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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Kandhamal: What Next?

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by K.P. Fabian

I visited Kandhamal for three days starting from June 20, 2009. Apart from NGOs, the Superintendent of Police, the leaders of the Church (Catholic and non-Catholic), I also met with inmates of eight camps.

To start with, it is important to clearly understand why and how the atrocities occurred. It is unsubstantiated propaganda that the origins of the atrocities are best understood by ascertaining the “root causes”. According to such propaganda the “root causes” are the efforts of some of the Christians to claim ST (Scheduled Tribe) status. While there was some tension arising from such a claim it need not have caused such an explosion of atrocities.

Briefly, the atrocities occurred because those responsible for them had planned and wanted them to happen and, equally, because it was abundantly clear to the organisers that the State Government will not prevent them, and will not take action against them after they have carried out their plans. They were right in reaching such a conclusion. The first attack on the Church was in 1967; the first attack on the Christian community was in 1984. We all recall how the Orissa Government deliberately decided not to take the legally mandated action when Graham Staines and his two children were burnt alive in January 1999, till pressure was exerted on it. Nearer to our times, the State Government failed to take appropriate action against those who carried out a campaign of violence against Christians during the week starting December 22, 2007 destroying churches, convents, seminaries and other institutions. Naturally, the same people carried out the atrocities in August 2008 convinced of their impunity.

It was utterly imprudent on the part of the State Government to have permitted the procession carrying the dead body of the late Swami Lakshamananda to take a 250 km route over two days, stopping in front of churches and homes of Christians. In fact, a good part of the atrocities occurred with the Collector and the SP (Superintend of Police) standing by. I was shown the man who had raped Sister Meena; he was riding a motor bike. I was told that his son too had committed the same atrocity.

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I summarise my observations:

i) In a camp of roughly 200 square feet, there are 10 to 12 families. Obviously, it is difficult for women to have any privacy even to change clothes. The sanitary arrangements are either deficient or non-existent. In the case of one camp some outsider had thrown foul stuff to contaminate the water in the well close to the camp.

The Orissa Government has announced a grant of Rs 20,000 for rebuilding a ‘partially destroyed’ house. Many camp inmates told me that their houses had been totally destroyed, but officials, some of the them openly seeking bribes, had included such houses under the partially destroyed category. Some inmates have received the first instalment of Rs 10,000 for reconstruction. The government will give them the second instalment of Rs 10,000 if only they have started reconstruction. Here comes a catch-22 situation: the camp inmates who went to their village to undertake reconstruction were sternly told by some of their neighbours that unless they reconverted back to Hinduism and dropped the pending charges against offenders, they will not be permitted to start reconstruction.

In one camp, they told me that they could not get any van to carry construction materiel. On questioning it turned out that the owner of the van who had agreed to carry the materiel was threatened.

I mentioned about this cacth-22 situation to the Superintendent of Police. He was not aware of it and his reaction made it clear that he was not going to do anything about the matter. It is for the Orissa Government to instruct its officers to be more pro-active in such matters.

ii) The Orissa Government’s figure for the number of displaced persons who have not been able to get back to their village and resume normal life is 2900. My NGO contacts have told me that this figure may have to be increased to 7000 or 8000. A number of people have left Orissa and have gone to Kerala, Maharashtra and elsewhere. Our aim should be to see to it that all those who have been displaced are able to go back as soon as possible to their villages and resume normal life in a peaceful setting.

Therefore, the Orissa Government should be asked to undertake to establish a comprehensive list of the displaced. A group of NGOs can also initiate a similar exercise.

iii) Some of those who have returned to their villages continue to face severe difficulties. They are denied access to water and firewood. They cannot even buy goods from shops owned by non-Christians. If they are daily wage-earners they cannot get even employment. In some villages, any Hindu caught talking to a Christian will be fined Rs 1001.

Efforts have been underway to ameliorate the situation, but much more needs to be done.

It should be highlighted that:

In at least three villages (Gohingia, Gundani, and Malikpadi) the Hindus and Christians got together and prevented the mob from attacking any one in the village.

In at least two villages (Chanchedi and Gudrikia) those who attacked the Christians have apologised.

iv) The urgent task is peace-building in a comprehensive manner. Some time back a number of Christian Bishops had met with the Sangh Parivar in Bhubaneshwar. The two sides had agreed on a draft statement which condemned the atrocities. However at the last moment, the Sangh Parivar representatives walked out without signing the joint statement. It is possible that they had second thoughts about ‘condemning the atrocities’. It is my belief that it is not important to get the Sangh Parivar to condemn the atrocities in a public document so long as they undertake to do their best to facilitate the return of the displaced to their villages in order to resume normal life in a peaceful setting.

I have had preliminary discussions with the CBCI (Catholic Bishops Conference of India) about the next course of action.

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The following course of action is recommended for the consideration of all concerned:

a. The Central Government should bring political pressure on the Orissa Government to act. It is the responsibility of the Orissa Government to send out a signal that those who are obstructing the return of the displaced will be dealt with sternly. All those responsible for violence against others and destruction of property should be brought to book. About 2600 complaints have been made and about 700 cases have been registered, but the police has not taken consequential action and in some cases the alleged offenders have obtained anticipatory bail.

Even if two or three such persons are arrested from a village the situation will immediately change for the better. It is because some people have good and solid reasons to believe that they are immune to the law’s processes that the displaced cannot return to their villages.

b. Apart from political pressure from the Centre, some media pressure on the Orissa Government is also called for. I was told that when the national media took note of the situation in Kandhamal, in one or two matters, the Orissa Government acted effectively.

c. The Christian leadership should engage the Sangh Parivar in a dialogue, preferably unpublicised, and persuade them to send out a signal from their side to their followers that normalcy has to be established. It is not necessary to get the Sangh Parivar to publicly condemn the atrocities that have occurred.

d. It is important that any peace-building effort is not seen as imposed by outsiders. The IGSSS will be able to form a Group of NGOs, including some local ones, to engage with the local leadership and the villagers in peace-building along with all the stakeholders, including the Union Government and the State Government.

A distinguished diplomat, the author is currently the President, Indo-Global Social Service Society.

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