It is seven years since the worst carnage against the Christian community took place in Kandhamal in Odisha. I, along with some others, was there to attend the annual observance, this time in Raikia, of the anniversary organized by the Kandhamal Committee for Peace and Justice in the memory of those killed, injured in 2008 and for those whose lives have been forever marked by the trauma and terror of the communal conflagration that lasted for several months.
The toll was heavy, with 80-100 Christians reportedly murdered, thousands of homes burnt, churches and educational institutions vandalized, over 56,000 people forced to flee their homes to live in the squalor of relief camps. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had named the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal as being responsible. But the victim survivors still wait for justice.
Have a quick look at this fact-sheet meticulously collected and provided by advocate-activist Dibya Singh Pariccha of Kandhamal: the victim survivors made 3,000 complaints to the police of which the police filed only 825 FIRs and, further minimizing the extent of the crimes, filed chargesheets in just 605 cases.
Of these cases, nearly half have been closed due to “lack of evidence”. This is a euphemism for witness intimidation which has marked the entire criminal justice process in these cases. Witnesses were terrorized into keeping quiet. A record 11,000 of the rioters were given anticipatory bail. Those criminals who had killed, burnt, and threatened were roaming around freely. Who would dare to speak? There have been convictions in just 73 cases involving lesser offences.
According to reports by inquiry teams, the number of murders were between 80-100. Many of the bodies were burnt. The Government registered only 35 deaths of the community attacked. Of these 35 murder cases, only two have ended in conviction, with a life sentence given to 10 persons. However, courts have released each one of these murder convicts on bail.
Today there is only one man in jail for the rape of a nun. Even in this horrific case, the other two accused in the case were given bail and are now absconding. Space here is inadequate to detail other aspects of the monumental injustices but are available for anyone who cares to know.
Among the crowds in Raikia, there are seven women standing to one side. These are the wives of the men, four Adivasi and three Dalits, all Christian, who have been convicted of the murder of Lakshamananda Saraswati. He was the leader of the often violent and hate-filled anti-conversion campaign against the Christian community in this part of Odisha. His murder was the pretext for the carnage. Pretext because the Maoists had already declared proudly that it was they who had killed Lakshmananda and four of his followers, including a woman. Yet the Hindutva forces targeted the Christian community after his murder, and unleashed unprecedented violence against them.
The women have large families to manage from between four to six children each, except for the youngest who has two children. They work as agricultural workers during the season for Rs. 100 a day or eke out a living through the collection of minor forest produce, earning on an average a small sum of Rs. 50 or 60 a day. I tell them that I have met their husbands in jail that morning. They smile for a second and shake my hand. Their words are translated for me: How much longer before we can see the face of justice? The women have a dignity in their desperation. Much like their husbands, the men I had met that morning.
They had walked into the room, six of them. It was the jailor’s office in the Phulbani District Central jail in Kandhamaldistrict of Odisha. There was not much time to talk. Just an expression of solidarity from us. An appeal for help from them. A few words. A few tears, quickly suppressed. They said that even the “babas” had sent them messages in jail saying that they knew they were not guilty. They stood straight when they spoke. I looked at the tallest of them. I recalled what I had read in that atrocious judgement holding them guilty. The police-tutored witness had said in response to a question – “I saw a tall, black man” .. a tall black man, a description which would fit every third Indian man, but it was enough to lock him and the others up on equally flimsy grounds for seven years for a crime they have not committed.
I was asked why I had gone to meet men convicted of murder. Would it not give a wrong message of approval? The answer is simple: I went because they are innocent. This is a case where the law has taken a terribly wrong course. You need just to read the appalling judgement of the lower court to believe as I do that these men are innocent.
Quite recently, (June 25, 2015) one of the police officers who was part of the investigating team had testified before the Naidu Commission, set up to inquire into the reasons for the riots, that documents that have been used by the prosecution to put forward the concocted theory of a conspiracy by Christians to murder Lakshmananda are false. This was a register supposedly from the Betticola church which had been given to the police by a BJP leader Ashok Sahu and quoted in the judgement as proof of the conspiracy. A forensic report now available shows that the signatures on the register are forged. Yet neither the State Government nor the police have prosecuted Sahu for cheating the court, leave alone recognizing that it knocks the bottom out of the case of conspiracy. The officer also informed the Commission that his investigations of the charge that the Christian organisations were funding a conspiracy were found to be false.
The entire case of a conspiracy is itself a conspiracy to defame the community and arrest innocent people. The appeal is currently before the High Court.
But why the double standards? Why give bail to the killers and arsonists and deny bail to those you know to be innocent?
These questions haunt you when you visit Kandhamal. The Kandhamal seven and their families need your help, your solidarity, in whatever way you can. Here are their names: Durjadhan Majhi, Goranath Chalan Seth, Buddhuadeb Nayak, Vijay Kumar Sunsat, Bhaskar Majhi, Sanatan Majhi, Munda Bara Majhi, remember them every time you think of Indian democracy.