Five years after the Orissa pogroms, Christians still live in appalling conditions
by Nirmala Carvalho
The victims of the anti-Christian violence in 2007 and 2008 are still denied justice and assistance. Hundreds of people are still without identity papers or title deeds. Violence remains an ever present problem, especially for Dalit Christian girls and women.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) - Five years after they were the victims of pogroms in Kandhamal District, in the Indian state of Orissa, Christians still live in appalling conditions, enduring discrimination, extreme poverty, without proper access to the justice system, basic resources or help, subject to threats, not to mention unreported violent acts against teenage Dalits, this according to Fr Nithiya Sagayam, a Capuchin priest and executive secretary of the Office of Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishop Conferences (FABC).

Activists from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, the National Alliance of Women (NAWO), the Odisha Forum for Social Action and some young people from Kandhamal took part in a mission that visited five villages-Tiangia, Simanbadi, Daringbadi, Badagaon, Sarangoda and Tikabali. After spending months interviewing locals, they drafted a report on the current situation as well as recent episodes of violence. The report was released on 10 January.

From Church sources, we know that at least 100 people died and 54,000 were displaced in attacks and acts of violence caused by Hindu nationalist at Christmas 2007 and then in August 2008. Almost 300 churches were destroyed, plus scores of convents, schools, hostels and welfare facilities.

Although homes were rebuilt in some villages through the intervention of the local Church, the life of the community has not returned to normal. Making matters worse is the fact that during the pogroms most Christians also lost their papers, identity papers, drivers licence and title deeds, which are crucial to exercise basic constitutional rights.

Because of widespread government corruption, the poor have not been able to get new papers. In recent months, Fr Nithiya's group succeeded in getting local authorities to issue new papers to more than 400 families.

The group's volunteers have also been successful in providing victims psychological support as part of a neurolinguistic programme. More than a thousand people have been helped this way.

Activists have also helped survivors get access to the Right to Food Scheme and other projects designed to provide pensions to the elderly and financial aid to widows, single mothers and children, both Christian and Hindu, thus bringing unity and peace in various villages.

Taking advantage of the Right to Information Act, the group wants to organise over the coming months seminars to inform the public of their rights, breaking the cycle of threats and vengeance associated with widespread illiteracy in many communities. Village chiefs and local leaders are also expected to participate in these seminars.

However, the situation in courts for crimes committed during the pogroms and afterwards remains critical. Various acts of violence were recorded in the five villages covered by the report. They include recent cases of rape and murder involving Dalit girls.

In each case, volunteers found slow investigations, police neglect and no medical and psychological support by the state or government departments for the victims. Instead, the latter' families have been forced to take them out of school to protect them from further violence.

The report slammed the Orissa government for failing to shield the victims from such violence or bring to justice offenders when violence did take place. This, according to the volunteers, is even more apparent than in the case of New Delhi gang rape, which caused outrage and led to protests across India about violence against women.

Although Orissa's chief minister "stayed away from New Year celebrations in solidarity with the recent victim of rape in Delhi," said Namrata Daniel, from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, "we wonder what he has done in response to [. . .] inhuman acts of sexual violence on young Dalit girls in Kandhamal."

In proven cases of rape in Kandhamal District, the victim was paid 5,000 rupees (US$ 90) in compensation. In case of murder, that went up to 10,000 rupees (US$ 180). By comparison, in the case of the New Delhi rape victim, the government offered 1.5 million rupees (US$ 27,500).

Speaking to the volunteers, the Kandhamal District collector justified the low amount saying that "we do not have the money to compensate rape victims and their families."