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 

Special Investigations Team Sought in Orissa Violence

Acquittals increasingly surpass convictions due to shoddy or corrupt police investigators.

NEW DELHI, December 7 (CDN) — Christian leaders in India have called for a special investigations team to counter the shoddy or corrupt police investigations into anti-Christian violence in Orissa state in August-September 2008.

Of the 100 cases handled by two-fast track courts, 32 have been heard as of Nov. 30, resulting in 48 convictions and more than 164 acquittals. A legislator for the main Hindu extremist party has been exonerated “for lack of evidence” in six cases, most of them involving murder charges. The number of cases registered total 787.

“Christians are extremely shocked by this travesty of justice in Orissa,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass.

The government of Orissa set up two fast-track courts in Kandhamal district headquarters for cases related to the violence that began in August 2008 after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples in Jalespetta on Aug. 23, 2008. The chief minister of Orissa state has admitted that Hindu extremist umbrella group Sangh Parivar was involved in the anti-Christian violence (see sidebar below), and Christian leaders have said they are increasingly concerned over verdicts in the fast-track courts based in Phulbani.

Among those exonerated “for lack of evidence” was Manoj Pradhan, a legislator from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who was acquitted of murder on Nov. 24. He was accused of killing Trinath Digal of Tiangia village on Aug. 25, 2008.

Thus far, Pradhan has been cleared in six of 14 cases against him.

“Manoj Pradhan has been let off in all the major cases against him, mostly murder cases, for lack of evidence,” attorney Das told Compass. “Now only small cases of arson remain against him.”

Attorneys said acquittals have resulted from police investigations that were intentionally defective to cover up for Hindu extremist attackers. In many cases, for example, police have fraudulently misrepresented the ages of suspects so they would not match with those denoted in the victims’ First Information Reports, leaving the court no option but to let the alleged culprits go.

Nine people were convicted, and five suspects, including Pradhan, were acquitted “for lack of evidence” on Nov. 18 for burning the house of Ratha Nayak in Mlahupanga village, Kandhamal on Aug. 27, 2008. Those convicted were sentenced to four years of prison and fined 3,500 rupees (US$75) each.

In a previous 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 Member of the Legislative Assembly from the G. Udayagiri constituency while in jail.

On Nov. 24, Judge C.R. Das acquitted six suspects: Budhdeb Kanhar, Purander Kanhar, Gadadhar Kanhar, Sudhir Pradhan, Ajibana Pradhan and Dadhi Mallick. They were accused of killing Meghanad Digal and his wife Priyatama from Dutukagam village, Tikabali on Sept. 25, 2008.

Judge S.K. Das sentenced 12 persons to four years of prison along with a fine of 2,000 rupees (US$43) each on Nov. 28 for torching houses and shops at Sirtiguda village, under Nuagaon police jurisdiction, on Sept. 13, 2008.

Indo-Asian News Service reported that on Nov. 30 Sanjeev Pradhan was convicted of torching the house of Shravan Kumar Digal of Penagari village on Aug. 25, 2008. Sanjeev Pradhan was sentenced to prison for five years and fined 7,500 rupees (US$160).

Special Investigation Team Sought

Christian leaders are calling for a special investigation team like the one created after communal violence wracked Gujarat state in 2002.

“The need of the hour is a special investigation team, for the investigations of the Orissa police have caused doubts,” attorney Das said. 

He added that the cases should be transferred out of Kandhamal, as Christian leaders feel justice cannot be served in the district’s Hindu extremist atmosphere.

Many of the Christians displaced as a result of the violence have yet to return to their villages. The archbishop of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack, Raphael Cheenath, told media that out of 50,000 people displaced, about half have returned, “but they are facing housing problems. The state government should take it up earnestly.”

Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council stated in a Dec. 4 report that “several thousand of the 50,000 Christian refugees are still to return home. Many cannot, as they have been told they have to convert to Hinduism before they will be accepted in the villages. The threats and coercion continue till today.”

He added that most of the more than 5,000 houses destroyed in December 2007 and August-October 2008 mayhem have yet to be rebuilt.

Attorney Das told Compass many of those who fled their village fear returning home.

“It is true that in many cases, the pre-condition of converting to Hinduism and facing violence if they do not has been the factor that has prevented the people from returning to their homes,” he said. “The fear of being attacked again has also stopped many from going into their villages. The government has not been very successful in instilling trust in the Christian community that such incidents can be prevented in the future.”

Orissa police yesterday arrested a man accused in the rape of a nun during the violence in Kandhamal. Gururam Patra was reportedly arrested in Dharampur.

He was accused of leading a mob that attacked the nun at on Aug. 25, 2008. Police have so far arrested 19 people in the incident, with another 11 still at large. The 29-year-old nun has told police she was raped and paraded naked by a Hindu extremist mob, and that officers only stood by when she pleaded for help.


Official Names Hindu Nationalist Groups in Orissa Violence

NEW DELHI, December 7 (Compass Direct News) – The ruling party of Orissa state, which labelled last year’s mayhem in Kandhamal district as “ethnic violence,” has publicly admitted that Hindu nationalist groups were behind the killings and arson of Christians and their property.

“It is learnt from the investigation into the riot cases that the members of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], the VHP [World Hindu Council] and the Bajrang Dal were involved in the violence that took place last year,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the state legislative assembly last month.

Patnaik, in response to a question by a member of the Communist Party of India, also disclosed that police had arrested 85 people from the RSS, 321 members of the VHP and 118 Bajrang Dal members in the attacks. He said that only 27 members from these groups were still in jail.

The others were either bailed out or acquitted for lack of evidence, which Christians say is due to shoddy or corrupt investigation by police and prosecutors (government attorneys).

Soon after violence in Kandhamal broke out in August 2008, Patnaik blamed it on “conflict of interest” between Dalits (people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in Hinduism and formerly known as “untouchables”) and tribal people.

National media speculated that Patnaik was seeking to deflect attention from the Bajrang Dal, which had been accused of the attacks on the Christians. The Bajrang Dal (Army of Hindu God Hanuman) is the youth wing of the VHP, which is seen as part of the RSS family.

Local Christians had suspected the role of the RSS and related outfits since the violence began on Aug. 24, 2008 – one day after Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed by Maoists (extreme Marxists) and RSS members blamed Christians for it.

The RSS is a Hindu nationalist conglomerate whose political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was part of the ruling coalition during the 2008 eruption of the violence that killed more than 100 people, mostly hacked to death or burned alive, and incinerated more than 4,500 houses, over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Patnaik’s party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) broke up its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP in March 2009, a month before state assembly and national elections were held. The BJD, which fought the two elections alone, won a majority in the state assembly and most seats in parliament from the state.

It was only after the coalition’s break-up that the BJD began to hint at the culpability of the RSS and related groups.

“It was important to break up with the BJP, because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal [violence] – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Patnaik told CNN-IBN, a private TV news channel, on April 19.

A state government-constituted panel, the Justice Mohapatra Commission of Inquiry, is probing the Kandhamal violence but has yet to issue its final report.

Meantime, a report of another panel, the Justice M.S. Liberhan Commission of Inquiry, said that top leaders of the BJP, the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal “meticulously planned” the demolition of the 17th century Babri Mosque 17 years ago.

More than 2,000 people were killed in communal violence across the country following the demolition of the mosque on Dec. 6, 1992. The incident polarized voters along religious lines and subsequently contributed to the BJP’s rise in Indian politics.

The Liberhan report, presented to parliament on Nov. 25, indicted several Hindu nationalist leaders, including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, current Leader of Opposition in the People’s House L.K. Advani, VHP leader Ashok Singhal and former RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan.

Observers said the indictment of extreme Hindu nationalists, however, has come too late, as the BJP no longer seems to be powerful at the national level.

Report from Compass Direct News