Kandhamal: A Long Wait for Justice
Today, nearly a decade later when we remember with pain the horrific violence of Kandhmal in 2008, many issues related to the state of affairs of communal violence, the state of minorities, the state of justice delivery system come to one’s mind.
Just to recall, Orissa witnessed unprecedented violence against the Christian minority in August 2008. On August 23, 2008, Swami Laxmananand along with his four followers was killed, probably by a group of Maoists. Immediately, anti-Christian violence began on a big scale. The way it began it seemed as if preparations for it were well afoot. It was systematic and widespread. It sounded as if preparation was already there just the pretext was being awaited. (1)
Christians in India
Christians are a tiny minority in India. Contrary to the perception that British brought Christianity to India, it is one of the oldest religions of India. Its spread has been slow. Not much was heard against this minority till the decade of the 1990s, when suddenly it started being asserted that Christian missionaries are converting. Anti-Christian violence has been occurring more in the remote interior places and is accompanied by another phenomenon, that of Ghar Vapasi (return home), which is the conversions of Adivasis into the fold of Hinduism, by Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. (2)
It is from 1996, that this phenomenon of conversion-anti Christian violence has captured the attention of all of us. Suddenly, as if from nowhere has descended the ‘threat of conversion to Christianity’ by force or fraud. Simultaneously, attacks on priests and nuns increased in distant interior places. It has been a peculiar phenomenon that while these attacks in remote places were being undertaken, the Christian institutions in cities – schools, colleges and hospitals – were hard-pressed to cope with the demands on their services related to education and health. The selective targeting of Christian missionaries in distant places was a matter of serious attention, concern and introspection.
Social Common Sense
As the ‘social common sense’ started accepting, ‘yes, they are converting’, ‘they have been converting’, a sort of silent approval of layers of society and state officials did accompany these attacks on the missionaries. One was used to hearing about attacks on Muslim minorities so far. How come a new minority came to be perceived as the ‘source of trouble’ and hence started being targeted? (3)
Anti-Christian violence did begin with isolated incidents like the attack on the Catholic Health Centre of India near Latur (1996), burning of Bibles and attacks on the Christian congregations. But most shocking was the burning alive of Pastor Graham Steward Stains (1999, January) along with his two sons, Philip and Timothy, aged 9 and 7 years, who were sleeping in a jeep after a village festival. Gradually the pattern of these attacks started emerging. In the remote places where Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams (Society for Welfare of Forest Dwellers), an outfit of RSS, have been active and doing the propaganda work along with starting of Ekal schools and have been Hinduising Adivasis, the incidents were more pronounced and intense.
Anti-Christian Violence: Characteristics
The violence against Christian missionaries has by now become a matter of routine. Unlike the anti-Muslim pogroms-violence, it has been scattered and generally low key, occurring at sporadic intervals. Barring few dastardly acts like Pastor Stains’ burning and Rani Maria’s being hacked to death the incidents were medium in intensity and did not take the shape of carnage or pogrom against the community till the one in Orissa (December 2007 and later August 2008). The occurrence of these incidents was mostly in places that are having rampant poverty and illiteracy. The apathy in highlighting these core issues, deprivations, by a section of media was appalling. At the same time, by word of mouth the propaganda against Christian Missionaries was intensified.
The message has been spread that Christian missionaries working in remote places are soft targets and one can get away without much reprisals. Also, the anti-Christian mobilisation of Adivasi youth through cultural manipulation was the groundwork on which the anti-Christian violence could sustain. In the atmosphere created by the activities of RSS progeny, local communal groups have felt emboldened to pick up any small issue and to make a violent incident out of it. Its’ frightening effect on the victims is tremendous. It also begins to polarise the local communities into Christian and non-Christian camps amongst whom the seeds of tension are sown.
The physical violence has been accompanied by cultural manipulation in these areas. The silent work to Hinduise Adivasis through religio-cultural mechanisms has been stepped up from last three decades. People like Swami Aseemanand (Dangs), Swami Laxmanand (Kandhamal, Orissa), followers of Asaram Bapu (Jhabua, MP) began their work in popularising Hindu gods and Goddesses in the region. The choice of Gods/Goddesses from the vast pantheon of Hindu religion was a clever one. Here Shabri (Symbol of poverty and deprivation) was the main goddess, the idol for Adivasis. Temples in her names were started and regular Kumbhs (mass religious congregation of Hindus) were organised in her name. Kumbhs have been a tradition in Hinduism on fixed interval of time on the banks of Holy rivers; Ganges in particular. Modifying that tradition, these Kumbhs were organised in Adivasis areas. Here the work of conversion to Hinduism, the spread of ‘Hate against’ foreigners’, particularly Christians, was spread. In addition, an atmosphere of terror was created against those who do not toe the line of Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. (4)
Similarly, the God Hanuman, the foremost devotee of Lord Ram was also made popular, by spreading his lockets and through different stories around him, in the Ekal Schools and Sarswati Shishu Mandirs. It created an atmosphere of divide in the Adivasi areas; Adivasis turned Hindus, the Hindu Dalits and upper caste versus the Christians. It is this atmosphere of divisiveness, which has been at the root of the violence in these areas.
This has been a part of the different activities undertaken by RSS combine to promote the agenda of Hindu nation. While RSS has floated many organisations to communalize different sections of society, BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal, etc. it has also unleashed a set of cultural activities, a set of educational institutions along with infiltration in media, bureaucracy, police and military. They are gradually imposing the idea of Hindu nation and accompanying culture and ideas. The culmination of this has been the violence against minorities, polarisation of communities along religious lines and ghettoization of minorities. While all this is going on the violence against minorities’ is the most visible part of this phenomenon.
The role of state agencies has been no different in these incidents than what it has been in the anti-Muslim violence. In most cases, the administration has looked the other way when communal goons were on the rampage. The administration most often provided enough leeway for them to wreck havoc, indulge in intimidation, violence and to get away with that. The Adivasi areas, which were so far peaceful, started witnessing communal tensions. The area of violence in Adivasi regions is synonymous with the map of the spread of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams and Vishwa Hindu Parishad in an indirect way.
RSS had been floating different organisations for different sections of society; Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, to Hinduise Adivasis was founded in 1952 and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad founded in 1964 was to play an important role in the anti-Christian tirade in times to come. Another RSS progeny which, directly supported violence against Christians, Bajrang Dal, was founded by RSS in 1984. After the intimidation and browbeating of Muslim minorities, especially after the post-Babri demolition Mumbai riots, they stepped up their social dominance and needed another community to target their trishuls for further expansion of their social and electoral base, and that was done by the bogey of forced conversions and accompanying anti Christian violence, which started coming to the fore from 1996 onwards. The targeting of minorities has played an important role in polarising the communities, in the consolidation of the majoritarian politics in various ways. (5)
The burning of Pastor Stains, in that sense, was a turning point for Human rights groups, who so far were trying to grapple and respond to the anti-Muslim violence. With this, many concerned groups took up the investigations of the violence against Christians in the right earnest. As such, the first major cover-up had to be undertaken by the BJP led NDA Government itself, in the aftermath of Stains murder. Initially, as a fire-fighting measure, the functionaries of the NDA government tried to give a clean chit to the RSS combine. After the murder, the then home minister Lal Krishna Advani stated that he knows Bajrang Dal very well and this act could not have been done by that organisation. To put a veil on the episode, the three cabinet ministers, George Fernandez, Murli Manohar Joshi and Navin Patnaik rushed to the site and proclaimed that the murder of Pastor is an international conspiracy to destabilise the BJP Government. This way they tried to bypass the real issue, i.e. involvement of Dara Singh, an activist of Bajrang Dal. (6)
Struggle for Justice: People’s Tribunals
The case of Orissa was specifically investigated by India Peoples Tribunal, led by Justice K.K.Usha (retired) of Kerala High court in 2006. (7) This tribunal forewarns about the shape of things to come. This tribunal assessed the spread of communal organisations in Orissa, which has been accompanied by a series of small and large events and some riots…such violations are utilised to generate the threat and reality of greater violence and build and infrastructure of fear and intimidation. It further noted that minorities are being grossly ill treated; there is gross inaction of the state Government to take action. The report also describes in considerable detail how the cadre of majoritarian communal organisations are indoctrinated in hatred and violence against other communities it holds to be inherently inferior. If such communalization is undertaken in Orissa, it is indicative of the future of the nation… the signs are truly ominous for India’s democratic future.
It is in this backdrop that when the Kandhamal carnage took place, the offence of RSS affiliates, the lapses and partisan behaviour of state machinery, the lack of rehabilitation and deliverance of justice came as a big jolt to the victims and became the matter of concern for human rights groups. The lack of proper investigation and other actions on the part of state were the key for getting justice for the victims. While many sincere, scattered efforts to help the afflicted were undertaken by different groups. These efforts were effective but inadequate in their reach. The tribunal organised for Orissa violence under Justice A. P.Shah (Retd) brought out the truth of the carnage. The hope was that the victims will be suitably rehabilitated and get justice. (8)
This tribunal observed, (excerpts)
“The appalling feature of the Kandhamal violence, where rescue and relief work by non-profit, charitable and humanitarian organisations was prohibited through a government notification, indicates the impunity with which the state government acted, and its scant respect for rule of law and human rights of the victim-survivors of the violence.”…
“The dismal conditions in the government-run relief camps are clearly indicative of the indifference of the state government to the plight of victim-survivors.”…”The testimonies of victim-survivors as well as the reports presented to the Tribunal indicate that victim-survivors were forcibly sent back to their villages, or abandoned near their villages, with total disregard to their safety.”…“Peace-building Initiatives: The fact that many victim-survivors are unable to return to their villages due to threats and intimidation by perpetrators, and many of those who have returned continue to live in constant fear and security, lead us to conclude that the state government’s peace initiatives have been a dismal failure and nothing more than an eyewash.”
It also made a lot of recommendations about relief, rehabilitation, compensation and justice. This excerpt is very telling “Implementation of State’s Duty Towards Peace-building, Voluntary Return and Reintegration: The State should recognise the Internally Displaced Persons’ right to return to their homes and create all possible enabling conditions to facilitate such safe return in accordance with the above standards. The state ought to discharge its duty of creating a conducive, safe and peaceful environment that can sustain return or re-integration of victim-survivors through access to public services, legal and personal documentation, and to livelihoods and income-generating opportunities without any form of discrimination.”
As usual, the recommendations of the tribunal remain in the limbo. The heartening feature of the struggle for justice in Kandhamal is the dogged determination of the victims and human rights activists to get the justice. This is also the time to understand that justice is a long-term goal also which requires a programmatic alliance between the struggling sections of society, be it Dalits, Adivasis, women, workers or struggling sections of society. In the light of growing intolerance in society, in the light of the growing stifling of the democracy society the need to build social alliances to preserve democracy and human rights is all the more crucial at this juncture.