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 


Still blaming Christians for assassination, Hindu fanatics continue attacks.

NEW DELHI, September 1 (Compass Direct News) – A Maoist group today claimed responsibility for killing Hindu extremist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples in Orissa state on August 23, saying that fanatical Hindus’ claims that Christians murdered him were “lies.”

The violence that has claimed the lives of least 36 people, most of them Christians, and destroyed hundreds of churches and homes continued over the weekend as Hindu extremists continued to blame Christians for the killing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of India-Maoist, an extreme Marxist group banned by the Indian government, released a statement today saying that Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu extremist groups led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, have deliberately misled people about Saraswati’s death.

“The Sangh Parivar leaders like Praveen Togadia have been trying to divert the people by uttering lies that it is not the Maoists but Christian organizations that had carried out the attack on the VHP leader,” the Marxist group stated.

The statement said Saraswati was a “rabid anti-Christian ideologue and persecutor of innocent Christians who was responsible for the burning down of over 400 churches in Kandhamal district alone.”

Saraswati, who had run a campaign against Christian missionaries for several decades in Orissa, was allegedly behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district 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 Maoist statement warned the VHP of “more such punishments if it continued violence against religious minorities in the country” and called for a ban on groups linked to the Sangh Parivar, such as the VHP, its youth wing Bajrang Dal, right-wing Hindu political party Shiv Sena and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

On August 30 private news channel NDTV 24X7 quoted unnamed government sources as saying that their assessment was that Christians had no role in the killing of Saraswati, and that the probe was leading to Maoist culprits.

Christian leaders said that as a result of the violence more tha 50,000 Christians are living as refugees in jungles.


Fresh Attacks

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), today at least two churches and a motorbike were burned and a pastor was beaten in Koraput district.

The Orissa Missionary Movement Church and the Bible Mission Church were set ablaze by mobs in Jeypore town, according to EFI, and also in Jeypore a pastor of the Blessing Youth Mission was attacked.

The state government today said 543 houses had been burned in Kandhamal alone thus far, IANS reported.

Although the number of incidents has come down compared with last week, fresh attacks were reported yesterday. Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) reported today that the violence had spread to three more districts of Orissa.

“Security forces had been deployed in nine districts [of Orissa] since August 23, but policemen are now being deployed in an additional three districts,” Inspector General of Police Pradeep Kapur told IANS.

Security forces had been deployed in the districts of Bolangir, Bargarh, Kandhamal, Gajapati, Ganjam, Koraput, Rayagada, Bhadrak and Kendrapada. Kapur, however, refused to tell the three additional districts where police personnel had been deployed.

Yesterday several churches and houses were burned in Bataguda and Parampanga areas of Kandhamal district, Boriguma area of Koraput district and in parts of Rayagada district, according to IANS.

The Hindu newspaper reported that eight prayer houses were damaged in Kundra area of Koraput district on Sunday.

“Violence erupted in the district following a clash between two groups in Jeypore town on Saturday and five churches were damaged,” the newspaper reported, adding that a curfew was still in force.

Although the violence began more than a week ago, police are still saying they are not able to reach interior villages of Kandhamal. The state government has now reportedly asked for additional central paramilitary forces to control the violence.

While many parts of Orissa remained under curfew today, over 13,000 people were reportedly living in relief centers set up by the state government in seven places in Kandhamal.



With violence continuing with little or no police protection, Christian leaders said many fearful believers have been forcibly “reconverted” to Hinduism.

According to The Indian Express, more than a hundred Christians “reconverted” to Hinduism in Kandhamal on Friday and Saturday (Aug. 29-30).

“I have heard that reconversions are taking place and I am looking into it,” Kandhamal Revenue Divisional Commissioner Satyabarat Sahoo told the newspaper.

A number of reconversions have reportedly taken place in Raikia, Baliguda, Barakhama and others areas of Kandhamal, the newspaper reported.

Dr. Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of India Christians, told Compass that Hindu extremist groups are “reconverting” Christians by force.

“We have collected evidence and given it to authorities,” he said. “However, the police and other state government authorities are not doing anything.”

George led a sit-in protest with local Christians in front of the state legislative assembly building in state capital Bhubaneswar, and submitted a memorandum to the state governor on Saturday (Aug. 30).

Brahmachari Shankar Chaitanya, successor of the slain Saraswati, asserted that the conversions were “purely voluntary.”

“If misguided people want to come back to Hinduism they will do so, and it is our duty to extend all necessary help and embrace them,” Chaitanya told The Indian Express.


‘Punish the Killers’

Christians noted that the violence by VHP extremists is in a state ruled by a coalition of Biju Janata Dal party and the BJP.

A delegation comprising a noted filmmaker and Christians from various denominations today submitted a memorandum to the Indian President Pratibha Patil demanding action against the VHP and other groups for leading mobs to kill and attack Christians.

The delegation urged the president to invoke Article 355 of the constitution, which states that the federal government has a duty to protect states against external aggression and internal disturbance.

The delegation included film director Mahesh Bhatt; Dr. Abraham Mathai, vice chairman of the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission; Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of India; Mehmood Madani, member of Parliament; Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa; Delhi Archbishop Vincent Concessao; the Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India; Joseph Dias from the Catholic Secular Front; the Rev. Madhu Chandra of the All India Christian Council, and Jenis Francis of the Federation of Catholic Associations.

“More than 50,000 Christians are living as refugees following the violence in Orissa,” Mathai told reporters. “All the political parties are sitting as mute spectators.”

Christians make up 2.4 percent of the state’s population, or 897,861 of the 36.7 million people.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Orissa government leaks assessment pointing toward Maoists; protests nationwide

NEW DELHI, August 29 (Compass Direct News) – Sources in the government of Orissa said in an India media report today that they believe that Christians were not behind the killing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples on Saturday (August 23).

The death toll in “retributive” attacks against Christians today stood at 36, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

A private news channel, NDTV 24X7, reported unnamed government sources as saying that their assessment was that Christians had no role in the killing, and that the probe was leading to Maoist (extreme Marxist) culprits.

Inspector General of Police (Intelligence) Manmohan Praharaj had on Wednesday told The Indian Express newspaper that evidence available to police was “consistent with the Maoist stamp in the kind of operation they undertake.”

“The assailants had left a note written on the letterhead of Vamsadhara Zonal Committee, signed by one Azad, and it is consistent with the Maoist methods,” he added.

After the attack on Saraswati’s ashram (religious center) in Kandhamal district, the VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), partner of the ruling coalition with the Biju Janata Dal party, claimed that Christians had killed Saraswati because he was fighting “forced” conversions. Saraswati was allegedly behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal 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.

With Hindu extremist leaders having urged followers to “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions,” mobs allegedly led by the VHP today carried on attacks on Christians in Orissa’s Kandhamal district for the sixth consecutive day, though there were reportedly fewer incidents than in the previous five days.

To express solidarity with the victims of the violence, Christians from various denominations and across the country registered their protests. Around 45,000 Christian schools and colleges throughout the country remained closed today to demand protection of Christians in Orissa.

“Survival is more important than education,” the Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), refering to the CBCI’s call for a nationwide closure of Christian schools.

A Hindu extremist group in Gwalior city in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh, however, pelted stones at some schools and churches.

“While all Christian schools and colleges in Madhya Pradesh remained closed on Friday in protest, a group of people pelted stones at Carmel Convent School, St. Theresa School and Church and St. Paul’s Church in Gwalior,” V.K. Suryavanshi, superintendent of police, told IANS. Madhya Pradesh is ruled by the BJP.


‘Ethnic Cleansing’

Raising cries against “ethnic cleansing” of Christians in Orissa, thousands of Christians today staged a rally in the national capital to protest violence that has claimed at least 30 lives, destroyed hundreds of houses and churches and forced thousands of Christians to flee to jungles.

Among other protests across the country, at the Orissa House in New Delhi Christians from almost 30 churches and numerous organizations gathered to protest the violence. Addressing the throng was Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa, Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council (AICC) and the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

Member of Parliament P.C. Thomas, retired high court judge Kulse Patil, attorneys from the Christian Legal Association, human rights activists Shabnam Hashmi and Teesta Setalvad, and Dalit leader Udit Raj were also part of the protest.

Christians submitted a memorandum to Orissa Gov. Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare after the rally.

“In deep anguish and pain, we, the Christian community of the Delhi and National Capital Region, submit this memorandum to you, and not to the Chief Minister of Orissa, because we believe that by not stopping the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Orissa in the last six days, he has abdicated his Constitutional duties to the Sangh Parivar [family of Hindu extremist groups] and thereby has forfeited his right to be in government,” it said.

The memorandum also demanded declaration of President’s Rule in Orissa under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, saying the constitutional machinery of the state had failed.

“Nuns have been raped, pastors, priests, religious workers injured in their hundreds,” it reads. “Over forty churches have been destroyed, many for the second time, apart from once again hundreds upon hundreds of houses burnt in towns, villages and forest settlements. Christians have been chased and hunted like animals.”

The GCIC will stage a day-long sit-in protest in front of the Orissa state assembly in state capital Bhubaneswar tomorrow.

Organizations in the United States and United Kingdom also have condemned the violence, demanding action against the attackers. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Dalit Freedom Network, the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations in North American, the Indian National Overseas Congress, and the Indian Muslim Council of the USA are among them.


‘National Shame’

A Christian delegation from across various denominations yesterday met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who called the Orissa violence a “national shame.” Singh assured the church leaders of compensation of 300,000 rupees (US$7,500) to the families of those killed, reported The Hindu newspaper.

Singh also reportedly promised funds from the Prime Ministers’ Relief Fund for providing relief and rehabilitation to all those affected by the violence.

The federal government also seeks a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the violence against Christians.

“We would have liked ideally that this matter be handed over to the CBI, because those responsible should get justice immediately as judicial probe takes longer time,” Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal (from the Congress Party) told the Press Trust of India news agency. Sibal, however, clarified that it was for the state government to recommend a probe by the federal investigating agency, as the federal government could not do this on its own.

The opposition Congress Party in the Orissa state assembly House moved a no-confidence motion against the ruling coalition late today. It posed little threat to the government, which had the required majority to defeat it in a voice vote.


Tensions, Mob Attacks Continue as Violence Ebbs

NEW DELHI, August 29 (Compass Direct News) – As a week of violence drew to a close following the killing of senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Laxmananada Saraswati, some angry Hindu mobs were still attacking Christians in spite of orders by the Orissa state administration to shoot agitators on sight.

The “shoot-at-sight” orders are in place in eight of the most sensitive areas as the number of deaths climbed to at least 36, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. By nightfall in Orissa state, authorities had discovered the body of Abhimanyu Naik of Kandhamal district near Raikia village; they said he was the apparent victim of a mob attack.

The government maintains a figure of 19 dead, while Christian and human rights agencies calculate higher tolls. The Asian Centre for Human Rights asserts that more than 50 persons, mainly Christians, have been killed. Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, reported in a letter to United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi that 30 persons have been killed.

Orissa police have reportedly put about 165 people behind bars for the violence, but Vijay Simha, senior editor of independent weekly news magazine Tehelka, told Compass from Kandhamal district that there is no evidence against them.

“These arrests are based purely on suspicion,” he said. “There is terror all over. Those who are hiding in the forest and those in the homes – no one feels safe. The areas are totally deserted.”

Orissa officials report that in Kandhamal district alone 20 churches have been burned, 19 people killed, 10 people seriously injured, 28 vehicles burned and more than 500 houses burned down or destroyed. But lawyer Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass that the number of houses burned or destroyed in Kandhamal could be “a lot more than what was quoted in the government report – the number can be over 1,000.”

Sources said churches were attacked today in Tharnamal, Phatara, and Panbarani. Churches were burned throughout the district of Bolangir and the areas of Ganjam and Kalumunda in the past few days. In Bolangir, four churches were burned yesterday in Dhandhamal, Monihira, Phatkorra, and Bilaikani.

The assault on churches continued in Bolangir district. Sources said that in Tharnamal, Bolangir a mob of around 60 people attacked a church building where Christians were present inside. The attackers included at least four minors. The Christians were able to flee as the assailants destroyed the structure.

Additionally, one church was burned in Kalumunda, and one in Ganjam.


Appeals for Help

Deputy Inspector General of Police R.P. Koche told Compass that tensions remain while security is gradually increasing.

“Curfew is relaxed in Phulbani town, and the situation is quite under control,” he said. “Though tension prevails in Kandhamal, the situation is improving gradually in some areas. Security forces have been able to enter inaccessible areas by removing obstacles placed by miscreants.”

Koche said that a number of Special Forces were deployed in Kandhamal district, including the Central Reserve Police Force and the Rapid Action Force, while Orissa state armed police had deployed 24 platoons in the area.

Local sources in Baliguda said the curfew there was relaxed today, and markets were re-opened.

Christian and human rights agencies have appealed for the government to do more to bring the violence under control. After the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network filed a petition in Cuttack High Court, the Orissa High Court yesterday directed the state government to immediately deploy more forces to protect the rights and properties of the people.

Another petition was filed by the Utkal Christian Council. The High Court of Orissa heard the case today and issued show-cause notices to the state of Orissa and the Union of India to file replies.

“It has been directed that the state shall requisition required number of security forces, and the central government shall provide the same,” Attorney B.D. Das told Compass. “Further, it was directed that the state shall furnish the details of how much security forces it has applied for with the Central Government and how many has the Central government so far provided for the maintenance of law and order situation in the state.”

In addition, the National Human Rights Commission today asked the Orissa government to file a detailed report on violence in the state within two weeks.


Relief Camps

Suresh Mohapatra, a government administrator, told media that the state government had opened seven relief camps along the affected areas that could accommodate nearly 5,000 people.

“People are still coming to camps,” he said, adding that he expected the flow to end soon as “the riots have stopped.”

Local sources told Compass that more than 1,000 people are at a relief camp at G. Udaygiri, with the government providing makeshift shelter and basic foods.  

Report from Compass Direct News