence. In many cases, bodies are missing because these were burnt to destroy evidence.

Subversion of justice

The grimmest parallels between the two carnages are in similar systematic subversion of justice. Testimonies presented before the Tribunal repeatedly spoke of the refusal of the police to register FIRs. The Tribunal was informed that of the 3,232 complaints filed by victims; only 832 were actually registered by the police. Between 75 and 123 people were killed in the violence, yet only 26 murder cases were registered by the police as of February 2010. For instance, Sister Meena was first dissuaded by the police from registering an FIR with regard to the gang rape and sexual assault on her, and when she insisted, she was prevented from writing details of the crime including the complicity of certain police officials. Many spoke to the Tribunal of the failure of the police to arrest perpetrators, despite the fact that the perpetrators were named in the complaints to the police. They also clarified that the police's refusal to take action against the perpetrators was a result of the police actively protecting the perpetrators. They have been harassed through a lodging of false and baseless allegations against them, or threatened that they would be arrested on false charges if they demanded accountability and continued pursuing justice.

The earlier MARG report notes that the police that was complicit in the violence through myriad acts of omission and commission, has itself been conducting the investigations. Investigations have been conducted in a biased and shoddy manner. Some spoke to the Tribunal of how they were forced to live in hiding while pursuing the cases in courts that they were testifying in. They have testified in court and continue to live in fear; others spoke about their inability to testify in court if they were not given adequate protection. Some of them spoke about how they had complained to the judge and the police about the threats and intimidation, yet did not receive any assistance.

We find in Kandhamal, as in Gujarat, that brutal violence against religious minorities was enabled primarily by communal mobilisation and a complicit state, and that survivors are denied reparations and justice by sustained social boycott, and the settled bias of state and justice institutions.

This is the story of other massacres as well, including against the Sikhs on the streets of Delhi in 1984. This tragic blood-letting in the name of religion will end only when the law holds governments accountable to perform their highest duty mandated by the Constitution, to secure equal protection and justice to all, regardless of which god they worship.

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