04/02/2009, 00.00
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Bishop of Orissa: let Christians in refugee camps vote

by Nirmala Carvalho
At least 70,000 Christians are not registered on the voter lists. Hindu extremists burned their identification documents in the pogroms in August and September. There are more than 3,000 people still living in the refugee camps. At least 18,000 have moved to other cities out of fear of violence. For the Global Council of Indian Christians, "depriving someone of their voting right is a way to disenfranchise and stifle the Christian minority."

Bhubaneshwar (AsiaNews) - Ballot boxes in the refugee camps, and the possibility of voting by mail. These are the requests of Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttak-Bhubaneswar, in order to permit the Christians of Kandhamal (Orissa) to participate in the elections on April 16 and 23, for the renewal of the Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament.

During the pogroms in August and September, the Christians of Orissa did not suffer only physical violence and the destruction of their homes. The Hindu fundamentalists also burned their identification documents. As of today, there are more than 70,000 Christians whose names are not shown on the voter lists, most of them from the district of Kandhamal. Many of them cannot return to their villages of origin, and risk being unable to exercise their right to vote. Many suspect that the elimination of the Christian vote was at the origin of the pogrom, to the advantage of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which defends Hindu extremism.

"Even after seven months, about 3,200 are still in the camps," says Archbishop Cheenath. "The hate campaign and violence continues unabated, and it has increased with the announcement of elections. There is social boycott in a number of villages, and people have not gone back to the villages. According to various NGO reports, over 18,000 people of Kandhamal are still living in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack and Berhampur."

According to Archbishop Chennath, "the election commission has to make an on-the-spot study of Kandhamal and decide for itself whether a free and fair election is possible now. The district administration should make it public as to how many people are back in the villages and how many are in a position to vote without fear."

The archbishop of Bhubaneswar says that "efforts must be made to bring the villagers back to the district to exercise their democratic right to vote. If need be, the state has to initiate postal voting for people of Kandhamal who are living in other parts of Orissa and India. Unless these questions are reasonably answered, the election in Kandhamal will only be a travesty of democracy." Interviewed by AsiaNews, Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), asserts instead that "it would be appropriate for the elections in Kandhamal to be postponed" in the district, and adds that because of the lack of documents, "without identity papers or voters’ cards, which were burnt, none of these will be unable to even cast a postal vote." According to the president of the GCIC, "depriving someone of their voting right is a way to disenfranchise and stifle the Christian minority."

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