Signs of Witness Intimidation Mount in Orissa, India

Fear factor results in transfer of rape case; meantime, 6-year-old girl says politician is killer.

NEW DELHI, April 2 (CDN) — Due in part to intimidation of witnesses in Kandhamal district, a judge this week granted a change of venue for the trial of men accused of gang-raping a nun during anti-Christian attacks in Orissa in 2008.

The trial will be transferred from Baliguda, Kandhamal to Cuttack, near the Orissa state capital of Bhubaneswar. Justice Indrajit Mohanty of the Orissa High Court on Tuesday (March 30) ordered the inter-district transfer of the trial. The nun, Meena Lilita Barwa, had argued that witnesses would be intimidated into refraining from testifying if the trial were held in Kandhamal district.

She also argued that Kandhamal’s intimidating atmosphere made it too dangerous for her appear in court there. Christians were hopeful that the transfer would lead the administration to review police and court processes in Kandhamal district.

Police have arrested 19 people for allegedly assaulting the nun on Aug. 25, 2008 and parading her half-naked through the streets.

Hindu Politician Identified as Killer

After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats have kept witnesses from testifying, a 6-year-old girl has identified a powerful local politician as the man who killed her father.

In testimony at Fast Track Court No. 1 on March 14, Lipsa Nayak of Kandhamal identified Manoj Pradhan, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa, as the man who cut and burned her father to death when Hindu extremists attacked Christians following the Aug. 23, 2008 death of a local Hindu leader.

Pradhan has been accused in nine cases of murder and in 14 cases of arson. So far he has been exonerated on the murder charges against him for “lack of witnesses.” Christian leaders say that Pradhan has been intimidating witnesses because of his position as a member of Legislative Assembly. Lipsa’s mother, 32-year-old Kanak Rekha Nayak, has said that Pradhan and his associates have threatened to harm her family if they identified him as the killer.

The Nayak family lived in Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district. During the anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa’s parents and her sister had taken refuge in the forest to escape the fury of the Hindu extremists, but the rampaging mob tracked them down.

Lipsa, then 4 years old, along with her mother and 2-year-old sister, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father, Parikhita Nayak, for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.

Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Lipsa for more than 90 minutes, and she reportedly answered all questions without wavering. Asked by the judge if she could identify the killer of her father, she pointed to Pradhan, the MLA from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal.

Her mother later told media, “They played with him for a few hours before cutting him into pieces and dousing him with kerosene.”

Accused as a primary suspect in the murder along with Pradhan is Kali Pradhan. The government of Orissa has set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. Maoists have taken responsibility for the killing, though Hindu extremists accused Christians in an effort to spark anti-Christian violence. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Christian leaders have denounced the legal process in the Kandhamal violence, saying not only that witnesses have been threatened and the intimidated but that police investigations have been negligent or corrupt.

“There has been no conviction in any case of murder,” said Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council. “More than 70 people were killed, and trial is being held only for 38 or so of those deaths. Eleven murder cases have been tried with no one being indicted or sentenced for murder so far – because of terrible investigation by the police, a poor show by the prosecuting lawyers and shoddy judicial process.”

The 123 cases tried in the Fast track courts have resulted in 97 convictions and 323 acquittals, including several cases decided on Wednesday (March 31). Seven people in two separate cases were convicted of arson and rioting cases. Nata Pradhan, Jahala Pradhan, Ashok Mallick, Bapa Pradhan, and Udayanath Pradhan from Raikhala-Gadiapada village were sentenced for two years imprisonment for destroying the house of Birendra Nayak of the same village. They were also fined 2,500 rupees (US$55). In the other case, Ratnakar Pradhan and Parsuram Pradhan from village Tatamaha, Raikia block were convicted of riot and arson.

At the same time, Fast Track Court I Judge S.K. Das acquitted 20 people persons in three separate cases for lack of evidence.

“Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial,” said Archbishop of Orissa Raphael Cheenath in a statement. Previously he had demanded that the cases of politically powerful persons such as Manoj Pradhan be transferred out of Kandhamal to ensure proper justice.

“We are deeply concerned about the high rate of acquittals in the Fast Track Courts,” Cheenath said. “Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal. Of these, the police registered cases in only 832 instances.”

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik filed a written admission in the Orissa Assembly in November 2009 in which he said 85 members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), 321 persons of Hindu nationalist umbrella group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and 118 persons of Hindu extremist youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, had been arrested for their involvement in the Kandhamal riots.

While the government says that situation is normalizing in Kandhamal, Christian leader like Dr. John Dayal give a different story.

“While it is possible to visit one half of the district of Kandhamal and discover only peace, it is the other half of the district which speaks of the continuing tyranny,” he said. “The bloodshed has stopped because of belated police action, but the miscarriage of justice and the lost peace continue to haunt thousands of people who have not been able to go back to their homes for fear of their lives. Thousands of children cannot go to school, especially the girls. What is worse is that many girls have been trafficked.”

The district collector banned all Christian organizations from coming to the district to bring aid to victims after the 2008 violence, he added, “and it took an appeal to the Supreme Court of India by the archbishop of Bhubaneswar for much needed relief to be given to the people in the then refugee camps.”

He expressed doubts about the government portrait of normalcy in Kandhamal.

“Even if the church does its best, only half of the 5,600 or so houses burned to the ground will ever be rebuilt,” he said. “The district collector and other officers of the civil and police system who are guilty of gross dereliction of duty continue to be in control. Thousands of men continue to be without jobs. Is this normalcy?”

Firebrand Arrested

On March 20, a controversial leader of the VHP, Praveen Togadia, was arrested as he tried to defy orders prohibiting him from entering Kandhamal. Togadia had played a major role in whipping up passions among the Hindus of Kandhamal after the killing of Saraswati.

Togadia had led a procession with the body of Saraswati through different areas of the district for more than 100 kilometers, sparking off or intensifying violence against Christians.

The government of Orissa came under heavy fire from civil society for allowing the procession, and on the latest occasion the local administration was careful to detain Togadia under the Section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides for authorities to make arrests to prevent potential offenses. Togadia was later released on bail.

Togadia termed the prohibition on his visit a “ban” that was “illegal and undemocratic.” In response to the “ban” on Togadia, the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar and the BJP protested with a 12-hour bandh (shut down) in Kandhamal on March 20, while the VHP held demonstrations in Bhubaneswar, Berhampur, Bolangir, Sambalpur and Cuttack. VHP also blocked National Highway 217 for one hour and burned an effigy of Chief Minister Patnaik.

“The state government didn’t stop foreign missionaries from going to tribal areas of Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa,” VHP leader Swadesh Pal Gupta said. “They were being provided with full support and freedom. But when a leader who is an International Secretary General of VHP tries to go to Kandhamal, the government stopped him. We are staging a nationwide protest against this.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Hindu extremists move to stop yuletide celebrations as suffering in Kandhamal continues.

NEW DELHI, December 3 (Compass Direct News) – Christians in Orissa state are anticipating Christmas with fear as Hindu extremists have called for a state-wide bandh, or forced shut-down on all sectors of society, on Dec. 25 – a move that could provide Hindu extremists the pretext for attacking anyone publicly celebrating the birth of Christ.

Last year one of the area’s worst spates of violence came during the Christmas season.

The state’s chief minister has said there should be no such shut-down but stopped short of prohibiting the Hindu extremists’ plan. The federal government has expressed its disapproval of the proposal, but the Hindu extremist umbrella organization Sangh Parivar has vowed to press ahead with the shut-down, reported newspaper Outlook India on Nov. 20.

Though such shut-downs were declared illegal by India’s Supreme Court in 1998, the president of the Laxmanananda Saraswati Condolence Society (SLSSS) sent a threatening notice to the Orissa government on Nov. 15, warning that the Hindu extremist group would impose a bandh on Christmas unless the state government arrested those who murdered Hindu leader Laxmanananda Sararawati on Aug. 23.

A Maoist group on Sept. 1 admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, and police on Oct. 6 confirmed that Maoists killed them, but the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) has continued to blame local Christians for the assassinations, stoking anti-Christian sentiment that led to a wave of violent attacks for more than two months. At least 500 people, mostly Christians, were estimated to have been killed, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team, and at least 4,500 houses and churches in Orissa’s Kandhamal district were destroyed.

Ratnakar Chaini, president of the SLSSS, has demanded the release of Hindu leaders arrested in connection with the killing of Christians in the violence following the assassination of Saraswati.

In a massive rally in Delhi on Nov. 15, Chaini called for the shut-down in order to ensure “a completely peaceful Christmas.”

The general secretary of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) took the Hindu extremist’s comment as sarcasm.

“How can they have a peaceful Christmas if there is a bandh?” Tehmina Arora told Compass. “There can be no celebration, no going out the house also. So there can be no question of peace.”

Inflammatory speeches at the rally by Chaini and other Hindu extremists against Christianity and its leaders in India led Christians to believe the shut-down would serve as the pretext for another spate of violence against those publicly celebrating the holiday.

The Hindu extremists’ rally also included pledges that all Christian converts would be “re-converted” to Hinduism.

“If Hindus decided to take on anyone to protect our religion and culture, then nothing can stop us,” Chaini said. “Unchecked conversions by churches would be opposed with tooth and nail.”

The Sangh Parivar, including the state unit of the VHP, said in a press statement that the government has been shielding those guilty of murdering Saraswati.


Prohibition Demanded

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath told Compass that the intention of the Hindu nationalists in calling the shut-down was malicious and done for political advantage – a way of garnering tribal peoples’ support for Hindu nationalist candidates by setting up Christians as disobedient trouble-makers.

“If the government allows the bandh to take place on Christmas Day, it will mean that they are allowing more attacks and violence against the Christians,” said Archbishop Cheenath.

Violence has broken out against Christians on previous shut-downs in Kandhamal district.

“There is a great deal of apprehension, because it was on previous bandhs that there have been attacks against the Christian community,” said Arora of the CLA. “The district collector informed us that they were taking strong steps to ensure that the bandh would not be taking place. Unless the district collector and state administrator take serious steps to see that it is not enforced, it would again be a violent attack against the Christian community.”

Orissa church authorities headed by Archbishop Cheenath met a team of visiting government ministers on Nov. 19. Subsequently Christian leaders delivered a memorandum demanding the proposed shut-down be prohibited as illegal. The memorandum demanded the state punish the people and organizations involved in such activities.

The team of central government ministers visiting riot-hit areas on Nov. 19 advised the state chief minister to ensure that there be no shut-down on Christmas Day. Finding the Kandhamal situation tense and Christians fearful, the team leader, Union Agriculture Minister Sharah Pawar, said they requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to see that the shut-down on Christmas Day does not take place.

“We don’t understand why Christmas was chosen for calling the bandh,” Pawar told Outlook India. “Agitation should not be allowed on major festival days like Diwali [a Hindu festival], Christmas and Chhath [a Muslim festival].”

Stating that the minority community is under tremendous pressure because of such a threat, Pawar reportedly said the need of the hour is to restore normalcy in the riot-affected areas.

“We have requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to make efforts to stop such a bandh on Dec. 25, a major festival day,” Pawar told reporters after meeting with Patnaik.

Patnaik later said, “There should not be a bandh on Dec. 25,” but he made no appeal to the Sangh Parivar to refrain from the Christmas Day shut-down.

Church leaders also requested the ministers pressure the state government to put a halt to Hindu extremists forcing Christians, under threat of death, to convert to Hinduism. Christians are allowed to live in the district only if they became Hindu, they said.


Deaths Continue in Orissa

A Christian woman who had fled Hindu extremist violence was killed on Nov. 25 after leaving a relief camp to harvest her paddy.

Lalita Digal, 45, was murdered in Dobali village, Kandhamal district, where she was staying with a friend, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). She had returned to the village on Nov. 21. On Nov. 25 she was allegedly dragged from the house and murdered. No arrest had been made at press time, according to EFI.

The state administration has forced people to leave relief camps even though they have no homes to return to, according to a local Christian body. Representatives of the Kandhamal Christian Jankalyan Samaj (KCJS) said at a press conference this week that threats continue from Hindu nationalists demanding that frightened Christians “re-convert” to Hinduism.

Conditions at the camps remain poor. At Daringbadi camp, Leunsio Digal died on Nov. 24 due to lack of proper medication, EFI reported. He had been suffering a fever for a week without access to medications to alleviate it. Digal had served as catechist for 25 years at Simonbadi parish, in the archdiocese of Cuttack- Bhubaneswar.

On Nov. 22, Orissa police fired at two Christians in Kandhamal’s border village of Kutunniganda, killing one and severely injuring another, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

Junesh Badaraita died on the spot. The injured Karnel Badaraita later told a television station that they were searching for lost cattle with a flashlight when police fired at them.

Police were combing the area in their hunt for a Naxalite (Maoists or Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries) Training Camp. Under Inspector-in-Charge Narbada Kiro, they reportedly fired at the two Christians from a distance of 350 meters.

Police claimed that the two Christians were Naxalites, though villagers refuted this assertion. In protest, the agitated villagers blocked a public road and kept government officials from arriving at their offices in the area.

At press time, the district administrator promised compensation to the family of the deceased and suspended the squad in charge, said the GCIC.  

Report from Compass Direct News