Kandhamal Orissa Update 27 May 2007
Abortion in a refugee camp, houses without roofs and a single- track police investigation
From John Dayal
Remember those two infant boys who born in the forests of Kandhamal district in Orissa during Christmas 2007 in a Nativity script so horribly rewritten by marauding gangs of the Sangh Parivar?
I am happy to report that both boys, now five months old, are doing well in their Ulipodara village near Brahminigaon, which was attacked on Christmas night. I visited them last fortnight and saw them in the arms of their young mothers. Mercifully child Yesudas, appropriately named by his mother Mukti Parichha, and Kumidini’s still unnamed baby boy, show no signs of the trauma. Their mothers and the rest of the village are, however, still in a state of shock.
It is not that many houses still do not have a roof, or that the followers of the self styled Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati are still trying to build a temple just a tree shadow away from their desecrated and burned church – the goons were chased away by the police, but have threatened to come again — or that pubescent girls no longer go to the school where they are being teased even by other girls, or threatened with rape on the road.
It is also because the local officers have told the men they will get not get any jobs, not even as coolies and manual workers in the government’s much touted National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or the stellar Prime Minister’s Gramin [rural] Road Scheme. It does not matter that many of the young men are educated and deserve better. The officers say unless the government declares there is total peace, the work on the roads will not resume in their area. That is it.
I was once again in Kandhamal this month, trying to facilitate an Independent Tribunal that is investigating the Christmas week anti Christian violence in the district. Convened at my request by the famed Mumbai Human rights activist Ms Teesta Setalvad, it was headed by another legendary activist, Mr. Justice Hosbet Suresh, formerly of the Bombay High Court. His colleagues, apart from Ms Setalvad, were Mr. Justice Kolse Patil, who resigned from the Bombay high court at the height of his judicial career to fight for the human rights of Maharashtra’s peasants, and former Gujarat Director General of Police Mr. Sreekumar, IPS, who had exposed the RSS nexus with the top brass of the police under Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in the mass murder of Muslims in the state in February-March 2002.
A public Tribunal with higher credibility is difficult to imagine.
Providing them local assistance were Rev Pran Parichha and his son Ashish from Cuttack, grassroots Kui activist and social scientist Hemant Naik from Bhubaneswar, and Catholic Social Forum founder Joe Dias of Mumbai.
The Independent Tribunal toured the area extensively, visited refugee camps, met with officials, and held public hearings in a school building in Balliguda, the block head quarters at the heart of the district, and close to Barakhama, which had borne the brunt of the violence and still looks like a war zone. I understand from Ms. Teesta Setalvad that the Tribunal will write to the State government of Orissa to seek answers to questions arising from their tour and the public hearings and then will release their report to the public.
Ms. Teesta Setalvad’s womanly presence in the Barakhama refugee camp during their visit may well have saved the life of young Rashmi, the daughter of Suniya Digal of Tikarbari village. Rashni’s story also narrates, as nothing can, the crisis not just in the refugee camp or even in the Kandhamal district, but in Orissa itself where an utter absence of governance coupled with rampant corruption has left much of the state bereft of the benefits that have to other parts of the country in the decades since Independence in 1947.
Rashmi is about 16 years old, and was married last year. She came to the camp with her family after her house was burnt. She lives in a tent with her family in the camp set up in the high school at Barakhama village. She took ill with malaria, rampant in the camp, some days ago. The doctor did not check her properly, and prescribed a strong anti-malarial drug. Rashmi was apparently 16 weeks pregnant. She aborted. Her husband fled, leaving her with her parents.
No camp official bothered. The men don’t care, and there are no women health workers around anyway. The Catholic Sisters who occasionally visit the camp also seem to have missed out on the young girl suffering silently with acute stomach cramps and high fever.
That is how Ms. Teesta Setalvad discovered her. As a woman and a mother, she knew at a glance just exactly what was wrong. The symptoms were clear. She called me and told me to rush Rashmi to a hospital, any hospital. She had had an abortion, Ms Setalvad said, and was on the brink of septicemia, or blood poisoning, unless a gynecologist had a look at her immediately and evacuated the remains of her pregnancy.
I spoke with the camp authorities. They seemed unmoved, but when I insisted, they said they would shift her to the Balliguda block hospital. This was around noon.
At around 5 in the evening, Fr Basant Kumar Digal, the Catholic priest who I had requested to ensure that the girl was indeed taken to the hospital, came to me in the Balliguda hearings of the Independent Tribunal to tell me of his experience in the block Hospital. The camp officers took hours to bring the girl to the hospital. The doctor was at home and did not want to come. He would tell me later that he had gone home for lunch. When he did come, he said the girl’s family had to buy all medicines. Fr Digal bought the medicines for her.
When I reached the hospital, Rashmi was lying outside the labour room on three chairs. The doctor told me she had had her uterus evacuated and was doing fine. But she needed a malaria test. It would cost Rupees Seventy-five. I asked him why one had to pay in a government hospital for parent brought from the refugee camp. He said these things cost money. The government medicine was no good. I paid the money, and then persuaded, if I may use the word, to get the technician to take a blood test. I also eventually persuaded the doctor to shift Rashmi to a ward and to a bed. By late evening, she was transferred to a dirty bed, with linen that had not been changed for a week or so it looked. The hospital itself looked it had not been cleaned for a week, nor painted for years. And this is the best hospital in the area.
Medicare in the camp, and elsewhere, is a joke, unless one is willing to pay standard rates. Some time ago, during an earlier visit, I had come across the case of an older woman who died because her family could not buy the drugs the camp doctor had prescribed for her. And three men have died two of them of wounds sustained in the Christmas attacks. A child also died in the camp inmates told me. The government officials do not want to speak of deaths, autopsies, or medico legal cases.
In Brahminigaon, the police are spending much, if not all, of the time trying to prove that Maoist extremists have been running around with the Christians. Investigations are in full swing to find out who torched houses of Hindus in Odiya-sahi in Brahminigaon. There is no news if anyone is following up the cases of houses burnt in the Christian-sahi in the next lane. There is also no information about the police progress in tracing the whereabouts the masterminds who plotted the widespread arson which razed more than 100 churches, convents, schools, hospitals and medical centres run by Christian organisations.
There is, however, official news that the government dole will not be able to put a roof over the houses now being built in Barakhama for the Christians. Local officers tell me that even after the full amount of Rupees Fifty Thousand is given to rebuild the totally burnt down houses, each family will be about Thirty thousand rupees short for the steel truss and the asbestos sheet roofs. They tell me that the Church could help put a roof over the houses.
And anyway, at least half a dozen families will not be given houses at all because they had homes on tribal land, and they cannot go back, officers say, because non tribals are not allowed t build on tribal land.
This nice rule has apparently been waived, or ignored, for some others who are not Christians in the Brahminigaon area, we discover. No one is available to explain how religion comes in the way of getting a roof, or getting a home.
But that is the story of Kandhamal.
Lakshmananda Saraswati, the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, is the only one who seems not to have a worry. Senior officials admit they have been told not to do anything about him though he is named even by the police in cases of arson and burning of churches several times in the last two decades. He also is accused of fomenting the hate campaign against Christians and Muslims in the region, and for masterminding the attacks. “We will have more trouble if we do anything about him,” a senior district official admits to us. “So we have given him armed bodyguards and a jeep so at least we know where he is,” he adds.
I had a near encounter with this powerful man. As we were travelling from Darringbadi to Balliguda, Saraswati’s convoy was coming from the other direction. He was seated and a deep red SUV, a huge saffron triangular flag on a long staff, tied to the front bumper of the vehicle, tearing into the wind. His SUV sped past as we slowed down. The police bodyguards, armed with automatic weapons, followed him in their jeep. They vanished along the road, behind the next hill.
Justice Panigrahi, who heads the one-man commission, has given time till the end of May to all those who want to testify before him. It is reported that the commission will meet on 15 June or so to decide its modalities and procedures.
But in the hills of Kandhamal, with refugees still traumatised there is just not sufficient time, and grossly insufficient security, for the victims to file their affidavits in far away Cuttack.
I am among those who have filed applications before the Justice Panigrahi Commission that it needs to give the victims more time and security so they can file their affidavits. My application requests him to extend the last date till 15 July 2008 by when hopefully the people will have roofs over their heads and the calm they need to narrate their trauma in the legalese that the commission seeks.