It was a terrifying Christmas in 2007 for tribal and dalit Christians who live in the second poorest, deeply forested district of Odisha, Kandhamal. Long-smouldering violence targeting them exploded, and was to continue to rage for another full year. During this time, 600 villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses were looted and burnt, 54,000 persons rendered homeless, 295 churches and places of worship destroyed, and 13 schools, colleges and orphanages were damaged. The official death toll was 39, although unofficially the figure is claimed to be closer to 100. 30,000 people were forced to live in relief camps, and it is estimated that nearly half are still unable to return home.
Four years later, many of the survivors gathered in Bhubaneshwar to remember and to mourn. In an exhibition organised by Anhad, some of the vandalised remains of churches and homes were displayed. In one corner, blurred, blown-up passport sized pictures of men and women who had been killed were pasted on bamboo sticks. Many stood there and wept quietly. The occasion was the release of the report of a National People's Tribunal on Kandhamal, aptly titled ‘Waiting for Justice'. The Tribunal was chaired by Justice A.P. Shah, and included among its members Syeda Hameed, Ruth Manorama, Mahesh Bhatt, Vinod Raina, Vrinda Grover, Miloon Kothari, P.S. Krishnan and Sukumar Muralidharan. I too was a member of the Tribunal.
Although the states of Odisha and Gujarat are located at the furthest eastern and western corners of India, separated by several thousand kilometres, the mass-targeted hate violence in both states, in 2007-08 and 2002 respectively have many striking — and deeply troubling — similarities. Each was characterised by a long build-up of hatred against religious minority residents, there is evidence of systematic advance preparation, state authorities were openly complicit in enabling the violence to persist for weeks and months, the attacks were unusually brutal and targeted women, thousands were displaced and discouraged from returning to their homes, facing organised social and economic boycott. And in both, compensation was tight-fisted and justice systematically subverted.
There is evidence in both Gujarat and Odisha of systematic planning and organisation prior to and during the attacks, as though they were both only awaiting a flashpoint to let loose the terror and mass violence. These were not spontaneous outbursts of mass anger. They were planned attacks cynically facilitated and criminally abetted by the state administration in the two states. The Tribunal notes: ‘Victim-survivors testimonials repeatedly referred to the perpetrators wearing red head bands, carrying numerous weapons such as axes, daggers, swords, guns, crowbars, pickaxes, lathis, bows and arrows, lighted torches, bombs, petrol and kerosene barrels, trishuls, tangia, pharsa bhujali and bars'. They could have been speaking of Gujarat, where we heard literally hundreds of similar testimonials.
One survivor, Keshamati, recalls further: “It is ‘Sahukars' from the towns of different parts of Kandhamal who took the leadership in creating the violence, supplying weapons, arms and explosives like petrol and diesel to some of our people.” Another adds, “The rioters brought trucks from other villages and they carried away looted valuables from our villages in the trucks. Many speak of preparatory meetings in villages the night prior to the attacks.
In Odisha, once again like in Gujarat five years earlier, the attacks were marked by exceptional cruelty. Kanaka Nayak recalls the horrific mob slaughter of her husband when he refused to reconvert to Hinduism. “They spat on him and started to sing and dance around him; they paraded him, and dragged him. They told him ‘you sing your songs and let Jesus come and save you'. And they started attacking and cut his body into three pieces.” Many attacks were on women. Christodas recounts, “When we were fleeing to the relief camp, my wife was attacked with a sword by a violent mob..... I saw her palms being cut; she had a cut on her skull and her backbone.” An orphanage was destroyed. The body of the warden was burnt, the lower part of her body was completely burnt so as to destroy all evidence of alleged gang rape.
Women who suffered sexual violence in both massacres continue to live with the agony of memory and silences of shame. One said in confidence to the Tribunal, ‘The attackers removed their mask before they raped me. Earlier, they would respect me. I was shocked that they took revenge on me for my uncle's refusal to convert to Hinduism... Lots of things have changed in my life after that incident. I have been in hiding. I am traumatised, sad, depressed and struggling. I feel ashamed. I am unable to forget about the incident and carry on with life. But I feel I should be strong to get justice.”
Another surprising common feature in the two mass slaughters was the role played by women's organisations such as the Durga Vahini. The Tribunal records evidence of the mass mobilisation of women who formed violent mobs and perpetrated the attacks.
The two massacres are also linked by the open support to the violence by the state administrations, which permitted these to blaze for long weeks and months, reducing an entire religious community to fear and destitution. The Tribunal quotes the earlier report by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights: ‘The local government by and large not only stood by and silently watched, as the horrendous events were unfolding, but in several ways, according to the eye-witnesses, facilitated the gangs indulging destruction of human life and valuable property. What followed by way of administrative action — controlling the situation, relief measures for the afflicted and punishing the guilty — could only be described as formal-ritual motions to satisfy the letter of the law'.
To take just two illustrations, survivor Premashila testifies to the Tribunal, “The police and the district administration were aware of strategies of the rioters before the incident took place, because these rioters were organising meetings, rallies in the presence of the police and district administration in many places.” Father Kullu describes their role in the destruction of the Madhupur Church: “...in front of the police and the deputed magistrate the rioters destroyed, burnt and ransacked everything whatever they could in two hours. Many valuables were stolen. They completely destroyed the church, priest residence, hostels, convent, dispensary and Maria grottos.”
In both hate carnages, people were openly attacked because of their adherence to what was incorrectly described as ‘foreign religions', in one case Islam and the other Christianity. The Tribunal notes, ‘Thousands of Christians being chased and herded in groups into Hindu temples and forced to undergo “reconversion” ceremonies with their heads tonsured. They were made to drink cow-dung water as a mark of “purification” and some of them forced to burn Bibles or damage churches to prove that they had forsaken the Christian faith. The “reconverted” Christians were forced to sign “voluntary declarations” stating that they were becoming Hindus voluntarily — a condition required by the anti-conversion law in Orissa'.
In my next column, I will trace the echoes of Gujarat in Kandhamal five years later, in ways that boycott was organised, reparation withheld and justice subverted.
Openly instigating violence, VHP leader Pravin Tagodia had a free passage across the state in the build-up to the protracted violence. He thundered, “There is no place for Christians. If Christians don't become Hindus, they have to go. We don't care where they go. They must leave Orissa.” The purpose of the violence was to punish and terrorise those adivasis and dalits who had converted to Christianity, some generations earlier. In Odisha, as in Gujarat before it, ultimately the aim of the violence was to reduce the religious minorities to permanent fearful submission to people of the majority faith, in destruction of the secular democratic Constitution of the land.