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Updated: May 14, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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Police in an eastern India tribal area have charged 110 people, including a Catholic priest, with aiding extremist elements, but the accused say they are being framed for asserting their land rights.

Father Hilarious Kujur, a 70-year-old priest of Bettiah diocese in Bihar state, told UCA News May 7 that police in late March gave him a court notice demanding he swear every week before a magistrate that he will not disturb law and order in the area. Similar notices were served on the other 109 tribals, and all 110 have since been making weekly appearances before the magistrate.

Deo Paswan, the police official who brought the charges, told UCA News that "confidential dossiers" on Father Kujur indicate that he has links with and is funding Maoist extremists in neighboring Nepal. The extremists have been waging an armed struggle against the Nepalese government since 1996.

"As a police officer, I can´t wink at such facts," Paswan asserted. Though many attribute "ulterior motives" to his action against the priest, the police official insists that "I have merely done my duty."

Father Kujur, a member of the Oraon tribe, has been working since 1990 in Bhitaha village of West Champaran district, an area close to India´s border with Nepal, just 990 kilometers east of New Delhi.

Rajesh Oraon Kachap, 32, president of the Oraon Mahasabha (grand assembly) and one of the 110 charged by police, explained to UCA News that tribal people are just asserting their rights after non-tribal landlords took away tribal land with doctored official documents. Since then, tribal people have won back about 150 hectares of the land through court cases.

According to Kachap, his people have documents showing that before India became independent, British colonial rulers allotted land to tribal people but now nearly 75 percent of it is in the hands of non-tribals. The tribal people began claiming the land after Father Kujur came to the area 13 years ago.

Since then, the priest has opened two primary schools to promote education among the more than 80,000 Oraon people in some 150 villages. He says that basic education is essential to secure government jobs and live with dignity.

Some 3,000 tribal children have finished middle school, about 70 tribal youth have obtained bachelor´s degrees and a few now have government jobs.

Ramji Oraon Kispota, a 52-year-old tribal leader among those facing charges, told UCA News that as the people became more educated, they grew more united and began asserting their rights. This upset the landlords and politicians, who allege that Maoist extremists from Nepal have entered the Indian forests.

Kispota said that the landlords and their police and politician allies have used newspaper reports to "accuse us of hobnobbing with the extremists." He added that the tribal people intended to mount a protest demonstration against the charges but Father Kujur "asked us to face the new challenge with equanimity, for otherwise our very struggle for justice would be defeated."

Father Ignatius Osta, a non-tribal diocesan priest working in the area, told UCA News that the police move against Father Kujur has "deeply worried" local Church people. Father Osta said he believes the case may be part of a police plan to arrest and jail Father Kujur under anti-terrorism legislation. Father Kujur has asked his lawyer "to be ready for a long battle" because "it is not my individual case, but that of a weak and marginalized community."

Nonetheless, Tej Pratap Singh, a local upper-caste Hindu landlord, remarked to UCA News that the case has exposed the priest´s "real character -- we always had some suspicion about his activities."


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