Three pogroms held together by a common thread

The accounts of murder, arson, and crimes against women sounded horribly familiar: Each detail, each grisly fact seemed taken out of a script enacted before; the sequence of events was as predictable as the shattering, gut-wrenching climax.

September 04, 2010 12:48 am | Updated November 03, 2016 08:04 am IST

DECEPTION: An idyllic scene does not mask the trauma. A burnt church in Kandhamal, Orissa.  Photo: Lingaraj Panda

DECEPTION: An idyllic scene does not mask the trauma. A burnt church in Kandhamal, Orissa. Photo: Lingaraj Panda

The accounts of murder, arson, and crimes against women sounded horribly familiar: Each detail, each grisly fact seemed taken out of a script enacted before; the sequence of events was as predictable as the shattering, gut-wrenching climax.

It was like a macabre replay of Gujarat 2002 and Delhi 1984, as 43 communal violence victims from Orissa — who had come all the way to the national Capital — testified recently before the National People's Tribunal on Kandhamal headed by A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court. As the narratives ended, the audience was left with another chilling thought: In secular, democratic India, there had been pogroms against all three significant minorities — Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.

Kanaka Rekha Nayak, from village Budedipada, spoke of her husband, Parikhita, being beaten up, murdered and quartered as her family helplessly watched (FIR no: 58 U/S 147/148/436/302/201/149 IPC, dated August 28 2008). Today, Kanaka is in hiding with her two minor children.

Priyatama Nayak, from village Barpalli, said her husband, Abhimanyu, was tied to a tree and burnt alive in her presence. Amidst religious chants the mob looted her house and destroyed it. Priyatama's young son went to the local police station and begged for help. The police reached the village 10 days later by which time dogs had preyed on Abhimanyu's body. (FIR no 90 u/s 147/148/436/506/302/149, dated August 31, 2008). And though Priyatama named her husband's killers in the FIR, the police made no arrests. In March 2009, following unceasing threats from those named in the FIR, Priyatama, who had also petitioned the Chief Minister and the Governor, took her case to the Orissa Human Rights Commission, which ordered the Kandhamal District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police to hold an inquiry into the case and take action against the errant policemen.

Twenty-four-year-old Narsingho Digal from Dudukagaon testified that a 600-strong armed gang looted and destroyed his house. His mother was gang-raped and his parents were dragged into the forests and murdered. Narasingho, who — like many other Kandhamal Christians — faces a social boycott, said the rioters had made his conversion back to Hinduism a condition for his being allowed to return to his village.

Many of the victims said they spotted Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Manoj Pradhan among the attackers. In June this year, a fast-track court in Orissa sentenced Pradhan to seven years' rigorous imprisonment.

The Orissa violence, which targeted Dalit-tribal Christians, was undoubtedly smaller in scale compared to Gujarat 2002 and Delhi 1984. Human rights estimates of deaths, damages and sexual violations are many times higher in all three cases, but going only by the government figures for the dead, there were 38 killed in Kandhamal in Orissa, 1,180 murdered (including Hindus killed in Godhra and in police firing) in the 15 affected districts of Gujarat, and 2,700 put to death in the national Capital. Yet despite these variations, the three pogroms could have been written, produced and directed by a single satanic mind, judging by the astonishing similarity in the detail and sequence of events and the stunning brutality of the crimes committed.

Tribunal foreword

In his November 2002 foreword to the report of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal, which collected 2,094 oral and written testimonies from Gujarat's victim-survivors as well as human rights groups, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer said: “The gravamen of this pogrom-like operation was that the administration reversed its constitutional role, and by omission and commission, engineered the loot, ravishment and murder which was methodically perpetrated through planned process …”

Eight years later, the jury at the Kandhamal Tribunal had similar words to say: “The jury records its shock and deep concern for the heinous and brutal manner in which the members of the Christian community were killed, dismembered, sexually assaulted and tortured … There was rampant and systematic looting and destruction of houses and places of worship and means of livelihood … The jury is further convinced that the communal violence in Kandhamal was the consequence of a subversion of constitutional governance in which state agents were complicit.”

‘Action-reaction' theory

When, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's 1984 assassination, thousands of Sikhs were massacred on the streets of Delhi, the commonly-held view was that it was an aberration brought about by an extraordinary situation. Comparisons were made with the 1947 Partition riots but few could have known at that time that the clinically planned and executed anti-Sikh pogrom would serve as a model for two more episodes of mass aggression against minorities.

Consider the features of the 1984 violence: Indira Gandhi's assassination by two Sikh guards was the “action” which justified the “reactive” killings. Rajiv Gandhi's insensitive equation of the mob rage to tremors arising from a falling tree was taken as licence by the rioters to plunder, rape and kill. Members of the ruling establishment lent tacit support to the killings, and in some instances were seen directing the violence. The police abandoned their protective instincts, becoming either bystanders or collaborators in the crimes. The hooligans did not just kill, they used innovative techniques to kill, such as fitting burning car tyres over the necks of little, helpless children. In the days following the anti-Sikh orgy, the community was further victimised by an unwritten social boycott.

As in Delhi, so in Gujarat and Orissa. Delhi 1984 went beyond “an eye for an eye” to justify the extermination of an entire community for the perceived crimes of a handful. It established the legitimacy of the administration and the police slipping into supporting roles in mob violence. It also established that killing was not enough, killing must be perverse. In Gujarat, Muslims as a whole had to pay for Godhra. Here too, the action-reaction theory was propounded at the highest level, with the police and the administration wilfully abdicating their duties.

The testimonies recorded by the Krishna Iyer Tribunal brought out the sadistic, bestial nature of the Gujarat killings: “The widespread violence that targeted Muslims in urban and rural Gujarat was marked by utter bestiality and brutality … Evidence recorded before us shows how in the macabre dance of death, human beings were quartered and the killing protracted while the terrorised survivors looked on …” Violence over, the majority community enforced a social and economic boycott against Muslims.

In the “action-reaction” sequence in Orissa, rioters targeted the Dalit-tribal Christian community for revenge killings despite the lack of direct evidence linking the community to the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Here the Chief Minister, to his credit, did not justify the killings. On the contrary, he appeared contrite and eventually broke his ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Yet during the violence, the levers of administration remained cruelly unresponsive to the cries of Kandhamal's Christian citizenry. As in Delhi and Gujarat, the victims found the police curiously missing or standing by, when the mobs, armed to the teeth and shouting inflammatory slogans, went on the rampage. The torture and violence were again extreme; murder was by burning alive, by dismembering the person. And as previously, the violence was followed by a crippling social boycott.

Abuse of women

All three pogroms had another common feature: Rampant abuse of women. Women were gang-raped, invariably in front of their families, not for sexual gratification but as a demonstration of power, to heap humiliation on male relatives. At the hearing organised by the Kandhamal Tribunal, Vrinda Grover, a member of the jury, remarked that the Orissa rioters had “used women's bodies as sites for punishment.” The Hindu of September 30, 2008 reported the case of a Catholic nun who was stripped naked and brutally gang-raped in front of a police post with 12 policemen from the Orissa State Armed Police present and watching. The Catholic priest who was with her was mercilessly thrashed for refusing to participate in the atrocity. Incidents of rape in Gujarat 2002 have been too well documented to bear repetition here.

But here again, the trend was set 26 years ago in Delhi. Until recently, the dominant perception about 1984 was that the mob violence largely spared the women.

The myth was conclusively demolished in 2007 following publication of the painstakingly documented book, “When a tree shook Delhi”. Lifting the “veil of silence” over the rape cases, authors Manoj Mitta and H.S. Phoolka pieced together evidence placed before the Nanavati Commission to establish rape as a commonly used weapon in the anti-Sikh pogrom.

In one case, the rioters killed all the men in the family, raped the woman of the house in front of her young son, and left her naked so that she could not go out to save the child when he too was dragged out and burnt alive (case reported in Manushi magazine and submitted to the Commission).

The Kandhamal tribunal, as the Krishna Iyer tribunal before it, noted the “institutionalised bias of State agencies, their deliberate dereliction of constitutionally mandated duties, their connivance with communal forces, participation in and support to the violence, and a deliberate scuttling of the processes of justice …” Each of the findings applied to Delhi 1984 as well.

Perhaps that is why, a questioner asked the jury of the Kandhamal tribunal, if it was not a shame that 26 years after 1984 — and two more pogroms later — India was still trying to find a solution to planned violence against minorities.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.