Convictions Few in Anti-Christian Violence in Orissa, India


BJP legislator, a key suspect in Kandhamal violence, acquitted again and out on bail.

NEW DELHI, November 11 (CDN) — Following six acquittals last week in trials for those accused of the 2008 anti-Christian violence in India’s Orissa state and the release on bail of a key suspect, Christians are losing heart to strive for justice, according to a prosecuting attorney.

The acquittal of six suspects last week raises the total to 121, with just 27 convicted in the Orissa violence by Hindu extremists.

“The victims are so discouraged due to the increasing number of acquittals that they neither have hope nor motivation for the criminal revision of their cases in the higher court,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das of the Orissa High Court told Compass.

He said the acquittals are the result of defective investigations carried out by police.

“This has been done intentionally, to cover-up the fundamentalists,” he said.

Das said that in many cases police fraudulently misrepresented the ages of culprits so that the ages of the accused in court would not match the age denoted in the victims’ First Information Reports, leaving the court no option but to let the alleged culprits go.

“There can be two persons by the same name, so age is a major identification factor that is considered,” said Das.

Christian leaders in Orissa said the state government’s claims of justice for the victims of the anti-Christian violence ring hollow as the number of acquittals is far more than convictions.

An Orissa state Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) who was facing charges in 14 cases of “murder, burnings and assaults” in last year’s Kandhamal district violence against Christians has been released on bail in one of the murder cases.

Manoj Pradhan, MLA from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in G. Udayagiri block, faces a murder charge in a slaying in Tiangia village. The Orissa High Court awarded him bail in the case, and he was released from Phulbani jail on Oct. 30.

On that day he was also acquitted of arson in a house-burning in Banjamaha village due to “lack of evidence.” In trials relating to the Orissa violence of August-September 2008, the Hindu extremist perpetrators have reportedly intimidated many witnesses to keep them from testifying.

“With Manoj Pradhan, who has charges of murder against him, released on bail, this is a big threat to the witnesses of cases against him,” attorney Das told Compass.

If Pradhan remains free, Das said, he likely will be acquitted in all other cases as he will be able to threaten witnesses.

“Pradhan is already acquitted in six cases, whereas eight cases are still pending against him,” Das said.

Special Public Prosecutor Bijay Pattnaik told reporters that Pradhan was acquitted of the arson charge as only one witness stepped forward.

“He was let off for want of evidence as there was a lone witness in the case,” Pattnaik said. “Only the victim testified in the case, and the charges against Pradhan could not be proved.”

Fast Track Court-I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das on Oct. 30 acquitted Pradhan of the house burning, which took place on Oct. 1, 2008. Earlier Pradhan was acquitted in two murder trials due to “lack of evidence.”

In another case, witnesses had testified to the involvement of Pradhan in the kidnapping of Kantheswar Digal – subsequently murdered on Aug. 25, 2008 – in Sankarakhole village, Phulbani district, but their testimony failed to convince the court to condemn the BJP politician. 

Pradhan was arrested and jailed in October 2008 and was elected as BJP MLA from the G. Udayagiri constituency while in jail.

Three Years of Prison

On Oct. 29 a fast track court at Phulbani sentenced three persons to three years rigorous imprisonment for destroying evidence in the murder of a man during the 2008 attacks in Kandhamal. Judge Das also imposed a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$21) each on Senapati Pradhan, 65, Revenswar Pradhan and Tidinja Pradhan, both 62. Failure to pay the fine would result in an additional three months of prison.

The three men were charged along with seven others for killing tribal elder Sidheswar Pradhan in the village of Solesoru, Tikabali block, on Aug. 25, 2008. 

Prosecutors said the three men clubbed Sidheswar Pradhan to death in front of villagers and family members, and that his body was set on fire. But the Judge Das convicted the three only of destruction of evidence in the case, exonerating them of the murder charges saying, “It could not be proved.”

Padisti Nayak, a 65-year-old widow, was reportedly burned alive on the same day. She had stayed back and not fled even after hearing the news of violence against Christians, believing the attackers would not harm an elderly woman.

Twelve days later Iswar Digal, her son-in-law who had fled to a refugee camp, contacted a district magistrate for information about her. When authorities inspected the family’s gutted home in Solesoru, they found only charred human remains, flesh and bones, which they collected as evidence of the violence.

The court acquitted the other seven of all charges due to lack of evidence against them.

Nabijini Pradhan, nephew of Sidheswar Pradhan, told Asia News that his family has since been receiving death threats.

“I cannot believe the murderers were acquitted,” he reportedly said. “Our family is at risk; we are getting death threats; they want to eliminate us. They killed and burned my uncle’s body to destroy every shred of evidence.”

Human rights activist Dhirendra Panda, a Hindu, told Asia News that some investigators are linked to Hindu extremists.

“Justice has been derailed, and some investigators are linked to the Sangh Parivar extremists,” Panda reportedly said. “They are determined to protect the accused, willing to manipulate cases rather than ensure justice for victims. Now not only are the religious rights of the population undermined, but also the core values of humanity and democracy.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: POLICE DO LITTLE TO PROTECT CHRISTIANS IN ORISSA


Survivors fleeing to state capital continue to receive accounts of violence.

BHUBANESWAR, India, September 4 (Compass Direct News) – Christian victims of Hindu extremist violence who have fled to the capital of the eastern state of Orissa said state police have been mere spectators as mayhem continued a 12th consecutive day.

Attacks on Christians and their property and institutions began in Orissa’s Kandhamal district following the killing of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on August 23. Maoists claimed responsibility for the murders on Monday (Sept. 1), though the statement did nothing to slow Hindu extremist violence that Christian leaders say has claimed more than 100 lives.

Among those who have fled to Bhubaneswar was Father Prabodha Kumar, a Catholic priest who reached the Catholic Archbishop’s House in the capital after a seven-day journey from Onjamundi village in Kandhamal. He was among other fearful sojourners at the house whose mobile phones constantly rang with news of more attacks from their relatives, friends and church members in interior villages of Kandhamal.

Fr. Kumar looked deeply troubled after one such phone call yesterday.

“My brother has been forced to ‘reconvert’ to Hinduism, as he was told that if he did not do so, his house would be destroyed,” he said.

Asked why he did not report the abuse to the police, the priest told Compass that if police officers could “witness Christians being brutally attacked,” why would they do anything to save his brother?

A few minutes later, Fr. Kumar’s phone rang once again. This time, it was about Christians in Kanpada village in Balliguda Block (Kandhamal district) being told to “reconvert” if they did not want their houses to be burned.

Shortly thereafter, another victim at the Archbishop’s House received a phone call reporting that at least 19 houses and churches were burned down that morning in Lujurmunda village, under Tikabali police station jurisdiction in Kandhamal.

 

State Inaction

That police did nothing to protect Christians is the assertion of most of the victims of Orissa violence.

Ravindranath Pradhan, a 45-year-old former soldier for the Indian Army, told Compass that two policemen came to him in his village, Gadragaon – also under the jurisdiction of Tikabali police station in Kandhamal – on August 24 and asked if he had heard the news about Saraswati’s killing. The officers told him to be “cautious,” but when he said police should protect him and his family, they said they didn’t have enough force to do so and left the village.

A little while later, he said, a mob of around 50 Hindu extremists stormed into the village and burned 31 houses belonging to Christians. The mob burned and killed his brother, Rasanand Pradhan, who suffers from paralysis, as he lay on his bed in a room that was set on fire.

“There is a police post in Pasora village, around five kilometers [three miles] from Gadragaon, but there was not even a single policeman in the village at the time of the attack,” the former soldier told Compass.

Ravindranath Pradhan, along with more than 100 Christians – including women, children and babies from his village, walked to reach Bhubaneswar, covering more than 300 kilometers (186 miles). He walked and used various means of transport, halting in numerous forests, before he was able to reach the state capital on Tuesday (Sept. 2).

“It took us four long days to reach Bhubaneswar,” Pradhan said. “We did not eat anything. We survived on water from rivers along the route. We also encountered wild animals in some forests.”

Pradhan had severe swelling of his left foot. One of his brothers was recovering in a hospital.

Many Christians from Gadragaon village reached Bhubaneswar on August 28. They were taken by local Christians to a YMCA center, where several other victims also are temporarily residing.

Christian leaders estimate at least 40,000 people have taken refuge in forests, and some 20,000 persons have fled to 10 government relief camps.

 

Police Afraid of VHP

Father Mathew Puthyadam of Christ the King Catholic Church in Phulbani town in Kandhamal also blames police for inaction.

At around 8:30 p.m. on August 24, he heard a mob shouting anti-Christian slogans, he said.

“I knew the church was going to be attacked,” Fr. Puthyadam said, his voice still trembling with fear. “I escaped to a nearby house when I saw a crowd of around 4,000 people carrying the body of Saraswati coming towards the church. The district collector [administrative head], the Deputy Inspector General [DIG] of Police, and several police personnel were also there.”

The Saraswati funeral procession stopped outside the church building, with the Hindu extremists carrying the body of Saraswati before its gate. The mob then broke the boundary wall and damaged statues and a cross.

“The collector, the DIG and other policemen witnessed it without doing anything,” Puthyadam recalled. “The DIG merely told the crowd, ‘Enough, enough, now move on.’ It is only when the crowd pelted stones on the police, and some of them got hurt, that the DIG asked his force to use batons to disperse the crowd.”

A federal security force also blamed Orissa state police for failing to prevent attacks on Christians.

On Friday (Aug. 29), the commandant of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Darshan Lal Gola, told The Indian Express newspaper that there was “complete breakdown of the state’s law and order machinery.” He pointed out that the CRPF rounded up 75 rioters in Deegei village under the Raikia police station, but local police refused to put them behind the bars.

A local human rights activist, Dhirendra Panda, said the state administration and police were afraid of VHP extremists.

“The state government did not conduct an autopsy on Saraswati’s body,” Panda said. “The body was not even taken to a hospital. Why didn’t the government follow the required procedure of law?”

Panda also pointed out that while the Orissa government put a restriction on all political party members and rights activists to visit Kandhamal, it gave police protection to VHP General Secretary Praveen Togadia to visit Saraswati’s Ashram (religious center) on August 25.

“Togadia was escorted by the police,” he said.

India’s Supreme Court reacted angrily to the Orissa administration’s denials yesterday of ongoing attacks, as justices ordered a commitment under oath for Orissa to provide protection to its people and their property.

Acting on Christian leaders’ charges that police were colluding with perpetrators and that the state government was a mute spectator, the court asked the Orissa chief secretary to file an affidavit today stating that the administration “will take all steps to protect life and property.”

Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices P. Sathasivam and J.M. Panchal had been enraged by a denial from state counsel Jana Ranjan Das that “allegations about continuing communal violence are false.”

Thus the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered Orissa state to report on steps taken to stop the wave of anti-Christian violence. The court order came after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered the state to punish those responsible for murder and arson.

In calling for the resignation of the entire state government of Orissa, on Monday (Sept. 1), Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said that the death toll from the violence had reached 100 “and more butchered bodies and burnt corpses are being found.”

“In Bakingia, two families of seven Christians – Daniel Naik and Michael Naik and their families – were tortured and killed,” George said. “Their bodies were found with their heads pulped and smashed, they were recognized by their clothes. Bakingia is about eight kilometers [five miles] from Raikia police station.”

 

Another Inflammatory Procession

The Orissa government today put a ban on another rally planned by the VHP to take the ashes of Saraswati in public procession from one village to another in Orissa beginning on Sunday (September 7), reported the Press Trust of India news agency.

The ban was announced by the state government in hearing of a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa in the Supreme Court of India.

The VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a partner of the ruling government led by the Biju Janata Dal party, continue to blame Christians for the killing of Saraswati and four others in spite of the Maoist claim of responsibility for the assassination.

When Compass spoke to VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath, he said the state government was wrongly linking Saraswati’s killing to Maoists.

“We know and believe that Christians killed him,” he said.

When Compass asked how he could say Christians killed him, he replied, “Christians attacked him on December 24, 2007.”

Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal during last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 3.7 million people.  

Report from Compass Direct News