Anti-Christian violence broke out in Kandhamal district of Odisha in August 2008 following the brutal murder of Swami Lakshmanand Saraswati. The violence followed the path of his 200 kilometer funeral procession as it made its way across the region, leaving fire and blood in its wake. Thousands of people were rendered homeless and forced to either migrate or live in relief camps. In this interview Father Ajay Singh, a Catholic priest who has been involved with relief and rehabilitation of Kandhamal carnage survivors, tells us about ground realities today.
Q) Could you shed light on the condition of people who were internally displaced following the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal? What are their lives like today?
A) The anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal was horrific. People were slaughtered on the streets, women were raped, they didn’t even spare the children! 6,000 homes were burnt across 400 villages. 395 churches desecrated and demolished. The official death toll was 39, but actually it was closer to 100. In the immediate aftermath of the violence more than 50,000 people were forced to flee their homes. Their entire lives were uprooted. There was a loss of land and livelihood. Many of the victims were Adivasis who were dependent on forest produce and once they were ousted from their villages they struggled to sustain themselves. Many of the victims were also Dalits who have historically faced several layers of oppression and continue to even today. Many of these people found their way into relief camps. Gradually, some of them moved to other states like Kerala and Goa to start life afresh. But even today 5,000 to 6,000 people are still afraid to go back home to their villages. They still live in relief camps amidst squalor and deprivation. Every day is a struggle.
Q) But it has been a decade. Why are they afraid to return now?
A) They are afraid for several reasons. One of their greatest fears is forced conversion. I know of a case where a young Dalit girl who was gang raped because her uncle refused to convert. The perpetrators of the Kandhmal carnage walk free in the same villages the Christians were forced to flee. I know of people from at least 10-15 villages who have stayed away fearing forced conversion and violence when they return. The perpetrators have either managed to secure bail or cases against them have been dropped. Witnesses were coerced into taking back their statements. Oppression, intimidation and harassment is high and these people operate with impunity because the government has done nothing to prevent these people from putting pressure on the survivors who, unlike the perpetrators of the attacks, are economically weak and don’t enjoy any socio-political clout. Even the police are indifferent.
Q) Only a fraction of cases that were originally filed ever made it to court. How does that affect the survivors?
A) There is no doubt that this is a travesty of justice. Over 2,000 complaints were filed, but just over 300 trials have been completed and there was conviction in only 78 of them. The conviction rate is in single digits. In fact hundreds of cases were dropped by the police because they could not find any evidence or witnesses. There is pressure on witnesses to turn hostile, sometimes the complainant turns hostile due to intimidation. Even though the Supreme Court in 2016 directed that 315 cases that has been closed previously, be reopened, no real progress has been made in investigations. This is probably because there was no deadline for reopening these cases and completing investigations. This is very demoralising for the survivors.
Q) What about the government’s claims of having provided compensation to survivors?
A) There was tremendous loss of life and property. However, despite the government’s claims of no compensation being pending, thousands of people are yet to be compensated. The process itself was flawed because the assessment of damage was not proper. There was no standardised compensation. In amny cases amounts sanctioned varied between a meagre Rs 10,000 to Rs 1,00,000. This is not enough to rebuild lives. Moreover, names of many people never made it to the list of those who should be compensated.
Q) In your opinion, why did the Kandhamal carnage take place and who benefited from it?
A) The upper castes and the businessmen were the masterminds and they had support from the government. They realised that the Dalits and Adivasis were being empowered by the Church with education and would soon slip out of their hands. So they pitted tribes against tribes in the name of religion. They did not realise that they were killing their own people. The oppressed became both, the foot-soldiers and victims in this hate filled agenda, and the oppressor had the last laugh.
*Feature image: House destroyed in Gunjibadi in Kandhamal, Odisha. Image Courtesy: World Watch Monitor