Bhubaneswar, June 14th 2008
Justice Basudev Panigrahi Judicial Commission extends deadline for filing affidavits in Kandhamal anti Christian violence to 5th July, hearings to begin in Phulbani from 14th July 2008
[The following is the text press statement made by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath this morning on behalf of the Christian community of Orissa after the first meeting of the Justice Basudev Panigrahi Commission enquiring into the anti Christian violence during Christmas week 2007 in Kandhamal district. Archbishop Cheenath, All India Christian Council Orissa president Rev Pran Parichha, Mr. Hemant Naik, and Dr John Dayal, Member, National Integration Council, Government of India, were among those who attended the meeting called by Justice Panigrahi to finalise procedural matters. Lawyers and Human Rights activists of the Human Rights Law Network, New Delhi, National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, All India Christian Council, Justice and Peace Commission, Grassroots Process, Kui Dina Santhi O Nyaya Pratistha Mancha, Kandhamal Nari Jagran Samiti, and the Catholic and protestant Churches, were also present. Justice Basudev Panigrahi, heading the one-man Judicial Commission later extended the deadline for filing affidavits of victim and others in Kandhamal anti Christian violence to 5th July, hearings to begin in Phulbani from 14th July 2008. The earlier deadline was 30th June.]
The orchestrated and vicious violence against the innocent Christian community of Kandhamal during Christmas week of 2007 traumatised the victims of the district, and shocked the Christian community not just of Orissa or the rest of India, but of the world. For we had hoped that Orissa government would have learnt its lessons from the macabre burning to death of Graham Stuart Staines and his two young sons in 1991, and taken potent steps to contain and curb rabid communal elements whose hate campaigns had been proved to be at the root of those murders, so that such incidents were never repeated. These lessons were apparently not learnt.
After the 2007 serial arson, loot, destruction, murders, rape, molestation and terror, we had hoped for prompt action by the government to bring the culprits to book, and a compassionate and prompt procedure on the physical and economic rehabilitation and resettlement of the victims. We regret to put on record our deep disappointment with the progress made on issues of justice and rehabilitation by the district police and civil administration. The State government in Bhubaneswar cannot escape its responsibility in this matter.
We had demanded that the State set up a judicial commission headed by a sitting Judge of the Orissa High Court to go into the roots of the criminal conspiracy to eliminate Christians belonging to all castes, tribes and classes, from the Kandhamal district. We had also demanded an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigations or a Special Investigating Group which would have the credibility and the knowhow to fully unravel the conspiracy and the well-oiled hate machinery which carried out the violence in four days while the Kandhamal district was isolated from the rest of the state and the country, and did it under the eyes of an inept and bigoted District police apparatus.
The state government in its wisdom appointed the Commission under Mr. Justice B Panigrahi, a retired Judge of the Orissa High Court. In the interests of bringing justice to the aggrieved and victims people of Kandhamal, we agreed to cooperate with the Justice Panigrahi Commission, despite our original demand for a sitting Judge of the High Court. However, the late notifications by the commission, coupled with the reign of terror still prevailing in the villages and forests of Kandhamal, has made it difficult for all victims to be able to file their depositions and affidavits before the Panigrahi commission by the date specified and under the stringent formalities demanded by the notification.
We have therefore moved the Union Government in New Delhi, the State Chief Minister in Bhubaneswar and Mr. Justice Basudev Panigrahi, on the following points:
1. We asked in at least three separate applications that Justice Panigrahi Commission extend the deadline for filing affidavits by 45 days, or up to 31 July 2008, to enable the victims more time. Simultaneously, we demanded that he give orders to the District and State police and civil administration to ensure and provide adequate security to the victims in their villages so they have the confidence to approach the criminal justice system and the Commission with their grievances in the hope of procuring justice. We also demanded that hearings be held first of the victims, and preferably as close to their homes as possible in various villages in the affected blocks of Kandhamal, and only thereafter statements of the government and then rival contentions. We are happy the deadline has been extended by three weeks, and that hearings will also be held in Kandhamal.
2. We have urged the Chief Minister of Orissa the Government of Orissa to expand the terms of reference of the one-man Mr. Justice Basudev Panigrahi commission to also include the issue of criminal neglect and ineptitude by the district authorities in matters of relief and rehabilitation. We want the Commission to also go into why the District Collector banned Church and other human development groups from reaching aid to the worst affected victims who had to live in forests or under tents, whose wives and daughters were given one dhoti even if there were three female members of the families, and whose children , even if infants, had to eat bad quality rice made in a gruel for want of anything else, whose old and ill parents or children died for want of medical attention in the camps, and whose houses are still half built and without roofs even as the Monsoon rains have come to Orissa.
3. We have asked the National Women’s Commission to probe in depth the extent of gender violence. Even our own preliminary reports of interviews conducted by women Supreme Court lawyers have unearthed cases of rape, sexual molestation, sexual threats, and sexual harassment in several villages of Kandhamal from 24 December 2007 till now. It is a matter of shame that girls and young women cannot go to school for fear of sexual violence on the forest roads in several villages.
4. We have requested the Union and State governments to investigate why employment is not being given to villagers under NREGA and Prime Ministers Rural Road and other projects in many, if not most areas. Six months after the violence, most Christians of the violence affected blocks of Kandhamal are without gainful employment and many of them have had to utilize whatever little money they were given out of the government’s house building funds – which have not been given in fully, anyway, to buy food and clothes for their families.
5. We have to our shock discovered that the Kandhamal district civil and police administration are helpless in front of Lakshmananand Saraswati and his henchmen who have been named by many victims in their FIRS before the police and as the persons directly responsible for the violence. The police are helpless and some of their officers are in connivance with this man who is moving around freely under police escort, spewing hate and venom against minority communities, assaulting traders and interfering in the livelihood of people with impunity and with contemptuous disregard for the rule of law. We have once again called upon the government ensure that its writ runs in Kandhamal and criminal action is taken against this man.
6. We have called for an immediate end to the witch-hunt that has been launched against Dalits and tribals in government service who are being thrown out of their jobs and even arrested under false charges and fabrications on their caste or tribe status at the instigation of vested interests. This is without prejudice to the right of the individuals, and our right, to move higher judicial fora for redress.
7. We have also reserved our right to move Orissa High Court and the Supreme court, as deemed fit, for adequate rehabilitation assistance to the, compensation for loss of livelihood and economic boycott of Christians who are self employed.
8. We congratulate the brave women of Kandhamal for taking the imitative in starting the reconciliation and peace process with four rallies and their condemnation of communalism being spread at the criminal and political thugs.