It is seven years since the horrific communal violence against the Christian community engulfed the district of Kandhamal in Odisha, in August 2008. Recently, thousands of survivors gathered at the panchayat headquarter town of Raikia under the banner of the Kandhamal Peace and Solidarity Committee. It was not to relive the past. Survivors of communal violence rarely want to experience the trauma and the pain which rises to the surface of their hearts and minds with every retelling of those dark and terror-filled days.
The demand was straight and simple — that they be allowed a future.
Agenda of polarisation
On the surface, things look better. In the 2014 Odisha Assembly election, the Hindutva forces >suffered a resounding defeat in this district, losing in all the three Scheduled Tribe reserved Assembly segments. In the previous elections in 2009, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had put up >Manoj Kumar Pradhan , a man accused in two cases of murder of Christians and another 10 cases of arson and violence. He won from G. Udaygiri despite being in jail. The BJP reaped the harvest of the blood of innocents. Pradhan came out of jail within weeks of his election and it was an open secret that he used his clout to sabotage the processes of justice — by intimidating witnesses and instructing the police to go slow in the cases. But this changed in 2014, when the Congress and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) emerged victorious. The Kandhamal Lok Sabha seat, which was won by the BJD candidate, comprises the Phulbani, G.Udaygiri and Baliguda Assembly segments in the district. The BJP candidate was relegated to third place. In the Assembly elections, the Baliguda seat was won by the BJD candidate. In G.Udaygiri, the Congress candidate won, while in Phulbani, the BJD emerged victorious.
But it would be quite wrong to assume that the agenda of communal polarisation has weakened in any way following the electoral defeats.
Leaders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led organisations were freed within months of their arrests and have since resumed their toxic agenda of dividing equally poor communities, the majority of whom are below the poverty line, as they had done earlier, mobilising the largely tribal Kui community against the Dalit Pana community. This is ostensibly against the latter’s demand for inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes, but when in reality it is targeting Dalits on a communal agenda as around 20 per cent of them are Christians. Tribals from the Kui Samaj who are Christians are also targets.
An important aim of the BJP and the RSS and its front organisations was to ensure that their people who had led and instigated the mobs in 2008 would be saved from punishment, and be available in order to further the communal agenda. In this they have largely succeeded; they have literally got away with murder.
Inadequate compensation The facts speak for themselves. First, let’s take the issue of compensation. It was said at the time that over 6,000 houses were burnt. The government revised this and brought the figure down to 4,818. Surveys of the extent of damage were made, much like in Gujarat, when the inmates were not present. How could they be present when they were displaced and living in the squalor of 14 relief camps that had been set up? It was estimated at the time that there were over 56,000 men,women and children, all Christians, who had to flee their homes. They lost all their belongings and the compensation package did not take stock of the goods burnt. The belongings of the poor are assumed to have no value.
For a house partially damaged, the compensation fixed was just Rs.20,000 from the State government and another Rs.10,000 from the Central government. For a fully damaged home, the compensation was Rs.50,000 from the State and Rs.30,000 from the Centre. The price of building materials is so high, that with this measly amount, it would be strange if one thought that the victim survivors could rebuild their homes. In reality, they could manage only makeshift structures. Today, these are there for all to see, dotting the landscape of this beautiful region, as asbestos or tin roofs over unplastered, half brick walls. None has a window or a door frame, no grills for security — the evidence of callousness. In all these years, the State government has disbursed only Rs.13 crore as compensation for damaged houses. A petition filed on behalf of the survivors is pending before the Supreme Court.
In the violence in 2008, scores of churches and educational institutions were destroyed. The only positive aspect is that while the Gujarat government is still fighting a case in the Supreme Court against giving compensation to rebuild the large number of mosques that were destroyed across that State following the 2002 riots, in Odisha, the BJD government, in principle, has accepted the Supreme Court suggestion for compensation for damage in Kandhamal, though the amount disbursed was negligible — Rs.70 lakh.
Poor conviction rate
Take the issue of registration and charge sheeting of cases and the arrests of the accused. It is shocking that around 11,000 rioters were given anticipatory bail which was not objected to by the police. Over 3,000 complaints were filed with the police, but they registered only 828 cases. Of these, only 605 were charge sheeted, and two of them were cases of rape.The pathetic level of investigation can be gauged from the fact that in 2015, there are still 228 cases pending investigation.
Independent inquiries at the time showed that between 80 to 100 people were killed, but the government officially registered only 39 as dead, of whom two were policemen, and three rioters. It is clear that from the beginning, the effort was to minimise the extent of the crime.
The victims have fared no better with the courts. In response to the Supreme Court’s orders following a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, two fast track courts were set up in the district headquarters of Phulbani and which started functioning after March 2009. Meanwhile, the BJP used its powers to do everything to sabotage the process and intimidate witnesses. As a result, the conviction rate was extremely low in all the cases in Kandhamal. In 2010, the fast track courts were wound up as a result of very poor results.
According to the indefatigable activist-advocate, Dibya Parichha, who along with his small team has been defying threats while fighting the battle for justice in Kandhamal, there have been convictions in only two cases of murder. Ten of the accused have been given the life sentence. But today, each one of them is out on bail. The 33 other cases of murder of Christians have been closed for “lack of evidence”.
In other cases, more serious charges have been closed and punishment given on lesser charges; 315 cases have been closed for “lack of evidence” and 4,232 accused people have been acquitted. There have been convictions in only 73 cases of the 605 people charge sheeted; 492 people have been sentenced for lesser offences, but they are all out on bail.
As of August 2015, there is only one man in jail, held for the gang rape of a nun. Even in this case, the other two who were convicted were given bail and are now absconding. It is as though nothing happened.
Shadow of terror
There are many other details available of the perpetration of gross injustice after one of the worst instances of carnage against the Christian community. The message that is clear to the victims is that peace is conditional to their subordination. It is a matter of deep shame and sorrow that the Christian community in Kandhamal is subdued not because of its lack of courage but on account of the utter failure of the Central and State governments, the investigative agencies and the criminal justice system, including courts, to ensure justice to it.
In contrast to this is the State’s attitude to the Kandhamal Seven — the four Adivasis and three Dalits convicted and sentenced to life wrongly for involvement in the murder of the religious leader , Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. The Maoists declared that they had killed him. Anyone going through the atrocious judgment will come to the inescapable conclusion of their innocence. Their crime is that they are Adivasi, they are Dalit, they are poor and they are Christian. Their appeal is pending before the High Court. While murderers and arsonists are given bail, the bail petitions of these persons have been rejected. They have been in the central district jail in Phulbani for the last seven years for a crime they did not commit.
In the end, along with the struggle for justice for the victim survivors of Kandhamal, the call to “Free the Kandhamal Seven,” should resonate throughout the country; a call that will help heal the wounds and bring solace and confidence to those who had gathered in Raikia with a message for the world.
(Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha MP.)