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Kandhamal still waits for justice

Orissa Christians are still suffering after 2008 violence while state drags its feet

Kandhamal still waits for justice
Ajay Kumar Singh, Bhubaneswar

August 30, 2011

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Christians in Orissa could not conduct prayer services last week for more than 100 fellow community members who were killed in sectarian violence three years ago. Shibani Singh, president of Catholic women of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, sums up the reason: “We feared reprisals from Hindu fundamentalists who organized a rally to observe the anniversary of the death of their seer Laxmananda Saraswati.” Maoist guerillas killed the Hindu religious leader on August 23, 2008, triggering some of the worst acts of anti-Christian violence the Church in India has ever witnessed. The Church in Orissa now observes August 25 as "Martyrdom Day." It was on that day in 2008 that the anti-Christian mayhem of killing and torture began. It lasted nearly six months and also saw 54,000 people in 415 villages homeless. The survivors said there were more than 6,000 cases of house burning, looting and killing. However, only 3,232 had the courage to go to the police, who registered only 831 cases and arrested 794 people. Fast track courts set up to handle these cases acquitted 639 people. Only one of 19 murder trials ended with a conviction. The courts dismissed the rest despite witnesses testifying against the accused. Hundreds of the accused, including alleged murderers, still roam through the villages of Kandhamal. Sadly, the anti-Christian violence continues. In January this year, two right-wing Hindu activists called out one Saul Pradhan from his house for a talk. His family members found his body the following morning near a pond two kilometers away. The widow registered a complaint with the police, but they classified it as an unnatural death caused by excessive drinking and extreme cold. In another case, people found the body of Michael Nayak lying in a road the day after he met up with a Hindu friend. The police dismissed it as a road accident. Such incidents prompted Montfort Brother K.G. Markose to remark: “The police in Kandhamal are redefining murders as unnatural and accidental deaths.” Hindu extremists, meanwhile, continue to intimidate. Janani Pradhan, who worked as a maid for an upper caste Hindu family, died on August 2 when her employer allegedly threw her off a roof. Police and Hindu neighbors pressured her husband Debendra Pradhan into not registering a complaint. “I was forced to accept 250,000 rupees [approx US$5,400]. I now have to look after my two children,” Pradhan explained. The Orissa High Court has asked the Orissa police’s crime branch to reopen the investigation into Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati’s murder. The police had earlier charged 14 people, including top Maoist leaders in Orissa. The police had also picked up seven Christian village leaders. They are still languishing in jail. Meanwhile, radical Hindu leaders such as Manoj Pradhan, a member of the state legislative assembly, were out on bail within days of being convicted in several murder cases. Recently, a visiting German delegation, led by Volker Kauder, chairman of the Christian Democrat parliamentary group, expressed disbelief that the justice system could stoop to such a low. The delegation was also dismayed at the refusal by the “sensitive Indian media” to hear Orissa victims’ cries for justice. Around Christmas time in 2007, several aid agencies had come to help victims of earlier violence in Kandhamal. During the 2008 rampage, Hindu extremists targeted these agencies, torching their offices and facilities in the district. The government refused to pay these organizations compensation, which has sent out a clear indication as to who the government really works for. The 2008 violence also saw 415 churches destroyed in Kandhamal. The government paid 10,000 to 50,000 rupees that was not sufficient even to clear the rubble. The government often reiterates its commitment to protecting Christian freedoms and faith. However, what happens in reality is quite the opposite. Recently, district officials served Christians in Nandagiri -- a relocated enclave for 2008 survivors – a demolition order for their prayer hall. In quick succession, two other churches also received demolition orders this month. One has an official land deed. The Orissa Church cries to Moses. Who is listening? Father Ajay Singh directs the social service society of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, which covers Kandhamal, where the violence was most intense. He is also a social activist working among the victims. Related links: Hindu radical charged with rape of Orissa nun Six-year-old Orissa girl identifies dad’s killer Five sentenced to life for murder during Orissa violence Kandhamal probe a failure, say activists
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