|The Christian populations of the villages in Kandhamal district fear a repeat of the communal riots of 2008.|
MASA DIGAL AND his wife, Sabitri, of Ladapadar village in Kandhamal district, who returned home from Bhubaneswar to farm his land.
MASA DIGAL has not gone to a church or a prayer house since the widespread anti-Christian riots of 2008 in many parts of Orissa's Kandhamal district.
“Religion carries little meaning for me today as my life continues to be full of uncertainties. I am yet to forget the harrowing time we had when we hid in forested hills braving heavy rains and survived without food for days on end – until some of us managed to get out of the district while others took shelter in relief camps set up by the district administration,” said Digal, a native of Ladapadar village in the district.
Digal, whose house was looted by rioters belonging to the majority community while he was hiding in the forests, is yet to muster the courage to lead a normal life in his native village. This correspondent met him recently at Ladapadar when he had come along with his wife, Sabitri, to grow a kharif crop on the small patch of land he owned near his house.
“We do not feel secure in our own homes in the village anymore. That is why I don't feel like leaving Bhubaneswar and coming to my village and living here the way I lived in the past,” he said. After the riots, he lived with his family in a slum in the capital city, more than 220 kilometres away from his village, and earned his livelihood as a daily wage labourer.
Digal was among the thousands of people who fled the troubled district during the 2008 communal violence. Although security personnel had been deployed in the urban areas in the wake of the riots, violence continued in the interior areas. Digal went alone to Bhubaneswar during the riots, while his wife took shelter in her parental home several kilometres away from their village.
A few weeks after the riots stopped following the arrest of a number of people who were allegedly responsible for them, many Christian families in Ladapadar were forced to convert to Hinduism at a ceremony organised by the local unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). However, many of those who changed their religion then practise Christianity now. But peace eludes them.
“We were first attacked in December 2007 following a rumour that VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda was attacked by a group of Christian youth. The village church was badly damaged in the attack. But the violence we experienced in 2008 was much worse,” he added. The church has not been repaired to date. So no prayer could be organised there so far.
There are 25 families in the village, including one that converted to Hinduism several years ago. Many of these families live below the poverty line but are yet to be issued BPL cards. Only four families have got dwelling units under the Indira Awas Yojana to date. The work on the main approach road to the village has remained incomplete for years together.
“The local sarpanch, who belongs to the ‘padma phula party' [party with the lotus symbol, or the Bharatiya Janata Party], pays little attention to our woes. We have not approached the district administration in Phulbani, just 18 km away, for BPL cards, houses under the Indira Awas Yojana, or compensation for the damage caused to our church and homes during the two successive riots, as we feel it would annoy members of the majority community living in nearby villages,” said Kishore Digal, another resident of the village.
LAMBODAR KANHAR, LEADER of the Kui Samaj Coordination Committee.
Most of the residents of Ladapadar have lived outside Kandhamal district after the 2008 riots, which had made Kandhamal look like a killing field. The story is the same in many other villages as well in the district. And peace continues to elude the poor majority who live in their villages now.
Communal violence started in Kandhamal soon after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda in one of his ashrams in the district on the night of August 23, 2008. Hundreds of houses, churches and prayer houses belonging to tribal Christians were damaged or burnt down.
Even though the Maoists claimed that they had killed the VHP leader, the Sangh Parivar preferred to believe that the crime was the handiwork of tribal Christians. Soon communal violence engulfed most parts of the district. Members of the Christian community had to run for their lives. They hid in forests until they could go to relief camps or to distant towns. More than 25,000 people were forced to live in relief camps in the district and in places like Bhubaneswar, Berhampur and Cuttack for months together.
Those who failed to escape were killed by rampaging mobs. The exact death toll is still a matter of conjecture. While human rights groups estimate that over 100 people were killed, the State government puts the figure at 38.
Why are the Christian families still feeling insecure in their own hamlets tucked in the forests and hills of this picturesque district? This is because there has been little interaction or exchange of views between the members of the minority and majority communities till date. Very few meetings of the peace committee were held at Phulbani, while attacks on Christian families continued in some areas.
Besides, prosecution of many of those who had indulged in rioting, arson and killing has not been possible for a variety of reasons. The main reason is that the Christians fear to depose before the police or a court against members of the majority community who attacked them and their homes.
According to the Kandhamal police, a total of 828 cases were registered in the aftermath of the 2008 riots in different parts of the district even though filing complaints with the police was a difficult task for the riot victims. The victims say that they are not aware of the fate of their complaints.
The Kandhamal police have so far closed, and have the final report in, as many as 255 cases. Although the allegations made in the complaints were found to be true, the police had no clues, eyewitnesses or evidence to establish the cases and book those involved.
Kandhamal Superintendent of Police Praveen Kumar, who has been holding his post since the time of the violence, said that while investigations into 225 cases had been closed, the police had been able to complete investigations and file charge sheets in 410 cases in the two fast-track courts set up for the purpose. The remaining cases were still under investigation, he said.
All cases relating to the 2008 riots were being handled by the district police, while the cases relating to the murder of Laxmanananda and two incidents of rape went to the Crime Branch.
Two separate judicial commissions, both headed by retired High Court judges, were set up to probe the riots of 2007 and 2008. Both have submitted their interim reports, and the final reports and recommendations are awaited.
The fast-track courts have disposed of more than 120 cases until the second week of August; of the accused, 450 have been acquitted and 150, including the BJP legislator Manoj Pradhan, convicted.
The Church and the Sangh
How did the Church and the Sangh Parivar become active in Kandhamal? The vast majority of the people in the district are poor and gullible tribal people who easily accepted any religion or belief that came their way. When Christian preachers first made headway, Sangh Parivar leaders came up with a counter-conversion campaign, said Lambodar Kanhar, the main leader of the Kui Samaj Coordination Committee (KSCC) of Kandhamal. Kanhar, a lawyer in Phulbani, has been taking up cases for members of the Kondh tribe in the district for several years now.
Kanhar pointed out that though the Church and the Sangh organisations were not active in Kandhamal in the post-2008 riots period, the situation in the district remained volatile. Tension prevailed more in the interior areas, he said. “In many pockets, both sides continue to dislike each other and are looking for opportunities to attack each other,” said Kanhar. “The tribal people were neither Hindus nor Christians originally and were leading a miserable life since the government was doing very little for their welfare,” he pointed out.
The majority of the Kondh people are now demanding government intervention to address their various problems. One of their major demands is that the constitutional rights of the tribal people be protected and they be allowed to enjoy reservation in government jobs and pro-poor schemes. Much of their land is allegedly in the custody of Christian or upper-caste Hindu families. Another demand of the KSCC is that landless tribal families be given land rights.
AT NANDAGIRI NEAR G. Udayagiri in Kandhamal district. Many of the displaced families still live in tents.
The riot-hit population blames the Naveen Patnaik government for the poor compensation and rehabilitation packages. The Sangh Parivar criticises the government for “implicating” its men in cases relating to the riots. Kanhar, for his part, alleged that the administration had failed to address the real issues facing the poor. The district lacks food security and does not have a railway link.
A senior police officer from Kandhamal said the district's plight was a complex one. It was one of the less administered regions of the State even during British rule. In fact, until the 2008 riots the district had only three revenue blocks to cater to a population spread over vast areas. When the Chief Minister faced severe criticism after the riots for not taking the problems of the poor of Kandhamal seriously, 12 more blocks were created.
The majority of the people of Kandhamal continue to live in abject poverty. They do not get adequate job opportunities under the various government schemes and just prices for their agricultural and forest produce. Patnaik, however, continues to project a clean and pro-poor image before the people. While entertaining a large number of private companies that have come forward to set up steel plants, alumina refineries, thermal power plants and ports, he and his Biju Janata Dal have been able to run the government without much difficulty primarily because the main Opposition party, the Congress, has been a divided house since he took over in 2000. Despite the various charges against his government – allegedly turning a blind eye to large-scale illegal mining, failing to address the problems of farmers and those facing displacement by industries, and so on – Patnaik has by and large managed to keep the media in good humour by blaming the Centre for all the problems of the State.
Although the BJP was a partner in his government when Kandhamal witnessed communal violence, Patnaik managed to don a secular face by severing his party's ties with the saffron party days before the 2009 Assembly elections.
The government, which described the 2008 violence as an ethno-communal conflict though both the majority and minority communities have tribal and non-tribal populations, has so far failed to bring any perceptible change in the lives of the riot victims as well as the other tribal people and Dalits. It has also not been able to do much with regard to the conflicts over land rights or the issue of reservation.
In the post-riot period, many non-governmental organisations and civil society leaders have also maintained an indifferent attitude towards Kandhamal's problems, including the rise of Maoists. Meanwhile, the National Solidarity Forum, a countrywide platform of civil society organisations, has called for the observation of August 25 as “Kandhamal Day” to express solidarity with the victims and survivors of the violence. With a view to exerting pressure on the Central government, it plans to organise a people's tribunal between August 22 and 24 in New Delhi.
It is high time the State government did something to prevent a repeat of the 2007 and 2008 violence.
COURTESY FRONT LINE Aug 28 - Sep 10, 2010