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At last, a token of hope amid injustice

But Christians still face an uphill struggle

At last, a token of hope amid injustice
John Dayal, Delhi

September 12, 2012

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In the continuing gloom of injustice, broken promises and misadministration in Kandhamal, the birth of the new parish of Pakari has come as a token of hope and light for a Christian community still living with the memory of brutal attacks in December 2007 and August 2008 and with the ensuing “structural violence”. The two young priests in charge of the parish, Fr. Bimal Nayak and Fr. Cassian Pradhan, a Panos Dalit and a Kondh tribal, are hopeful that it will invigorate the almost 5,000-member local church. They hope that in a few years, they will see the birth of another parish in the remote region of Orissa. The church building is still just a design on a piece of paper, broadly resembling the church in Brahminigaon, which is getting the finishing touches on reconstruction after its destruction on Christmas Eve, 2007. The new parish will have a hostel and perhaps even a school, as well as the presbytery for the parish priest and his assistant, and a few rooms for visiting bishops and clergy. One school may not be enough to challenge the success of the Sangh Parivar in spreading its hate ideology to the young. Surveys by several groups, including mine, the All India Christian Council, reveal a massive effort by the Hindu nationalists to penetrate every village in the region. By this summer, the Sangh had set up an estimated 500 “Shishu mandirs,” or formal schools, and as many as 500 additional “Ekal vidyalayas,” or one-teacher schools, in remote villages. Neither the government nor the church comes anywhere close to these numbers. Observers have also noted changes in the tactics of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the main cadre of the Hindutva Parivar in the villages. The presence of Maoists in Darringbadi and other blocks has made the Sangh focus on areas where the Maoists are absent, or present only in small numbers. No major attacks have been reported this summer against Christians. But the absence of violence brings little joy for much of the Christian community.  In interviews and affidavits, residents speak of extreme economic hardship, particularly in remote areas, because of a lack of employment and ongoing economic boycotts of Christians. In the villages of Tikabali, Adasapanda and Mujhlimandi, Christians are not being employed as labor in the fields or in the local markets. Worse, many Christian men and women have been kept out of the government-run Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which is supposed to provide 100 days a year of paid employment on official projects such as roads, bridges and water conservation works. Government agencies are still harassing tribal Christians, forcing them to get a recommendation from the political outfit Kui Samaj when they come to get their “caste certificates” which are needed for scholarships, jobs and other “benefits” from the state and union governments. This is of course illegal, but the practice goes on despite Christian activists and lawyers notifying the District Collector. There is also no government initiative as yet to give land to the landless tribals. The cumulative impact of these situations is the migration of tribals and Dalits first to Phulbani, the district capital, and Baliguda, the only two major towns in the district, and then out of Kandhamal and even out of Orissa. Recent surveys have confirmed that as many as 10,000 of the 56,000 people impacted by the violence have not returned to their homes in the villages. With the justice process in the two fast-track courts showing no progress, Christian groups have once again petitioned the Supreme Court for re-investigation of the murders committed during the August 2008 violence. There have been just two convictions in more than 30 cases accepted by the government, after a death toll of more than 90. The Supreme Court is expected to take up the writ soon. In another major initiative, the National Human Rights Commission is being approached by victims and their representatives who are seeking a comprehensive justice and rehabilitation package such as the ones victims of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984 and anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 won after interventions by the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission. The comprehensive application points out that thousands of children continue to be without education, and men and women without jobs. Both individuals and the church have been denied adequate compensation for the destruction of property during the riots, because of deficiencies in government surveys and irrational systems of calculating the loss. Christian activists have taken great heart from the recent Supreme Court judgment holding two BJP politicians guilty of murders in Gujarat’s Naroda Patiya area, and NHRC decisions in similar cases. This has been reflected in the mass rallies that have been held in Phulbani and Bhubaneswar on August 25. Police gave permission at the last moment for Christians to mark the fourth anniversary of the violence. Berhampur Bishop Sarath spoke to about 4,000 people about the need for justice and rehabilitation. The RSS held its own rally on August 23 to commemorate the murder, by Maoists, of Vishwa Hindu Parishad vice president Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Several hundred RSS activists shouted slogans asking for the arrest of the “real” murderers of Saraswati. Seven Kandhamal Christians have been rotting in jail for four years as suspects, their bail applications routinely denied by the courts. John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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