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 


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


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