Kandhamal situation report 8th July 08 Tumidibandh incident
A Fact finding report by John Dayal, 9th July 2008
VHP leader Lakshmanananda Saraswati had ordered removal of Christian orphanage four days before his gang destroyed it in Tumidibandh, Kandhamal, Orissa
PREAMBLE: I was in the recently refurbished seminary in the Block headquarter town of Balliguda in Kandhamal district — the building had been pillaged and almost burnt down during the Christmas 2007 anti Christian violence in the area – speaking in a post lunch session to senior theology students when a teacher burst into the room to tell us fresh valence had broken out and three church buildings – a Jesuit home, their Chapel, and a orphanage — had been attacked in the adjoining block of Tumidibandh, 120 km from the district capital of Phulbani. A near curfew situation became apparent immediately in the small market town, a situation which we have seen in recent years across the country where shopkeepers, smelling trouble off the grapevine long before official information trickles in, hastily put down their shutters, vehicles just vanish off the road as if by magic and a combination of ill-kempt policemen, home guards and young men on motorcycles assume charge.
My hosts were concerned about my own security – I have the dubious distinction of having the state Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad demanding, by turns, my arrest, my expulsion or a ban on my entry into the Kandhamal district or the state, perhaps because I sort of immediately write down what I see and what I learn from eye witnesses, victims and government officials, preferably within hours of an incident taking place. Recorded truth is unpalatable as it almost always challenges and contradicts the concoctions dished out by the Sangh Parivar spokesman to a local media that is either so gullible as to be unprofessional, or is a party to the political beliefs and designs of the BJP and its sister organisations. A harsh charge, but tragically too true and so easily substantiated in Kandhamal and Bhubaneswar. They advised me to return to my camp a dozen kilometers away. I was struck there for the next 24 hours, all because of rumours, four illegally felled Sal trees, and a mischievous grapevine which now has the district in its grip.
The mechanics of this private curfew were glaringly clear within a few minutes. There is but one direct road that connects market towns such as Brahminigaon, now attracting global infamy as the site of the Christmas desecrations, Darringbadi, the Switzerland they say of Orissa, Balliguda and other townships all the way to the border of Koraput. Somewhere between Balliguda and Tumidibandh, the next sizable population, is the ashram of the self styled Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, the mastermind of the anti Christian pogrom in Orissa and a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who has taken an oath to rid the region of all those who are not Hindus, and who do not obey his dictat on how they live their daily lives, including what their children must study and what food they can, or cannot eat, and to hell with their lifelong dietary habits.
This is an ashram with a few hundred young girls and women who are taught Sanskrit and a few of the martial arts. At the swami’s call, they come out, squat on the road while their male colleagues chop down two trees on their side of the ashram’s boundary walls. All vehicles come to a grinding halt. Pedestrians and motorcyclists who get caught by the swiftness of the operation are given a simple test to prove their faith, and their loyalty to the swami. They are asked to recite the ‘gayatri’ mantra. If they do, and thereby pass the test, they are told as loyal Hindus they should extend moral support to the road closure and stay back for three hours. If they cannot, they are given the thrashing of their lives.
I have met several Christian youth who could not recite the Mantra and were beaten up – by the young women, and beaten up bad. Over some time, a few unfortunate Muslim youth – and there are but a handful of Muslims in this region — have had to suffer the further ignominy of being stripped so their faith could be ascertained from the fact of their circumcision. The police maintain a discreet distance from the site; launch their own patrols and checkpoints far from the Ashram.
Soon, the stray policeman or two made their way to the Seminary, and later to most Christian establishments. As usual, it was too little, too late. Over the next thirty-six hours, the police could not guarantee safe movement even of emergency vehicles during the district `bandh’.
The incident had taken place on 8th July. It was early in the morning of 10th July that we could as an investigating team finally come to Tumidibandh from Balliguda in two jeeps, crossing the stretch in front of the Ashram of Lakshmanananda, where the aforesaid two ” sal” trunks, now pushed to the side of the road, spoke of the impunity with which the man defies forest laws, fells rare timber, and enforces his writ where the rule of law should run.
The members of my team where Fr Vijay Naik, who heads the Ecumenical Fellowship of Christians of the District, Professor Fr Prabodh Pradhan, who heads the Balliguda Seminary, Fr Chellam Thomas, and Mr. Hemant Naik ,a social activist and local expert who has been acting as my interpreter since e December 2007. We could meet almost all victims, residents of the village of Tumidibandh which has about 220 households consisting of both Tribal and Dalits, and representing every variety of faith, Christian, Hindu, and traditional, police and other officials. The following is our report:
THE VHP CHARGE: Lakshmanananda Saraswati, who figures in over 100 affidavits filed before the Justice Basudev Panigrahi commission which begins hearings on 14th July 2008 in Phulbani, as the mastermind and financier of the hate campaigns and violence against religious minorities, made the following allegation as enumerated again at a press conference on 10th July as to why he called a Bandh and blocked traffic. Saraswati said his assistant, one Madhu Baba, and some other followers had heard that a cow had been slaughtered in Malicmadi village of Tumidibandh Block, and when they went to investigate, the younger baba was manhandled. He further charged that him followers had discovered plastic pouches with animal flesh purportedly that of a cow in the refrigerator in the kitchen of the Jesuit house about two kilometers away from the village. His followers then ransacked the kitchen and some rooms, desecrated Chapel, broke the Holy Cross as also a fiber glass large statue of St Francis Xavier, before going down the road to smash the two large huts that went for an orphanage and hostel for 40 Christian boys and girls. The swami himself went to the police station and demanded the arrest of Christians as well as of the Priests.
Our inspection of the Daily Diary of the Tumidibandh Police station, headed by Orissa Police Sub inspector Madhusudhan Janasmta [mobile phone number 09437885599] revealed two notings;
The first was Case no. 30 of 2008 under sections 341, 323, 379, 506 of the Indian Penal Code read with Section 7 of the [Anti} Cow Slaughter Act. It said the incident took place at 10.15 in the morning of 8th July 2008, the complainant was L. N. Saraswati himself, and the accused he had named were “Villagers of Malicpadi, not far from the police station. The second case, number 31, was under sections 452, 427, 379, 379 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code for damage to the church properties, and the culprits named were “Five persons of L Saraswati.”
Saraswati’s charges were that the cow slaughter led to spontaneous reaction and houses were damaged by people who discovered beef in them.
We interviewed over twenty people in the Malicpada village, among them men and women, people owing allegiance to the Congress party, the Biju Janata Dal, which rules in the state together with the Bharatiya Janata party. The people were Hindu Panos, or Dalits, Christian Panos and a few Tribals. To a person, they deposed that there had been never any community discord in the village despite their various ethnic, religious and political identities. They said traditionally, both Tribals and Panos of all religious persuasions ate beef, cow or buffalo, but there had been no slaughter of cattle in recent times in the village, and certainly not this year as the VHP was alleging. Mr. Gajapati Mandal, the head of the local Congress unit who acted as the chief spokesperson said the Superintendent and deputy superintend of police and officials of the Collectorate had interrogated them for many hours asking them to show the place where a cow had been killed. “No cow was killed and therefore there no place to show the police officers,” the villagers said. They charged that if some plastic pouches of meat had been taken to the police station by men of Saraswati, they may have got the meat from elsewhere to create a scene.
Mullick also pointed out something which was self evident. The Jesuit house was far away, down the main road and then into a lane just behind the area Forest Division office which has a strong presence of officials. How come the VHP men mad e beeline for the Christian buildings if they had not made a plan beforehand. The police have not said they discovered any flesh anywhere.
That it was not a spontaneous outburst of Hindu fervor became apparent on the main crowing where the Bhagban orphanage is situated. It was set up some years ago by a retired teacher and pastor, Mr. Bhagban Pradhan and after his death, is run by his wife Mohini with the assistance of her daughter and a nephew. Mohini said our days earlier; Lakshmanananda Saraswati had come on one of his numerous trips to the area. He had stopped in front of the Orphanage – nothing more than one semi permanent structure, two long huts which constitute the boys and girls’ dormitories, and a third one as the kitchen. He was annoyed that the orphanage board was right on the road. Saraswati alighted from his SUV and then told Mohini “This Christian hostel should not remain in the middle of the village” on the roadside. That was on 4th July 2009.
“On 8th July at 3 p.m. 15 to 20 people came, armed with staves and weapons, shouting slogans such as “”Kill them, Destroy house”. Mohini said they abused the women and then attacked the cluster of huts of the orphanage. At that time, there were 18 children in the orphanage, four of them girls, the youngest not yet six years of age. “We ran into the forest. There was no other place to go. Eventually we and the children walked 15 kilometers through the forest to reach another village where the children are now staying,” Mohini Pradhan, a frail widow, said.
At the Jesuit house, called Dibyanaugraha, built in 2000 AD, the priests were not home. The Parish Priest, Fr Cornelius, had gone to Jamshedpur some days ago. The assistant Parish Priest, Fr Praful Barla, a young clergymen appointed a few weeks earlier, and who assists in two churches in the region, was staying in the other church. The only person in the house was the cook, 40 year old Jomoj Naik of Kurtumgarh who had been working for the Jesuit fathers for 12 years, even before the new church was built, and who in a nearby village with his wife and children. He had come to the house to feed the three Alsatian dogs which were tied up in the day in their kennel behind the house
As the solitary eye witness, Jomoj Naik said “I came to the house as usual at 6 a.m. Fr Praful Barla left at 9;10 for Balliguda to meet the Tehsildar and other officials for permission to build on the land the Church had bought. I made the usual breakfast for the fathers, a vegetarian one. We do not stock meat in the fridge. When asked, I buy mutton from the local butcher, Gore Naik, or chicken from another man. For the dogs, we give them rice mixed with vegetables or raw eggs.
“I fed the dogs, locked the gate ad went home for my own breakfast. I was back in the Jesuit house when at about 2 pm I heard the dogs barking furiously in the kennel. I then saw about 15 or twenty people come through the gate. They had picked up a pick-axe from the compound and they and iron rods with them. They broke open the front grill. By this time, I was frightened, and an opened the wide grill door and ran out to the mangos grove to the parish church some distance away and narrated the violence to my friend, farmer Saninga Bismajhi.
“I and my friend later took courage to return to the Jesuit house at about 2.45 p.m. I saw the damage, the desecration of the chapel with the Cross broken and the bible thrown away. After some time, some people, apparently from Balliguda came with a cameraman. He said he was a pressman, and wanted to know if beef was stored in the house. I said no.
“I then went to teacher Cyprian Mondol and told him the incident. I, my son Brahma Naik, friend Rrudirekant Digal a social worker of the New Apostolic Church of the village, went towards the police station. I left my son behind at the canal side ensure the police duration. In front of the police station, we met the Tehsildar, Manoj Kumar Padhi. The sub-inspector of police in charge did not register my complaint, nor did he listen to me. He kept me waiting from 3 pm. to early morning 2 a.m. I asked or food and eater, but it was not given.
“Instead, the officer in charge of the police station kept on scolding me in harsh language, abusing me for saying there were 15 or more people who attacked the Jesuit church,. He said he wanted me to say there were only five people who had come to the house. I was finally allowed to go after I pleaded that I was hungry and I had to go and feed the dogs who ere also hungry.”
The experience of the Jesuit priests, Fr Praful Barla, was no different from that of his cook. The sub inspector of police insisted that the priest say only five persons had come to his house and chapel in his absence.
It was much later, when the fact finding team went to the police station, and later met the Sub divisional police officer, that the police changed the figure of attackers from five to fifteen.
The Jesuit Fathers said they had some inkling of impending trouble. They said when they were at Balliguda in the office of the revenue inspector for the land issue, the officer told them he had heard there would be a road blockade at 3 p.m.
After spending four hours in the police station, the village, the orphanage an talking to senior police officers, it was quite obvious to us that there was a deliberate attempt to provoke the people of the village who had been spurning the political advances of the VHP and had maintained communal unity and harmony during the December 2007 violence.
It was also quite obvious the local police, particularly the sub inspector, was under tremendous pressure from the VHP to do their will. His notings inn the police diary, his tone when speaking of the VHP leader and his repeated attempt even in our presence to coerce the cook and the Jesuit fathers made that clear. In fact it was the presence of the Sub divisional police office and the fact finding team which eventually made him correctly record the statement of the cook.
It is still not clear — the police offer no explanation — why they could not restore law and order and clear the roads. There were only four trees which were blocking the road, and a handful of VHP activists. The police made no effort to prevent activists from forcing people to close shops as far as Nuagoan, 40 kilometers away, where a handful of people even stopped the car of a district official. No forest officer could tell us why there are no cases against people felling government owned and protected timber.
Above all, even though VHP men came to the police station saying they were carrying with them meat they had taken from the Jesuit house, the police say they do not know who attacked the residence and chapel of the Christian priests.
There, of course, have been no arrests in the case. The attackers who made 18 boys and girls of the orphanage run into the forest, who shattered the peace of the village, pillaged the Jesuit residence and desecrated the Chapel remain beyond the pale of law.
The roads of Kandhamal are free only for the SUV of Lakshmanananda Saraswati ad his goons, and for the police who follow him as bodyguards in another jeep.
Released to the Media by John Dayal