Even though 6,000 federal troops from the Central Reserve Police Force and a helicopter ensured a peaceful Christmastide, festivities were low key in the forests and refugee camps of Kandhamal, a district that has been hit by two waves of anti-Christian bloodshed and arson in December 2007 and August-October 2008. On the ground peace remains a distant dream for forest villages.
Led by Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan, India’s Supreme Court made the aforementioned statement during a hearing with Colin Gonsalves, counsel for Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, who had filed a Public Interest Litigation claim. Mr Gonsalves informed the court that only a “deceptive calm” existed in Kandhamal.
In fact, the State government has been relying on its so-called official peace committees, which are heavily biased against religious minorities, to get Christians to withdraw the complaints the filed against those who burnt their houses during the first wave of Sangh violence on 24-27 December 2007.
At the time as many as 107 churches and close to a thousand Christian homes were burnt, [in Brahminigaon village]. Some Hindu homes were also torched.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) vice president Lakhmanananda Saraswati was the inspiration for this anti-Christian violence. His murder by Maoists on 23 August 2008 sparked the second wave of violence.
In January 2008 reports were made to the police and criminal complaints were filed in the local courts, but the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) found that, out of 127 cases registered, only five were ever investigated.
Affidavits were also filed with Justice Panigrahi’s Commission of enquiry in which the VHP leader was named as the instigator, but after a few sessions the Church and the Christian community decided to boycott it because of its blatant partisanship.
Now, in Brahminigaon for instance, District authorities are “encouraging’ Christian victims to make a “deal” with the Hindu community so that both parties can agree to abandon all criminal cases.
Initial reports indicate that the authorities made sure that no one would be present when the criminal cases come up for hearing in a few weeks time.
A shadow has also been cast over peace initiatives because of the lack of transparency and the one-sided approach of state officials who are totally under the sway of BJP state ministers.
The same pressures are visible on the media coverage of the situation, especially by Oriya-language print and TV media.
The media in fact continue to target Christian politicians, religious leaders and human rights activists. Mr Radha Kant Nayak, a former federal administrative officer who is now a member of India’s Rajya Sabha (upper house), has been particularly targeted for criminal slander and bullying.
The media’s attitude was visible most notably during an identity parade (police line-up) in Cuttack where some even got inside the room, much to the irritation of the magistrate, where Sister “M”, raped in Nonagon village (Kandhamal) in August 2008, was able to identify two of her assailants.
And while she did recognise at least two men out of ten lined up before her, Fr Thomas Chellum, who was with her when she was attacked and who was brutally beaten up himself in the presence of the local police and stripped naked, was still too disturbed to be able to identify his assailants from the mixed group of suspects and others paraded before him.
Fr Thomas was one of several Catholic and Protestant clergymen attacked and wounded in Kandhamal. A senior Catholic priest, Father Bernard Digal, treasurer of the Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar, which covers Kandhamal, died later of his wounds. At least one Pentecostal pastor was also butchered by the mob.
NCM member Michael Pinto said that several Christians were still living under the threat of conversion. “This is not acceptable. The matter of conversions falls under the purview of the Freedom of Religion Act already in force in Orissa,” he said.
The emergence of two new groups, apparently working in tandem, has added a new dimension to the terror in Kandhamal. One is a government sponsored and funded civilian militia, set to deploy 800 members in Kandhamal. The second is a group of 80 young men who had gone to Gujarat last year and have now returned, apparently well armed and well trained. This group has said it will execute a Christian on the 23rd of every month to mark Saraswati’s killing.
The Orissa government has remained silent about it, but the media are trying hard to portray this group as a splinter from the Maoist group that killed Saraswati last August.
At the humanitarian level, the State government has gone on record to say that it is not sure about what will happen once the federal police is withdrawn, possibly at the end of the month. In the meantime the situation of refugees remains critical.
Before Christmas a delegation from the European Commission surveyed refugee camps around Kandhamal, including some even in Andhra Pradesh (but were not allowed to travel to Kandhamal).
Medical experts who have worked with refugees in the Raikia and G Udaygiri camps speak of widespread anaemia among pregnant and nursing mothers. The health of babies born in the camps since August 2008 is also pitiable for want of neo-natal medical care and lack of nutrition.
A new dimension was added his week when the authorities launched another phase of “thinning out” the camps by sending reluctant refugees back to their villages.
This year there has also been a bumper crop of paddy, which ironically remains unused in most villages because farmers with small land holdings are in refugee camps.
Some of the crop has been stolen, but much remains in the paddy fields and will have to be harvested soon if the rice is not to rot.
The authorities have said that they will ensure security, and some farmers are willing to go back to harvest the crops, but it remains to be seen how much protection the state can provide without back-up from the federal police.