EU Visit to Orissa, India Triggers Barrage of Accusations

Hindu nationalists protest delegation as Christians cite injustices.

NEW DELHI, February 8 (CDN) — A delegation from the European Union concluded a “fruitful” trip to India’s violence-torn Orissa state on Friday (Feb. 5) amid a swirl of protests by Hindu nationalist groups and cries of injustice by Christians.

The delegation was able to hold “open and frank” discussions with Kandhamal officials on the visit, said Gabriele Annis of the Embassy of Italy.

“We had a very good meeting with the Kandhamal district administration,” Annis told reporters. “It is fruitful. We had open and frank discussion. It helped us in understanding the situation and understanding happenings over the past 15 months.”

The delegation was led by Christophe Manet, head of Political Affairs of the European Commission delegation to India and consisted of members from Spain, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden. A delegation from five European countries had visited Orissa earlier in November 2009, but the government of Orissa denied them permission to visit Kandhamal district, where Christians say they continue to be threatened and destitute.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath said on Saturday (Feb. 6) that despite the claims of the state and district administrations, life for the Christian victims of violence in August-September 2008 remains far from normal: thousands still live in makeshift shanties along roadsides and in forests, he said, and local officials and police harass them daily.

“The block officers have been playing with the facts, indulging in corrupt practices and cosmetic exercises whenever political and other dignitaries come to visit or inspect,” the archbishop said in a statement. “Innocent people are coerced into giving a false picture. The chief minister must investigate the role and functioning of the entire district administration . . . It is strange that officers in whose presence the violence took place and thousands of houses were burnt are still in office and are declaring that there is peace in the district.”

Following attacks in the area after Hindu extremists stirred up mobs by falsely accusing Christians of killing Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, more than 10,000 families were displaced from their homes by the violence. Since then, Cheenath said, an estimated 1,200 families have left the area. Between 200 and 300 families reside in private displacement camps in the district, and more than 4,400 families still live in tents, makeshift shelters or the remnants of their damaged houses, he said.

The number of attack victims who have received financial assistance from the government, churches or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is unknown, but is estimated at 1,100 families, Cheenath added.

He criticized Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik saying, “Both of them had promised to provide adequate compensation for the damages caused during the 2008 communal violence. But the victims have not been adequately compensated.”

Cheenath said the state government had decided not to compensate any riot-affected religious institutions even though India’s Supreme Court had directed the government to compensate them for all damages.

“This is a national calamity and demands a special package for the affected people, which should include land, income generation, education and healthcare,” the archbishop said.

Extremist Makeover

Prior to the visit, Christian leaders expressed their shock at Kandhamal district authorities attempting a cosmetic makeover by evacuating nearly 100 Christians from G. Udayagiri.

In letters to the EU delegation, the state government and national human rights and minorities commissions, Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council narrated the plight of the 91 members of 21 families from 11 villages who were living under plastic sheets along a road in the marketplace area of G. Udayagiri.

Dayal said the group included 11 married women, three widows, an elderly man with a fractured hip and thigh, and two infants born in the camp. They had faced almost daily threats, he said, as they had not been allowed to return to their villages unless they renounced their faith and became Hindus.

Soon after the decision to allow the EU delegation, the water supply to the makeshift site was cut off and police and civil officers drove away the residents, who had only plastic sheets to protect them from the cold, he said. The refugees said officers later gave them permission to come back at night but to keep the area clear.

“The families are in G. Udayagiri, they have moved in front of the road, and they are in a very bad state,” the Rev. Samant Nayak of G. Udayagiri told Compass. “They are literally on the road.”

He said that approximately 55 families were living in G. Udayagiri, where they had been given land, and a Christian NGO was helping to construct houses for them.

The Press Trust of India reported that Orissa officials were nervous about last week’s delegation visiting Kandhamal but finally gave permission under pressure from the central government. State officials finally allowed the visit with the pre-condition that the delegation would be allowed only to interact with people and not engage in fact-finding, according to a senior official in Orissa’s home department.

The Kandhamal district collector, Krishna Kumar, told Compass that all went well and “no untoward incidents took place,” but sources reported at least one minor disturbance in Bodimunda village. On Wednesday (Feb. 3), one house was reportedly damaged there in a scuffle that also resulted in two arrests by the local police.

During their Kandhamal visit, the EU delegation was reportedly forced to cancel a meeting with judges of Fast Track courts established in Phulbani, in Kandhamal district, to prosecute hundreds of those accused in the 2008 violence, due to protests from the local lawyers’ association.

Kumar, however, pointed out that the lawyers’ protest was secondary to the lack of clearance from the High court for the meeting with the judges. “The same was not informed to us prior to the visit,” he added.

Justice Denied

The anti-Christian violence in August-September 2008 killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions. Archbishop Cheenath said justice is critical to long term peace.

“The two Fast Track courts, and the court premises, have seen a travesty of justice,” he said in the Feb. 6 statement. “Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial. The court premises are full of top activists of fundamentalist organizations. The witnesses are also threatened in their homes with elimination, and even their distant relatives are being coerced specially in the murder and arson cases against Member of Legislative Assembly [MLA] Manoj Pradhan.”

Though some witnesses have testified on Pradhan’s alleged involvement in crimes in depositions, he has been acquitted in case after case, the archbishop added.

“We are demanding a special investigation team to investigate every case of murder and arson,” he said. “Similarly, there is also need for transferring the cases against politically powerful persons such as Pradhan to outside Kandhamal, preferably to Cuttack or Bhubaneswar.”

Cheenath said victims have filed 3,232 complaints at Kandhamal police stations, but officers registered only 832 cases. As many as 341 cases were in the G. Udayagiri area alone, 98 in Tikabali and 90 in Raikia, he said.

“Even out of this small number [in G. Udayagiri], only 123 cases were transferred to the two Fast Track courts,” he said. “So far, 71 cases have been tried in the two courts, and 63 cases have been disposed of. Of these, conviction occurred only in 25 cases, and even that is partial as most of the accused have not been arrested or brought to trial.”

Only 89 persons have been convicted so far in Orissa state, while 251 have been acquitted, supposedly for lack of witnesses against them, he said.

“Among them is Manoj Pradhan,” Cheenath said. “It is strange that in the case of 10 deaths by murder, nine cases have been closed without anybody being convicted, while there has been partial conviction in the case of one death. Who will bring justice in the case of the nine murder cases?”

The archbishop demanded that independent lawyers be allowed to assist overworked special public prosecutors.

Hindu Nationalist Protests

Protesting the delegation visit was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindu nationalist organizations. VHP State General Secretary Gouri Prasad Brahma had lamented on Jan. 31 that the visit would trigger tension and demanded their immediate withdrawal.

“There is no business of the outsiders in the internal matter of the state,” he said.

The delegation also faced the ire of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal on the day of its arrival in Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa, on Tuesday (Feb. 2). Hundreds of its cadres met the delegation at the airport shouting loudly, “EU team, go back.”

Five Bajrang Dal members were detained for creating trouble, Deputy Commissioner of Police H.K. Lal told media on Wednesday (Feb. 3).

After the delegation had left, the Orissa Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heavily criticized the central and the state governments, with BJP state President, Jual Oram telling a press conference that the state had allowed the visit to “divide people on communal lines.” He said that the delegation had not met any Hindu leader during their visit to Kandhamal, which “exposed their communal agenda.”

Oram accused the delegation of violating protocol in trying to meet the judges of fast-track courts in Kandhamal, saying this “amounted to interference into internal affairs of a sovereign independent member state under the U.N.”

At the same press conference, BJP MLA Karendra Majhi said that allowing the visit was an attempt by the chief minister to win back the confidence of minority Christians. He alleged that the delegation had held secret meetings in a Catholic church at Phulbani with church leaders and select NGOs to facilitate conversions to Christianity.

“I have every reason to believe that the promised assistance of 15 million euros to Kandhamal by the EU delegation will be utilized for conversion activities,” Majhi said.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Hindu extremists beat Fr. Bernard Digal unconscious, leaving him bleeding in forest.

NEW DELHI, October 31 (Compass Direct News) – More than 3,000 people today attended the funeral in Bhubaneswar, Orissa of a Catholic priest who died on Tuesday (Oct. 28) from injuries sustained in anti-Christian violence that began in August.

Father Bernard Digal died in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, after an operation to remove a blood clot that developed in his brain due to a head injury from Hindu extremists attacking him on Aug. 25-26 in Kandhamal district, Orissa state. He was 46.

“He was smashed like a pulp,” Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, told Compass. “Because of the hate campaign of the [Hindu extremist] Sangh Parivar, the attackers lost their humanity and they became devils. Human beings can’t do what they have done.”

Archbishop Cheenath flew with Fr. Digal’s remains from Chennai to Orissa. Treasurer of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese in Orissa, Fr. Digal was visiting Sankarakhole parish when violence flared after Maoists killed Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and his disciples on Aug. 23.

Though police suspected Maoists from the start and the outlawed Marxists had claimed responsibility for the murders by Sept. 1, Hindu extremists bent on stoking anti-Christian flames continued to publicize that Christians had committed the crime – and have not stopped doing so.

Fr. Digal and Father Alexander Chandy, along with driver Sisir Pradhan, had taken shelter in a forest after a furious mob gathered outside the parish shouting slogans to kill all missionaries. After spending two days in the forest, they left the forest after Fr. Chandy became ill, moving from village to village.

They finally took refuge in a gutted church building in Dudukangia village. It had been torched and only its walls were standing. Legs swollen from walking, the refugees hoped that the enraged Hindu mobs would not come, Archbishop Cheenath said.

But the mob tracked them down by midnight, the archbishop said, and the clerics and driver ran. The crowd caught hold of Fr. Digal, who later told Archbishop Cheenath, “The mob shouted to each other to kill me. I pleaded for my life, but in vain.”

Stripping Fr. Digal naked, the Hindu mob then hit him with crowbars, iron rods, cycle chains, axes, sticks and other weapons, the archbishop said.

“They made a bonfire to burn him alive,” he said.

Seeing the fire, Fr. Digal managed to escape and run through some thorny bushes but was caught shortly after. The intolerant Hindus continued to hammer him until blood flowed from his head and he lost consciousness, and they left him for dead, Archbishop Cheenath said.

“He lay there on the wet ground and in the cool breeze for six to seven hours,” he added. Two villagers who found him in the forest carried him to Phulbani.

After much pressure, the state administration took Fr. Digal to a private hospital in Bhubaneswar, under security cover, and from there he was taken to Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai.

Discharged the first week of October after more than a month in the hospital, he reached Chennai, Tamil Nadu on Oct. 12 to visit his friend the vicar general of the archdiocese, who was undergoing a heart treatment in St. Thomas Hospital.

“Fr. Digal, after coming to Chennai, complained of high fever, blood in the urine and headache, and lastly his lungs collapsed,” Archbishop Cheenath told Compass.

Tests revealed he had a blood clot in the brain, and he underwent emergency surgery on Sunday evening (Oct. 26), reported The Times of India. The next day, he developed acute respiratory disorder and slipped into a coma.

Kandhmal district Police Chief Pravin Kumar told the national daily that he had no knowledge of the attack on Digal.

“So many incidents took place,” he reportedly said. “I don’t know whether there was any formal complaint pertaining to the attack on him. The police can begin an enquiry into the incident if a complaint is lodged even now.”

The Orissa state government has ordered a probe into the death of Fr. Digal, according to The Statesman News Service.

Fr. Digal was ordained on May 29, 1992. He was a native of the village of Tiangia in Kandhamal.


Orissa Rape Victim’s Plea

Two months after a nun was raped and paraded half-naked on Aug. 25 in the anti-Christian violence in Orissa, the victim went before the media in New Delhi on Oct. 24 and recounted her traumatic experience.

Her head and face covered by a black scarf, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa accused police of being “friendly” with the attackers and of not being responsive to her plea. Expressing her distrust in Orissa police for failing to protect her from those who raped her and other attackers, she demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.

The nun had gone into hiding after the attack but decided to come forward after the Supreme Court turned down her initial request for a CBI investigation last week.

Sr. Barwa read from her handwritten statement, giving stark details of the incident. Archbishop Cheenath accompanied her in the press conference.

“Two of them were holding my neck to cut off my head with an axe,” she said. “Others told them to take me out to the road; I saw Fr. [Thomas] Chellan also being taken out and being beaten.”

The 40 to 50 men were armed with axes, spades, crowbars, iron-rods and sickles, Sr. Barwa added. She said she was taken to a building full of ashes and broken glass and raped there, with the mob subsequently parading her and Fr. Chellan for about a half a kilometer. Upon reaching a market she asked about a dozen Orissa police to help her, she said, “but they did not move.”

“This hate campaign,” Archbishop Cheenath said, “is done under the very nose of the authorities, and they are mere spectators of these shameful deeds.”

At the Balliguda police station, the nun recounted, she told the inspector in charge and other government officers how she was attacked, raped, taken away from policemen and paraded half-naked, and how the officers did nothing as she wept bitterly. The inspector asked her, she said, if she knew “what will be the consequence” of filing a First Information Report (FIR).

On Aug. 26, as she was writing the FIR, the inspector told her to hurry and not write it in detail, she said.

“State police failed to stop the crimes, failed to protect me from the attackers, they were friendly with the attackers,” she said. “They tried their best that I did not register an FIR, not make complaints against police, [and] police did not take down my statement as I narrated in detail and they abandoned me half of the way. I was raped and now I don’t want to be victimized by the Orissa police. I want a CBI enquiry.”

Since her press conference, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has called for a detailed report on the sequence of events from the district collector and superintendent of police.  

Report from Compass Direct News