09/11/2009, 00.00
INDIA
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Betticola Christians still refugees more than one year after the Orissa pogrom

by Ajay Kumar Singh*
Acquittal in the first instance of a BJP politician charged with the anti-Christian violence of August 2008. It raises fresh controversy over the impunity of the perpetrators of the pogroms and the insecurity in which many Christians still live. The story of the Catholic community of Betticola traces the struggles of 45 families that still live as refugees in their homeland.

Betticola (AsiaNews) - The Court of First Instance of Kandhamal (Orissa) has absolved Manoj Pradhan, a lawmaker of the Hindu nationalist Barathiya Janata Party (BJP), on charges of kidnapping and murder of Meghnad Dighal, a Christian from the village of Sankarkhol.  A known militant of Hindu radical movements, Pradhan is accused of having taken part in the anti-Christian pogrom of August 2008. Although he was arrested, in last May’s elections he was the BJP candidate, and was elected to the Assembly of G Udayagiri city. The court of first instance for now has acquitted him of three of the 14 charges for lack of evidence. The Pradhan case dramatically highlights what is happening in the trials taking place in Orissa against the perpetrators of anti-Christian violence. Many due to insufficient evidence are acquitted, many more are not even investigated, despite victims reporting them. This situation is at the basis of the deep insecurity that the Christians of Kandhamal are still experiencing. In this respect we publish the story of the Catholic community Betticola, Department of G. Udayagiri, as revealed by the office for Relief and Rehabilitation Response from the diocese of Bhubaneshwar.

It's been a year now since August 2008, when Hindu fundamentalists carried out the violence against Christians in Kandhamal. But even today, for the community of Betticola near the village of Lingagada, Department of G. Udayagiri, the return home remains a dream. Not one of the 45 families has the courage to spend the night in their village of origin after the carnage of Kandhamal.  

A visit to the refugees and the refugee camp dubbed Nandapur Shanti Nagar, reveals a story of faith and fear. Those who live there brings tell of their lengthy exodus. On the terrible night of August 23, 2008, members of the local Christian community were forced to abandon homes and belongings by looters and thugs of Hindu extremist groups. The fanatics had a field day during which they razed to the ground the Catholic parish. After a couple of days hiding in the jungle, the survivors of the pogrom came crawling to the temporary camp in G. Udayagiri, built near the city. From there, the community was moved to the temporary centre of Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa state, about 250 kilometers from their village of Betticola as there were reports of possible attacks by Hindu fanatics after one month. Jisaya Digal, a youth of 20 years said: "Bhubaneswar gave us a temporary sense of relief."  

Believing in the promises made by the local government on food and security, Christian families left for Kandhamal with high hopes in March 2009. But once they arrived in the district, to their dismay, they found themselves on the roads. No food in their stomachs, no tent under which to shelter. Luckily for them, the arcades of the market outside G. Udayagiri offered shelter to refugees, while for food, the goodwill of the neighbours and churches were counted upon.

The conditions of the 45 homeless families were so unfortunate as to draw the attention of the BBC World News Service on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009. Even the local government authorities reacted to the sad conditions of the families. In June, they were moved to Tikabali relief camp, 30 kilometers away from the city.   When, in the first week of July, the Tikabali camp was dismantled the local administration decided to move the group to the village of Nandapur guaranteeing them a piece of land of 16 square meters. Ironically some of the families own land 15 times than the land allotted by the government.

Meanwhile, the rainy season has arrived. The homeless are sleeping in tents planted in ground that has become a swamp and with continuous water infiltration. In the tents of 4 meters by 5 up to five families live together. During the most intense period of rain, old and young, men and women, boys and girls huddle side by side in one common area. Their worldly possessions are a change of clothes and a small tin box given them by the diocese of Cuttack-Bhuabeneswar. Besides that they have a food ration for 10 days and the government's promise of 50 thousand rupees, just over a thousand dollars, to rebuild the house.  

For women and children, the real problem is lack of a minimum privacy. They have no health care, no comfort they even lack proper hygienic amenities since there are no temporary toilets and bath rooms.  

Refugees plead: "Give us a job." They are faced with one option: to leave Kandhamal for other states in search of opportunities to earn a living, or stay and accept an uncertain future. Men cannot leave their women and children in strange and unsecured roadside forest.  

Krishen Mallick, 60, surrenders to fate and decides to leave for an unknown land. Today he tells how the local government has not facilitated their return to their villages of origin, except for participation in initiatives on the peace front in which the Hindu fanatics show their dominance in the area. In these encounters they claim they are ready to accept the return of displaced Christian families only if they convert to Hinduism. But Christian communities want to go home to as Christians.  

Christians are ready to face any adversity, but not to bow to the requests, threats and intimidation of fundamentalists. Hindu fundamentalists do not care about peace initiatives promoted by the authorities. The presence of the highest administrative officials do not unsettle them. They use the so-called peace committees to intimidate Christians already under pressure and signal that they are not bothered about the local authorities.  

Helena Digal, 40, says, sobbing, but clearly: "We can die, but will never become Hindus".  

Pramod Digal, 40, when someone asks him if he hopes to return to his homeland, replies: "I dream of returning home someday," but then adds: "If the culprits are apprehended, or at least the four leaders of the area, who have destroyed our homes and are still free to go around to intimidate the victims".  

The fear is not without reason as the episode involving the former parish priest of Betticola, Fr. Lameswar Kanhar, a tribal priest of Kandhamal region shows.  He was ruthlessly beaten up with multiple internal and external injuries on 16th of October 2000 in Betticola village.  He escaped near death and returned home only after a year of treatment and deep with a platoon of police to guard any possible violence. The perpetrators of the attack are still unpunished.  

The villagers are still waiting to know whether their reports against those who burned and looted their homes will be accepted or not. Nobody seems to care about seeing justice done for these unfortunate. The Christian families do not know how they will ensure an education for their children even if the Church is ready to support some students for one year with a limited amount of funds. Their hopes, aspirations and future remain uncertain. “What next?” they wonder.  They have surrendered to Jesus and their answer lies in Jesus.

  * General Coordinator of Relief and Rehabilitation Response Bhubaneshwar

 

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