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Four years later, fear still stalks Orissa

Kandhamal Christians still live in fear

Four years later, fear still stalks Orissa
Christians in Kandhamal say they continue to live in fear of religious violence
Shailendra Boora, Orissa

August 27, 2012

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Four years on from the violence that tore through Kandhamal, normality may have returned in some respects; some damaged buildings have been restored; businesses have re-opened.  But suspicion and tension still lurks beneath the surface. Christians still live in fear. During those savage months of 2007-2008, more than 100 people were killed and 50,000 displaced. Thousands of houses were looted and destroyed, 250 churches and Christian institutions were burnt to the ground. Several women were raped, one of them a nun. Few of the perpetrators were arrested; many are still free on bail. According to Jyotisen Paricha, a victims’ advocate, there were more than 3,000 complaints but only 823 cases registered, of which 172 were acquitted, 245 were dropped, 245 are still awaiting trial. Only 86 cases resulted in convictions. “The murderers of my husband have never been punished,” says one widow. “Only one person was arrested and he was sentenced to seven years, but he got bail after seven days. I appealed to high court, he got bail within two days. Then the supreme court sentenced him again to seven years, and again he was bailed in two days.” Another widow says: “The killers of my husband are on bail. They have threatened me, telling me to withdraw the case. I’m not able to go back to my own village, even though I have my own house and land there. I have had to get work as a daily laborer. I can’t even meet the expense of looking after my children.” Manoj Pradhan, a leading member of the Orissa state parliament, was convicted on 14 cases, of which nine were murders. After three months imprisonment, he is now free. He denies being involved in the clashes and claims that the cases against him are all false. He cannot deny that mass violence took place, but justifies it by saying: “Our Swami was killed by Christians. Out of love for Swamiji, there were attacks on Christians. There is nothing wrong with that.” “Swamiji” is a reference to Swami Lakshmananada, a local Hindu sage who was assassinated, allegedly by Maoist Christians. This was the incident that sparked the carnage. The seven Christians who were arrested for his killing are still in jail. Most people agree that the evidence that incriminated them is flimsy. As well as the catalog of outright injustices, the troubles have caused and left behind a slew of other problems. There are still 10, 000 displaced people, five to six thousand in Bhubaneswar, others in colonies far from their home villages. “Life in these colonies is pitiful,” says one of them. “The government brought us here, to a place where we have no way of making a living. We go short of food and other basic necessities. The government has closed its eyes and ears to our needs.” Those who have been able to return home are not counting themselves as much more fortunate. “All our cattle and goats were looted. Now we’re left with no livelihood,” says one of them. “We’re not invited to work in other landowners’ fields.” When asked to compare Kandhamal then and now, one man says, “Before the violence, we were all together, celebrating all the festivals and functions, attending each other’s funerals. But now, our villages are filled with tension, fear and prejudice.” Yet the Kandhamal district collector, Bhupendra Singh Punia, maintains that the problems are over.  “Kandhamal people are peace loving people and the situation has returned to normal now,” he says. “People are back to their villages and they’re working together.” When asked what it will take to restore real peace in Kandhamal, there are a number of differing answers. “Development activities,” says Bhupendra Singh Punia. “The culprits have to be punished,” says a lawyer for the Christians. But Manoj Pradhan, the lawmaker convicted on 14 counts, says: “The Christians need to withdraw all their complaints and stop criticizing Hinduism.”
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