The first major work on the subject of anti-Christian violence in the country, this book on Kandhamal 2008 focusses on how the criminal justice system in India fails over and over again

BOOKS Updated: Jul 15, 2017 08:44 IST

Hari Chand Digal, a resident of Minia in Kandhamal District, holding up a burned Odia Bible in October 2008.
Hari Chand Digal, a resident of Minia in Kandhamal District, holding up a burned Odia Bible in October 2008.(Vipin Kumar/HT)

In this era of lynchings, how much can we learn from research into earlier cases of communal violence? A lot. On the surface, they may appear quite different from each other but they are deeply connected, and past experiences of violence against religious minorities have emboldened mobs to carry out their agenda with greater ease.

In the Indian case, research on communal violence has largely been limited to the Hindu-Muslim conflict. This is the first major book on the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, Odisha in 2008. One of the poorest districts of the state, Kandhamal was founded by prominent Christian barrister, Madhusudan Das, on 1 April, 1936. Written by two eminent lawyers, the book focusses on the challenges victims and their defenders often confront, and how the criminal justice system repeatedly fails in India. Considerable research has been done on the subject of communal violence by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and legal scholars, among others. But the bulk of their research seeks to explain the role of ideology, state and political parties and barely addresses the issue of the legal apparatus and its shortcomings. This book, however, primarily looks at the legal organs of the state, courts, and Commissions of inquiry, and provides insights on how institutional failures determine the contours of injustice. It also points out how the political space in which these processes are allowed to operate remains vulnerable to threat, co-option, and manipulation.

The incidents in 2008 weren’t the first in Kandhamal. Another – smaller in scale – took place in 2007. The violence, on both occasions, led to the setting up of Commissions of inquiry headed by former justices. On 14 July, 2008, the Justice Basudev Panigrahi Commission of Inquiry was set up to look into the violence in 2007; and in September 2008, Justice SC Mohapatra took over to head the Commission of Inquiry into the 2008 violence. Since Justice Mohapatra passed away in 2012, Justice Naidu took over and the Commission resumed its work in March 2013. At the time o f the publication of this book, neither of the Commissions had submitted their reports. Subsequently, the final reports were submitted. One major dispute about the violence in 2008 was whether it was indeed an anti- Christian outburst. The Odisha government was hesitant to recognize its communal nature and instead, argued that it was the result of lingering land issues between two dominant ethnic groups, the Panas and Kandhas. The report of the National Commission for Minorities(NCM) and several independent reports by globally recognized civil society groups, however, challenged the state government’s explanation. The authors of this book endorse the communal dimension of the conflict, and recognize the role of various political and quasi-political Hindutva groups in perpetuating the violence and also preventing justice being done to the victims.

Hari Chand Digal and his family in front of their burnt home in Minia village in Kandhamal District on October 9, 2008. (Vipin Kumar/HT)

According to the authors, the 2008 violence was pre-planned as various preparatory meetings were organized by the perpetrators and their patrons. The availability of weapons, and the systematic manner in which properties were looted and transferred also indicates planning. Efforts were made to destroy evidence and obstruct justice, and also to prevent civil society workers from assisting victim-survivors. The state’s conduct appears to have been deeply compromised, and in fact, more favourable to the perpetrators than to the victims. At the time of violence, the Biju Janata Dal( BJD), led by Naveen Patnaik, was in coalition with the Bhartiya Janata Party( BJP). The coalition broke after a few months and by 2009, Patnaik led his party to victory alone. However, the state still appeared compromised when it came to assisting victims, showing how casual so-called secular parties have been in addressing minority rights.

Vandalised idol of Jesus Christ at a church in Phulbani in Kandhamal District in October 2008. (Vipin Kumar/HT)

The research presents details about the functioning of the fast track courts set up after the violence continued till March 2013. There were 3,300 complaints but only 820 complaints were registered, and 518 cases charge sheeted. When the fast track courts were terminated, there were still 200 pending cases. These were transferred to regular courts, another example of the state’s non-serious approach to justice delivery.

A relief camp for riot victims at Tikabali in Kandhamal. (HT PHOTO)

The chapter on witness protection presents a vivid account of the intimidation of witnesses, and calls for serious reform in the judicial system. The authors analyse court verdicts, interview victims and other stake holders, and examine court proceedings to build their narrative. Scholars interested in how justice eludes victims of communal and ethnic violence would profit enormously by reading this important piece of research.