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In India, justice system fails survivors of anti-Christian riot

Many Christians in Odisha continue to live in fear

Ritu Sharma, New Delhi

Ritu Sharma, New Delhi

Published: September 11, 2015 04:27 AM GMT

Updated: September 10, 2015 10:24 PM GMT

In India, justice system fails survivors of anti-Christian riot

In this October 2008 photo, an Indian Christian family returns to their house, which was damaged during rioting by hard-line Hindu activists in Odisha state's Kandhamal district. (Photo by Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP)

She is bubbly, shy and has sparkling eyes. Her thin frame and charming smile give an indication of a carefree girl in her late twenties. But she is scarred for life.

Sapna* is a victim of a horrific sexual attack. She was gang raped during anti-Christian violence in 2008 in Kandhamal district of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa.

The violence was triggered by the killing of a Hindu spiritual leader, Laxmananda Saraswati, and four associates on Aug. 23 of that year.

Though Maoists claimed responsibility for the killings, Hindu hard-liners blamed Christians and unleashed a wave of deadly violence against the community.

Sapna was targeted despite being a Hindu because she has relatives who are Christians.

"My maternal grandparents are Christian and I paid the price for that," Sapna told ucanews.com.

She said she initially wanted to die following the rape but now "I want justice for myself and see those who did it behind bars."

However, seven years later, nobody has been convicted in connection with the gang rape although the case is still pending in the Orissa High Court.

A girl of small dreams, Sapna knows her community now sees her as spoiled goods because of the attack. She believes she will likely never marry.

"I want to get married and have a family but no man will take me as his wife," she said. "I am being punished for something that’s not my fault."

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Failed justice

The 2008 violence, spread across 600 villages, simmered for four months and claimed more than 90 lives.

Some 350 churches and 6,500 homes were looted and burned, forcing 56,000 people to flee.

According to activists supporting the Kandhamal victims, some 10,000 people have not been able to return home for fear of persecution. Some are in slums in the state’s major cities, while others have migrated to other states.

Out of the 827 cases registered in connection with the violence, 273 have reached court, while only 492 of the 4,000 accused have so far been convicted.

Seeking justice and frustrated by the slow pace of the Indian judicial system, some of the Christian survivors held a press conference in New Delhi on Sept. 8 to highlight their plight and their fear of persecution.

A day earlier, the survivors, who call themselves the Kandhamal Committee for Peace and Justice, met Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to seek his help.

"He assured us he would look into the matter and promised to raise it with the Indian government," Father Dibakar Parichcha, legal counsel for most of the survivors, told ucanews.com.

The state's criminal justice system has failed survivors of the riots, he said.

The victims want authorities to reopen cases that have been arbitrarily dismissed, and to find out why many complaints made to the police around the time of the violence were not pursued, he added.

Brinda Karat, a former member of India’s upper house in parliament, voiced her support for the victims.

She said the judicial system had failed the Kandhamal Christians on two fronts, pointing to the swift arrest and convictions of innocent men for the killing that triggered the violence and the slow pace of justice for the subsequent victims.

Not only had they not received justice for violence meted out to them she said, it was "unfortunate to see seven innocent poor Christians being convicted for the killing of the Hindu spiritual leader Laxmananda Saraswati."

She said it speaks volumes of the criminal justice system in the state when these men are behind bars despite Maoists openly claiming responsibility for the killing.

Kanaka Rekha Nayak, center, fled her home after the 2008 anti-Christian riots in Odisha. She sits here with Father Dibakar Parichcha, right, at a press conference in New Delhi Sept. 8. (Photo by Ritu Sharma)


Livelihood issues

Besides a lack of justice, Odisha’s Christian community, especially in Kandhamal district, continue to live in fear of persecution and are struggling to make ends meet as a result of the riot.

Many men, who were the sole breadwinners of their families, died in the violence resulting in their loved ones having to fend for themselves.

Many women started working in the fields as day laborers during the crop season, only to earn 100 rupees (US$1.5) a day.

During the off-season, they scavenge in forests, selling what they gather to earn as little as 60-50 rupees per day.

Father Ajaya Kumar Singh, who has been helping survivors, told ucanews.com that there are many families that never returned to Kandhamal after the violence.

Kanaka Rekha Nayak and her husband were caught up in the violence. He was killed and she was forced to flee and now works as a domestic worker in Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital city.

Nayak, a Catholic, has two young girls aged 12 and 10 years with the elder one disabled as a result of polio. She says it is difficult to make ends meet with her meager income.

"It gets more difficult with each passing day. I have nobody to help me," she says.

Father Singh said poor job opportunities and living standards for Christians is a norm in the state.

This has led to the trafficking of young Christian girls, he said.

"Agents lure these girls who are looking for good job opportunities and send them to other parts of India. We have rescued some from Delhi, Agra and from some parts of Maharashtra state," he said.

"This is a dangerous trend and we are very concerned about it as these girls are innocent, poorly educated and vulnerable having never travelled outside Odisha."

* Sapna's name has been changed to protect her identity. 

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