Bhubaneswar (AsiaNews) – “This is ridiculous,” said Mgr Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubanewsar. “Nearly 50,000 Christians were displaced from Kandhamal, and instead of showing some compassion and solidarity with their suffering, they (the officials) are now desperate to claim their innocence and ignorance”. The bishop is adamant; he will not go for the version of events that some State officials are laying out before the commission investigating last year’s anti-Christian pogrom.
Yesterday retired Justice Sarat Chandra Mohapatra, the one-man judicial commission set up by the government, heard Gangadhar Singh, district collector in Kandhamal between September 2004 and October 2007.
In his testimony, he said that conversions took place during his tenure in violation of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act. In the same period he saw widespread encroachment on government land, and rising tensions between Tribals and Dalits over the latter’s attempt to change their legal status and gain the same privileges available to the former, including access to land. Whilst exonerating the Church from any direct involvement in these events he did suggest that illegal conversions, land encroachment and Tribal-Dalit tensions were interrelated.
Speaking to AsiaNews, Mgr Chennath said that much of Singh’s testimony is ambiguous and based on outdated information. As far as he is concerned, some officials were asleep at the switch. “Why did they not bring to light the irregularities prior to this?” he asked. “Can they prove what they say? [. . .] The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act was enacted in 1967, and only now after the wave of anti-Christian persecution, do they mention some violations of the law! This is all a game played to make the government appear innocent.”
For the bishop of Bhubanewsar, the officials’ version of events is but the latest chapter “in the game played by government authorities and the Sangh Parivar (Hindu fundamentalist group) to continue persecuting Christians.”
Pogrom victims are in fact still living in insecurity, often far from home, under continuous threats, enduring the boycott of their Hindu neighbours.
“Most shamefully and regrettably, officials are working with the Sangh Parivar to drive out the vulnerable Christian minority from Kandhamal,” he said.
Police Inspector General Arun Sarang was another official who took the stand before the commission of inquiry. He stuck to the version according to which the authorities had no intelligence about Maoist threats against Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, head of the Visva Hindu Parisad (VHP). The swami’s murder set of violent anti-Christian attacks in August 2008.
Sarang again exonerated Kandhamal Christians from involvement in the murder of the Hindu fundamentalist leader. “It is absolutely clear,” he said, “that the assassination was the work of the CPI (Maoist) cadres.”
However, the inspector’s words ring a bit hollow to the Catholic community; more like an attempt to exonerate the authorities from charges that it failed to prevent the violence.
“The police are giving confusing statements before the commission,” Fr Ajay Kumar Singh said. They are “trying to shift the blame to local people, even claiming that they had no information about a threatening letter sent to VHP leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati.” Yet “he was provided with security on the recommendation of a State security panel.