By Binu Mathew
Kandhamal is described as the Kashmir of Odisha. It is one of the most beautiful places in India I ever visited. With rolling hills and forests interspersed with lush green paddy fields, flowing rivulets and ponds and a cool breeze blowing Kandhamal is a beholders delight. I may call it a paradise on earth! Beneath all this beauty there is turbulence, fear and a paralysing anxiety that grip the people living in this so called ‘paradise’. For the Christian minorities who belong mostly to Adivasi and Dalit communities Kandhamal is a living hell.
It all started on August 25, 2008. Hindutva fascists unleashed massive attack on minority Christians in Kandhamal on that day. For four days, Hindutva forces went on rampage and killed over 90 Christians. Dozens of people went missing and never to be located again. The violence lasted for four months. It is said to be the largest violence on Christians in India in the last 300 years. Over 350 churches and worship places which belonged to the Adivasi Christians and Dalit Christians were destroyed, around 6,500 houses were burnt or demolished, over 40 women were subjected to rape, molestation and humiliation and several educational, social service and health institutions were destroyed and looted. More than 56,000 people were displaced. Several cases of forced conversion to Hinduism by the Sangh Parivar took place during the violence. One nun was gang raped in front of a crowd of over 300 people, while 8 police men looked on. This nun ran towards the policemen asking for help but they did nothing and stood there simply watching the spectacle. It all happened just a stone’s throw away from Nuagaon police station.
This week we are observing the 7th anniversary of Kandhamal communal violence. Has normalcy returned? Have the guilty people punished? Has justice rendered to the victims? Have adequate compensations given to the victims? All these questions were on my mind when I visited Kandhamal as part of a delegation of German parliamentarians on 28th August. The ground reality I found there was really shocking.
It all began with the murder of Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati on the night of August 23, 2008. He came to Kandhamal in 1967 and spat venom against Christians in all his speeches and threatened to exterminate Christianity from the region. The Hindutva forces spread the rumour that the killing was done by Christians, although the Maoists had announced that Swami Lakshmanananda will be killed on the exact day. The blame was put on Christians both by the Hindutva forces as well as the state administration. Later Maoists publicly admitted that they had killed Swami Lakshmanananda.
Several fabricated cases were slapped against Christians and several innocent people were put behind bars. On October 3, 2013 Additional District Judge (ADJ) Rajendra Kumar Tosh, sentenced seven Christians belonging to Adivasi and Dalit communities were sentenced to life imprisonment. A maoist Paluri Rama Rao alias Uday also was given life imprisonment. Another Maoist accused in the case, Azad alias D. Keshava Rao is now lodged in Nayagarh jail.
In Baliguda we met the wives and children of the seven persons convicted in the Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati murder case. Pabitra Sanset whose husband is in jail was weeping while speaking to us. She said that the case against her husband and the others are false and fabricated. “Over 90 Christians were killed in the 2008 violence. Not a single person was punished. Our husbands are punished on false charges” – she said in tears.
The communal tension started simmering with the arrival of Swami Lakshmanananda in Kandhamal. The first attack on Christians took place in 1970. From then onwards, low intensity attacks were regularly taking place all over Kandhamal district. The Hindutva forces first attacked Pentecostal and Baptists. The more influential Catholic churches were not targeted. During Christmas time of 2007 large scale violence was unleashed against the observance of Christmas. Several churches, and cribs were burnt and ransacked. Hundreds of houses were destroyed. Fortunately no one was killed in the violence.
Meet Mr. Vijay Digaal who is a Baptist Dalit Christian. His house was destroyed in 1980,1987, 2007 and 2008. Each time he re-built his house it was destroyed again. When he tried to file a complaint against the culprits, the police threatened him to withdraw the complaint. “We have a constitution, but it is not applicable to the Dalits. Where will we go for justice?” he asks.
Bipracharan Naik, a victim of the violence, says “The administration is trying to keep the religious minorities suppressed. It looks like peace for outsiders. But in the villages fear and insecurity are boiling underneath. Those who are trying to represent Dalits and Adivasis are branded as Maoists.”
On 26th July Duba Nayak and his wife Budi Nayak from Pangalpadar who had gone to the hill top to get better signal to make a phone call to their sons working in Kerala were cold bloodedly murdered by the CRPF forces as suspected Maoists. Needless to say that the victims were unarmed.
“ In the violence we lost everything we had. The Hindutva forces are trying to divide the community. They fear Dalit and Adivasi communities coming together. We are discriminated and kept suppressed” says an elderly Adivasi woman Reshmi Digal.
Wherever we went we heard the victims of communal violence crying for justice and adequate compensation. Both are denied to the victims by the central and state government. The compensation package offered to the victims are:
>> Rs 2 lakh from the state Government and Rs 3 lakh from central Government to the relatives of those who died in the violence.
>> Rs 20 thousand for half damaged houses and Rs 50 thousands for fully damaged houses from state Government and Rs 20 thousand for fully damaged houses and Rs 10 thousand for half damaged houses from the central Government.
Widows of Kandhamal
These commitments have not been met in many cases. We met 11 widows of communal violence in Raikia. Many of them have not been provided the death certificates of their husbands. How can they apply for compensation without death certificates? Most of these widows have left their villages and living elsewhere. Many of them are living in Bhuvaneswar doing odd jobs to support their families. Susila Digaa, a widow is working as daily wage labourer. She is earning only Rs 100 a day, of this, she has to pay Rs 20 as bus fare. She can’t find many days of a month. She asks, “How can I support my children with this earning?”
Even the compensation offered to damaged houses has not been properly provided. Even when a pucca concrete house worth lakhs of rupees is burnt and damaged all they get is paltry sum.
During the communal violence in more than 3,300 complaints were filed, but only 820 odd FIRs were registered. The rest of the complaints were not even registered. Among these complaints, only 518 cases charge sheeted. The remaining cases were treated as false reports. And out of these 518 cases, 247 cases disposed off. The rest of the cases are pending before the sessions and magistrate’s courts. And among those cases which have been disposed off, many are already acquitted. In short, all the murderers, rapists, looters and destroyers are today running scot free.
Advocate Robin Sahu who represents Kandhamal violence victims in many cases said that police are not arresting the real perpetrators of the violence. The witnesses are fearful of Hindutva forces and not coming forward to give testimonies in court. The government which is duty bound to protect the witnesses are not doing so. It is in this scenario that the accused in most of the cases are acquitted by the courts.
Many of the victims of the violence have left their villages for fear of life and living elsewhere. Their land is occupied by Hindutva forces. Thus, Kandhamal violence is not just a genocide of a particular community but also a planned ethnic cleansing. The state government also is party to this ethnic cleansing. In
Victims relocated at Nandagiri
Raikia we met victims who were relocated to a remote place called Nandagiri. Their original land is taken over by the Hindutva forces and now they are living in an uncultivable location provided by the government.
We also met victims who are driven away from their villages because they are Christians. They can return to the village only if they become a Hindu. It is ironical that it is happening in a state that has passed – The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, in 1967.
Paul Pradhan, a victim and community leader, summed up the situation in Kandhmal, “There are no confidence and trust among people. We used to celebrate our festivities together. Those days are a distant memory. Our Kandhamal is a dead.”
Kerala where I come from has a large and powerful Christian community. Many Christian friends have asked me, “What is Kandhamal? Where is Kandhamal?” The largest attack on Christian community in India is not a news in Kerala and knowledge level of the same is very low. When the Kandhamal violence was raging in Odisha another immaterial controversy on text book was raging in Kerala. That controversy was about a chapter in a text book “Mathamillatha Jeevan – roughly translated as “A boy without religion”. An Archbishop came out with an audacious statement that what is happening in Kerala is more important and serious than violence happening in Kandhamal! It is true that Kerala church has done some charity work for Kandhamal victims. One time charity will not drive away the fear, anxiety and hopelessness of victims of communal violence. They need constant support, justice and a right to live a life of dignity. Only if the powerful Kerala church wakes up and start fighting for Kandhamal victims by exerting political pressure will this issue come into the public consciousness of religious and secular forces.
Is the Kashmir of Odisha a dead place? Seems so. After listening to the grievances of the people Mr. Volker Kauder who led the German Parliamentary delegation and asked “Are you from the press?” and blew out his frustration “What is being done to the Kandhamal people is a shame.” He had said that the Church leaders in Delhi had assured him that everything is normal in Kandhamal. The ground reality is totally different.