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Mainstream, VOL LV No 17 New Delhi April 15, 2017

Kandhamal: Whither Justice for Violence Victims?

Wednesday 19 April 2017


by Ram Puniyani

Kandhalmal: Introspection for Initiative for Justice 2007-2015 by Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma; Media House and United Christian Forum Delhi; 2017.

Violence is the bane of the Indian society and a manifest agenda of the communal forces which thrive on divisive politics and polarisation. This is part of their political agenda. While Hindu-Muslim violence during the British period had a particular beginning and characteristics, the same violence became anti-Muslim violence after independence. The principal brunt of communal violence has been borne by the Muslim community while Sikhs also became a major victim in 1984. The Christian community was not under attack till practically 1999 when Pastor Stains was burnt alive in a brutal way. Following that anti-Christian violence kept dogging the society in Gujarat (Dangs), MP (Jhabua) and many other places, the peak of this having been witnessed in Kandhamal in August 2008, when on the pretext of murder of Swami Laxmananand anti-Christian violence was unleashed.

The Swami was murdered most probably by the Maoists and Christians had nothing to do with that even in a very remote way. The manner in which the mechanism of communal violence has come up in India, pretexts are so created and modulated that religious minorities face the wrath of violence. The body of the Swami was taken in a procession in the Christian-majority areas of Kandhamal with the expected result of brutal violence, in which killings (nearly 100) and displacements (55,000) of Christian minority took place, accompanied by the burning and damaging of Churches (295). Then followed the efforts of the victims to get proper rehabilitation and justice, which usually deludes the riot victims.

This book is a meticulous chronicling of the process of attempts to get justice, the hurdles and inadequate outcome of the same. The lawyer duo, who have painstakingly followed this process, are probably the most competent ones to do the job as they have not been just distant observers but very much part of the process of getting justice all through. Their compassion for the cause is very much there to be admired. Earlier; they penned two volumes on Kandhamal (Kandhamal; Law must change its course, 2010 and Waiting for Justice, A Report on National Peoples’ Tribunal on Kandhamal, 2001).

They have examined the role of the police and its apathy in controlling the violence (What of that, violence took place in their very presence!) They point to the role of the state apparatus, in first letting the violence take place and then the default on rehabilitation and on giving justice to victims. Both these are part of the Indian system wherein justice and rehabilitation have been deeply undermined due to the prevalent virus of communal thinking. Few are the officers, bureaucrats or politicians who stand up to do what is expected of them.

 The book does confirm the finding of other researchers like Dr. V. N. Rai that no violence can continue beyond 48 hours unless the state is complicit in it. The book also reaffirms the findings of outstanding scholars like Asghar Ali Engineer and Paul Brass about the ‘institutional riot mechanism’ in India where riots are not only orchestrated but are made to appear as if minorities have begun the violence.

The book sets out with the goal to evaluate whether closure and justice have any resonance in the lives of victims close to a decade after the carnage took place. All the facets of violence—the communalised social common sense, the instigation of mobs, the targeting of women’s bodies—get reflected in the book. Impunity is the dominant phenomenon of the post-violence scenario, and the book points out: “This impunity is neither incidental nor accidental. The gaps in Indian criminal jurisprudence, which does not recognise the doctrine of command or superior responsibility; individual criminal culpability, constructive responsibility and culpable inaction, penal provisions for holding public servants accountable for acts of omission and commission, allows the architects and abettors of the communal conflict, holding positions of public office or public authority to escape accountability.”(page 23) This in a way sums up the core diagnosis of what ails the Indian system. While it provides adequate legal data, it passionately urges the need to revisit the legal regime, policies and investigation protocols to ensure justice to the victims of mass carnage.

It is a major contribution to give us an outline of various steps undertaken by the community to strive to get justice at multiple layers. At the same time it shows the inadequacy of the Mahapatra Commission in sidelining and ignoring the role of the Hindutva forces in inciting hate and perpetrating violence against Adivasi and Dalit Christians. The other inquiry report—that of Justice Naidu—is proving the old adage, justice delayed is justice denied. He was to submit has report in 2014 but still there is no news of the report being submitted.

The nature of the communal violence has been constantly changing in India and by and large more despicable dimensions get added on to the phenomenon. The book brings to our attention as to how the survivors have been framed under different charges. This is like putting salt to the wounds.

 An important part the book is to focus on the justice deliverance system and its inadequacies in the present scenario. While this will help the activist-lawyers to respond to such situations in future, it’s also a mirror to our society. Can such contributions be taken as a call for reforming the system? That’s a million dollar question in contemporary times, when the communal forces seem to be on the ascendance. The ‘victim as the culprit’ is being projected very aggressively while the need is to ensure prevention of violence, deliverance of justice and rehabilitation of victims; these are of paramount importance.

 On the other hand, the book seems to be over-focused on Kandhalmal. There was a need for an introductory chapter on communal violence in India with the emphasis on anti-Christian violence. Also it does need a summary and a conclusion chapter for the average reader to grasp the gist of the book. Overall the authors deserve kudos for the effort which will give strength to the struggling human and minority rights movements in the country.


The reviewer, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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