Orissa was among the first states called to vote in the month-long process (16 April-13 May). Both the State Assembly and the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, were up for grabs.
In some areas that saw some of the worst anti-Christian violence, voting is scheduled for 23 April in the second round of elections, but in Kandhamal District where the worst incidents occurred and where thousands of Christians are still displaced, voting was completed yesterday.
Here the possibility of attacks and violent demonstrations was high. In the past few months, Monsignor Cheenath had appealed several times to local and federal authorities to ensure the safety of Christians and make sure that they could exercise their right to vote.
Yesterday Maoist guerrillas killed 18 people, including police and election officials, in a series of simultaneous attacks in the so-called “Red Corridor” that runs through the States of the Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Maharashtra Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. But the violence remained circumscribe to small areas and did not prevent the election from taking place peacefully elsewhere.
The calm atmosphere that prevailed yesterday in Kandhamal and the possibility to vote did not dispel Christian apprehension which the local Church, in particular by Archbishop Cheenath, had voiced in the past. Indeed the prelate noted that “in the villages BJP supporters have threatened to expel Christians if they do not vote for their party.”
Father Nithiya, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice, Peace and Development of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, had more to say about the ongoing tensions in the district.
“A lot has been said about the 90 per cent turnout in the refugee camps, but it is a pity that only refugees in government-run camps voted (3,000 people) without a problem. The same cannot be said for the other 51,000 who could not,” Father Nithiya.
In fact Christians who left Kandhamal District or the State of Orissa because of the anti-Christian pogroms or sought shelter in camps not run by the government remain a problem.
Thousands of people “were not able to exercise their right to vote and are still living in a situation of deprivation and insecurity,” the priest said.
The “local government and the election commission failed in their duty to create a relaxed atmosphere” in which “each individual could democratically and freely exercise their right to vote in accordance with the principles of the constitution.”