4000 houses damaged, burnt and broken down; innumerable churches and Christian prayer halls destroyed; many shops belonging to Christians reduced to rubble; 35 persons killed in rioting; two women, a nun and a minor girl, gang-raped. And all this in a district, Kandhamal, Orissa with a population of about six and a half lakhs of whom about one and half lakhs are Christians.
An Aidwa delegation comprising of Shyamali Gupta (Working President), Sudha Sundararaman (Gen. Secretary), Tapasi Praharaj and Pushpa Das (President and Secretary of the Orissa State unit of AIDWA) and myself visited Kandhamal District of Orissa on the 1st and 2nd of November, 2008. The district had been completely out of bounds to all organizations except some intrepid media persons from the third week of September till the 6th of October.
Even two months after the gory incidents of loot, killing and mayhem that followed the horrific killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati of the VHP and four of his colleagues that included one woman, this most beautiful region of forests, mountains, streams and birds remained a place of fear, mistrust and terrible scars.
Our delegation visited some of the camps to which those whose homes were burnt and damaged fled. At the peak of the violence, there were more than a dozen camps opened and run by the State Govt. sheltering about 25, 000 inmates. In addition, camps have been opened by Christian organizations in the area and in Bhubaneshwar and many of the victims have also taken shelter with relatives elsewhere or migrated to other states. The killing occurred on 23rd August and, despite the fact that Maoist leaders publicly announced that they were responsible, VHP and other Sangh Parivar leaders incited their followers to attack Christians to take revenge. The administration explains its very delayed response to the fact that it was overtaken by the events. But this cannot be totally acceptable. After the attacks on Christians that occurred in the district around Christmas, 2007, there should have been many more preventive measures taken. The fact that Orissa has a BJD-BJP Government is also responsible for the fact that the Sangh Parivar has been given a fairly free hand to stoke enmity and hatred against the Chrisian population of the area.
The camp our delegation visited was at Tikabali situated in the Govt. High School. The local administration was quite co-operative and did not interfere with our interaction with the people in the camp. The number of people has halved to about 750. Many have gone back to their villages and others have gone to other places in search of work. So far, no one who has returned home has come back because of intimidation or attacks. We spoke to many of the families still in the camps. Most of them do visit their villages during the day a few times every week. Some have fields just outside their villages that they are tending, others have land in the villages. Their stories are mixed. Some say that they do not feel threatened by their old neighbours but that �outside forces� are not allowing their neighbours to take them back; others say that they are being asked to become Hindus before they will be allowed home and still others say that they are fearful of going home.
We met the camp secretary, Bikram Pradhan, from Kottadi village of Gardingia Block, one of the badly affected regions. He said that they had registered group FIRs those who had burnt their homes who were all people known to them. Now they were registering individual FIRs also. He made a very significant point that only a small section of those belonging to the majority community attacked them and many of their neighbours had helped them by storing their possessions, safeguarding their cattle, and even by trying to put out the flames. These deeds did not, however, go unpunished. He said that Siddheshwar Pradhan who was trying to help them was actually burnt to death. (This has been corroborated by the district administration). The kind of hatred that has been stoked is illustrated by what Monoranjan Digal from Budkinaju said � a Christian belonging to Santhaguda village could not be buried there even after the intervention of the BDO and had finally to be buried near the camp.
Living in camps for so long and not knowing when they will be able to return to a normal life has created many problems. Priya kumari Digal, from Behra village, is a young girl doing her + 2. She said that in her village, the entire majority community of about 300 people turned against the 45 Christian families forced them to flee. She said that while younger children were being taught within the camp, but older students like herself could not pursue their studies without books and teachers. She was worried as to how she would prepare for the exams which were due in December. Another young blind girl, Jhujhunrani, who was studying in the Iind year was also worried � all her books, including those in Braille, had been burnt.
Priyotima Digal also from Behra village, who was a member of the SHG group called Jeevan Jyoti said that the grain meant for mid-day meals prepared by her group was stored in her home and had been destroyed. Other SHG members said that money that they had withdrawn from the banks or collected from their members had also been lost and they were worried that the banks would initiate recovery proceedings. The inmates also complained about the fact that they had received only one set of clothing and also had no soap, oil etc. They were very positive to our suggestion that NREGA works could be started near the camp
Later, our delegation members also met the Pradhanacharya, Jagabandhu Das, of Lakshmananda Saraswati�s ashram at Chhakkapar. Very young boys live and study here and we saw many of them being ordered to perform menial tasks like sweeping, swabbing, washing clothes, cutting vegetables etc. by men in khaki shorts. The Pradhanacharya was told that our organization was deeply concerned about the restoration of peace and also about the terrible attacks that had taken place. He was quite cold-blooded in his response and said that the attacks were a �natural reaction� to the murders of August 23rd and that the Christians had been involved in these one way or the
other and that the victims could return to their villages only if they accepted �certain conditions� and withdrew all cases.
After this, we met the Collector, Krishan Kumar and the SDM, Vinay Krishan at the District Headquarter, Phulbani. He had a detailed discussion with us and agreed to provide the camp inmates with books and other necessities. He said that a lot of effort was being made to see that those going back were not only safe but started to become integrated into their villages again. He said they were starting NREGA in every village and would see that all those returning from the camps got jobs irrespective of registration or lack of Job Cards. They would be paid in cash since most of them had lost their passbooks etc. Brick-making would also be started so that when the reconstruction of burnt homes began, bricks would be available. He also said that they would try to create smaller camps nearer the villages of the inmates so that they could look after their fields and also be near their homes and former neighbours.
We went to the Balliguda Sub-division the next morning. On the way we passed many villages and small market-places where there was much evidence of terrible destruction. There were still ashes, burnt books and burnt clothes lying in front of many of the homes. We also passed through K. Nuagan where the large Mission building and school buildings stood desolate and descrated. This was the place that had seen the public sexual assault on Sister Meena. There is a large camp here with more than 2000 victims.
The camp in Balliguda has been wound up and, according to the sub collector, all the former inmates have gone back to their villages. We visited one of these villages, Mediakia to which 27 families had returned. We were able to speak to most of these people and also saw for ourselves that a NREGA worksite had been started and most of them were getting work on it. Poor people belonging to the majority community were also getting work but they were working at another part of the site. All the Christians in the villages had suffered tremendous damage during the attacks. Many had also lost their animals though some also said that their neighbours had managed to save a few. All of them had started receiving compensation for re-building their homes. We were able to talk to them at length and they told us that they were not feeling threatened at the moment.
We also met some of the tribal men who were working at another part of the work-site. They were not very forthcoming with information about the attacks but did say that they were sure that they would not be repeated. They said many peace-meetings were being held. They were also very happy that the NREGA work had started and said that if this was continued throughout the year, it would have a very positive impact. Many of them were forced to go as far away as Kerala to find work. None of them voiced any anger against their Christian neighbours.
On the 3rd, we met the Chief Minister of Orissa and gave him our memorandum. As far as the problems of the victims in camps were concerned, he was very positive and issued some orders (about text-books, clothes etc.) in our presence. He also assured us that he would not spare the communal elements responsible for the attacks. When we requested him to accede to Sister Meena�s demand for a CBI enquiry into the atrocities and gang-rape that she had suffered, he expressed his inability to do so but said that he was committed to ensuring justice. 5 policemen had been suspended and 9 persons arrested and he was willing for the investigations being carried out by his officers in any place chosen by Sister Meena.
Kandhamal has many lessons to be learnt. The devious and hateful ways in which religion is being used by the Sangh Parivar to divide the poorest of the poor and to incite violent attacks on very vulnerable members of minority communities have created a very dangerous situation in a very sensitive part of our country. Other religious forces also work in a way that accentuate religious divides and this has exacerbated the problem here. Today, the Maoists are also fishing in these very troubled waters.
The lesson to be learned is two-fold: the State cannot withdraw from its responsibilities as far as the providing of education and livelihood opportunities is concerned and it cannot afford to give any space and opportunity to the Sangh Parivar to incite violence and hatred in the name of religion.
Subhashini Ali, President, AIDWA