Kandhamal, Orissa, Updste 9 June 2008

In Kandhamal, Orissa, Persecution

John Dayal Kandhamal Orissa update 9 June 08

Of continuing Gender Violence, bureaucratic indifference in rehabilitation, and the Government silence on rebuilding churches destroyed in Sangh Parivar arson

I have been to Orissa, including Kandhamal, seven times [six times to the district] since 28th December 2008. My last visit ended two days ago. Each visit has been of up to a week, more or less. The next time I go, I am formally going to request the head of the Bhubaneswar Fire Brigade if he can accompany me on the trip to the villages of Kandhamal and let us know how many of the burnt houses can be rebuilt without starting from scratch after tearing down the charred timber ad the scorched bricks.

The people are deeply disappointed and saddened by the lethargic and insensitive, almost inhuman, response of the Central and State governments on all issues of the Kandhamal tragedy.

The people are also deeply disappointed at the response of civil society, as without its pressure and moral backing, it is difficult to wrest justice from the authorities who seemed determined to remain callous at best and absolutely bigoted and partisan at worst. The national media remains silent, barring perhaps the occasional dispatch in New Delhi Television, NDTV. A very few Human Rights groups are helping; the most notable is the Human Rights Law Network, New Delhi, apart from the Christian Law Network and the lawyers retained by the all India Christian Council and the Catholic Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack under the towering leadership of septuagenarian Archbishop Raphael Cheenath

The police are their most aggressive worst. But the rehabilitation and resettlement programme is no better.

The monsoons are setting in, and still up to four hundred families are without a roof over their head. The government has been doling out the money is driblets. The grant for totally destroyed houses is fifty thousand rupees, and half or less for partially destroyed houses. But half burnt houses cannot be rebuilt. They have to be first razed to the ground and then rebuilt, and the government does not recognize this. Anyway, even the fifty thousand rupees is not enough. Relief officers have privately told me with steel and asbestos, sheets, cement and bricks and a bit of wood, the total comes to eighty-five thousand. This means that unless the dole is raised, we will have half built houses when the rains come. There is no option but to move the courts – the Supreme Court if that becomes necessary, to get the government to give the money.

Anyway, it is not houses but homes that are destroyed. It takes more than mere money to rebuild a life in a new house. In addition, half a year of labour has been lost; there is no means of livelihood. These are not big time farmers we are talking about, these Dalits, Kui-speaking `Domangs’ and Kondhs, who have lost everything they ever had. Most of them actually had not enough land to sustain a family in these highlands where the monsoons are the only source of irrigation, and manual labour on government projects the solitary source of income.

But there is no answer from the government. There is no scheme on the anvil. It is becoming increasingly clear to the people that justice can come only from the superior courts. The people may also have to approach the Supreme Court because Christians are being discriminated against in rehabilitation and resettlement — while the few Hindu victims have been given plots on tribal tracts even if they are Dalits, Dalit Christians are not getting land with the authorities telling them that their old houses were built on tribal land and they cannot get that land back under the existing laws.

In the criminal cases, there is only now that information is coming out, and shyly, about the extent of gender violence, including incidents of rape, molestation, and assault. Even now, many girls particularly in the Brahminigaon area cannot go to school for fear of molestation after threats have been received from local goons and political activists. An application is being filed with the National and State Women’s Commissions on this. A full and detailed probe is called for, and a sensitive counselling programme designed in the medium and long term, specially for teenagers and young women. The victims are grateful for the visit of Sr Mary Scaria of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, a Supreme Court advocate, and then of Teesta Setalvad with the Impendent Tribunal which unearthed the magnitude of gender victimization.

The economic violence, ostracisation, and alienation question is equally important. Christians who had started making a life for themselves through running shops and self employment were particular targets. This was confirmed during the second visit of the national Minorities Commission in April. The Christians are still facing a sort of social and economic boycott. For the poor who were working as labour in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme [NREG] and Prime Minister’s Rural Roads programmes, jobs are either not available because work has stopped, or hard to come by. There is also discernible partisanship in employment, we are told by the victims. The State government seems not to have noticed this at all. This calls for an urgent enquiry by concerned central authorities as government of India’s funding is involved.

The police remain perversely bigoted. In Brahminigaon police station, they are actively trying to manufacture and prove a link between the Naxalite and the Christians; they are also actively progressing on the cases relating to the burning of the few houses of Hindus in this area. But there is no progress reported at all in catching the culprits who burned the churches and the houses. Even the Balliguda sub collector told me that the main man responsible, Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, cannot be restrained or arrested because such are the orders of the higher authorities and the State government. He and his henchmen can be seen in all parts of the district.

The people have repeatedly called for probity, equality, and an absolute secular approach by the administration on issues of justice and the enforcement of law and order. Church unity remains of essence, particularly in areas of mobilising defence of Christians arrested or implicated on fabricated charges, and in coordinating rehabilitation, Human Rights Law Network and other lawyers, some of them volunteers, have helped people prepare their affidavits for the Justice Panigrahi Commission, but it will take several more weeks before every victim can do so. Many reports still remain to be filed in the police stations for want of legal adequate legal aid.

The Justice Panigrahi Enquiry Commission is holding its first meeting in Bhubaneswar on 14th June. Patently there is need to set up some sort of a coordination committee both in the Kandhamal district and in Bhubaneswar-Cuttack.

The path to peace and reconciliation, not surprisingly, has been shown by the brave women of Kandhamal who have sunk all ethnic differences to come together to challenge Lakshmananda. A meeting led by the women collected as many as six thousand people in Balliguda a few days ago. The sub collector and the police tried to dissuade them, banning speeches and posters and slogans, but the woman marshalled the people brilliantly. One after the other, speakers many of them Hindu and several of them women, said they were determined to challenge and defeat the forces of religious bigotry exemplified by the groups of the Sangh Parivar and Lakshmananda.

Meanwhile, we are informed on good authority that the Sangh Parivar is preparing for more violence in another area of Orissa – near and in the Sundargarh district which abuts Jharkhand.

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