02/07/2010, 00.00
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For Orissa bishop, reconciliation but also justice must follow the violence

by Raphael Cheenath
A year and half after an anti-Christian pogrom hit Orissa and Kandhamal District, most of the 54,000 displaced Christians have not been able to go home because of threats of forced conversion to Hinduism. Out of thousands of cases, only a few have made it to court. Many murderers, including local politicians, are still free. Mgr Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, expresses his outrage over the situation.

Bhubaneshwar (AsiaNews) – During a press conference in the State capital of Orissa, the city’s archbishop, Mgr Raphael Cheenath, blasted the slow pace with which the courts are dealing with the hundreds of cases stemming from the 2008 anti-Christian pogrom, especially those in Kandhamal district. He also complained about the slowness of reconstruction, which left thousands of people without a job or means of survival, living in shantytown where they are confronted with cynical authorities uninterested in restoring their dignity. Here is the bishop’s full statement.

Despite claims by state and district administrations, the human dignity, rights and life of the Christian victims of the 2008 violence remain far from normal. Fifteen months after they were uprooted, thousands still live in makeshift shanties along roads, in the forests, with no seeming hope for rehabilitation, harassed daily by block and panchayat officials as well as police. Hundreds of babies have been born in these conditions. We want full reconciliation and lasting peace in Kandhamal, but this will be possible only when justice is transparent, lives are rebuilt and people allowed to return to their own villages without fear. We do not want any ghettoisation in the district.

The authorities have failed on three major issues: the subversion of the criminal justice system in the Fast Track courts by shoddy investigations and witnesses being terrorised, the utter inadequacy of government assistance in rebuilding houses, and the absence of genuine employment, livelihood and education schemes. Let us not forget that the present district collector was on duty and present, along with Direct General Police and top police officers, when the violence started, and a mob attacked the Phulbani Church in the district headquarters.

The Church, which has received no assistance at all to rebuild its own places of worship and its social development institutions, has provided a lot of help, but the task is far too big for non-government organisations. Political will by the government is needed to implement special schemes. We are willing to help to the best of our ability and resources, but we shall not hesitate from approaching the Orissa High Court at Cuttack and the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi if the misery of the people is not ameliorated. They cannot be left to live through another summer and other monsoons without shelter over their heads. Victims need sympathy; yet, the administration is imposing all sorts of rules and regulations on the matter of relief and rehabilitation. Various human rights groups have already warned about trafficking in young girls in the district.

A long list of violence and destruction

Initially, 10 to 11,000 families were displaced from their homes by the violence. An estimated 1,200 families have migrated from the immediate area, many of them to Bhubaneswar or to other states in India. Over 6,000 refugees are living in the Saliasahi slums of Bhubaneswar, the State capital, and tens of thousands are working as labourers in Andhra Pradesh and other states, some as far away as Kerala and Punjab. About 200 to 300 families continue to reside in private displacement camps in the district. At least 4,400 families continue to live in tents, makeshift shelters or the remnants of their damaged houses. The remainder of the families have returned either to their villages or near their villages. The number of people who have received financial assistance from the government or the Church or NGOs is not known for certain but it is believed to be 1,100. 

Dalit Christians are still the worse off; they have been denied employment, land and other entitlements. State government schemes announced by the Chief Minister must embrace all communities. This also includes employment in Special Police Offices (SPOs). The district collector seems to have no hope to offer Dalits.

In the violence between 25 August and December 2008, as many as 5,347 houses were looted and destroyed by fire. Many women and girls were raped, and more than 75 people were murdered in the name of religion and ethnicity. Large-scale displacement and migration followed with over 54,000 people becoming refugees in their own country. The administration arbitrarily set the value of fully destroyed houses at Rs 50,000, even though the reconstruction cost for the simplest house starts at Rs 85,000. Similarly, the administration has arbitrarily designated fully destroyed houses as partially damaged so that it had to pay out less. Most houses are in fact fully damaged and we want the administration to give full compensation.

The Church’s involvement

The Church is helping, providing a minimum of support to 2,500 households, but even after this, 3,000 families remain homeless. So far, the Catholic Church has helped in the case of 181 fully damaged houses and 546 partly damaged houses. Building materials have been distributed to 752 families. Work is underway in Raikia and Nuagam Blocks only. Even though we do not have exact statistics regarding the victims who have returned to their villages and settled down, a rough guess would be that about one third of the 54,000 Christians displaced by the violence have returned to their villages, despite what the administration says. Some families just do not want to go back because of threats that they have to become Hindu to do so.

Many of the affected households have not been included in the government list for compensation. This has deprived them of rehabilitation support. There is gross mismanagement due to corrupt and indifference by local officials.

Justice is critical to long-term peace. The two Fast Track courts and the legal system have seen a travesty of justice. Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, and cajoled. Others have been subjected to bribing attempts by murderers and arsonists facing trial. Courthouses are full of high-ranking officials from fundamentalist organisations. Some witnesses are also being threatened with physical elimination in their own homes. Even distant relatives are being coerced, especially in the murder and arson cases against Legislative Assembly Member Manoj Pradhan. Though some witnesses have provided strong testimony concerning his involvement in a number of crimes, he has been let off in case after case.

We demand a special investigation team to examine every case of murder and arson. Similarly, there is a need to move the cases against politically powerful persons such as MLA Manoj Pradhan out of Kandhamal, preferably to Cuttack or Bhubaneshwar.

Slow justice

We are deeply concerned about the high rate of acquittals in the Fast Track courts. Victims filed 3,232 complaints with the police in Kandhamal. Of these, the police registered only 832. As many as 341 cases involve people in G Udaigiri alone, 98 in Tikabali and 90 in Raikia, followed by others. Even out of this small number, only 123 cases were transferred to the two Fast Track courts. So far, 71 cases have been tried in the two courts, and 63 have been disposed. Of these, a conviction was obtained in only 25 cases, a partial conviction at best since most of the accused have not been arrested or brought to trial. Only 89 persons have been convicted so far while as many as 251 have been acquitted and set free for lack of witnesses. Manoj Pradhan is among them. It is strange that in the case of ten deaths by murder, nine cases were closed without anyone being convicted. There was a partial conviction only in the case of one death. Who will bring justice in the case of the other nine murder cases?

We demand that independent lawyers be assigned to the special public prosecutors who are overworked. Witnesses and victims need full legal help so that cases can be pursued with vigour and justice.

The issue of compensation, employment and land

The compensation package announced by the State Government is very meagre; it is not sufficient for house construction or any other purpose. This is a national calamity and demands a special package for the affected people; it should include land, income generation, education, health care, etc, so that the poor innocent families who lost everything can be properly rehabilitated. The government and the administration are giving all sorts of excuses to displace people from the land they have lived on and farmed for generations. There should be proper redistribution of land in the district, including land for the landless.

A government white paper on the land issue

Above all, the Government must maintain a position of neutrality and transparency. Block officers have been playing with the facts, indulging in corrupt practices and cosmetic exercises whenever political and other dignitaries come to visit or inspect. Innocent people have been coerced into giving a false picture.

The chief minister must investigate the role and functioning of the entire district administration, including the collector, the block and tehsil officials and others connected with the operations. It is strange that officials in whose presence the violence took place and thousands of houses burnt should still be in office, declaring that there is peace in the district.

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See also
Indian commission investigating anti-Christian pogrom in Orissa
Orissa: violence and destruction against Christians accused of killing radical Hindu leader
Date set for the first audience into anti-Christian violence in Orissa
After the pogroms, the Church in Orissa working to remove fear and suspiciousness in people
Orissa bishop slams forced conversion of Catholics to Hinduism