Kandhamal’s long wait for ‘justice’

The Supreme Court ordered review of 315 cases of communal violence that were filed. The cases are still to be reopened after four years of the ruling

Kandhamal’s long wait for ‘justice’

John Dayal

For 56,000 and more Christians of Kandhamal, adivasis and Dalits, there is little solace in the news that a court in late July finally sentenced 30 of the accused to two-year prison terms for their role in the communal violence in 2008. And, oh, the guilty were fined Rs 1,000 each in what newspapers called the “2008 riots” case.

This was just one of the 500 and odd cases in which 31 people were charged with assaulting a Christian and burning his house. One of them passed away during the trial and six are still said to be absconding.

The attacks on Christmas eve of 2007 were just a prelude of what was to follow eight months later in August 2008, barely eight days after Independence Day. Organised and targeted communal attacks on Christians that began in Kandhamal immediately spread to different parts of Odisha and other states.

The Christian community in India, celebrating two millennia of existence in the land, records the Kandhamal violence as the most extensive and brutal attack it has faced in three centuries. But 12 years later, the men and women of Kandhamal are still waiting for justice and closure.

If the 2008 violence was said to have been triggered by alleged Maoists assassinating VHP leader Lakshmanand Sarasvati, the 2007 violence that began in Brahminigaon can be directly traced to the gentleman’s followers attacking Christian shops and homes decked up for Christmas the next day.

In the two rounds of violence, as many as 395 churches, big and small, were destroyed and 6,500 houses burnt or razed to the ground in 400 villages. Survivors and families counted over 100 people murdered, over 40 women raped, molested and sexually humiliated.

More than 56,000 people were displaced, half of them spending up to a year in refugee camps. Several cases of forced conversion to Hinduism were reported. Government till now has not accepted the death count given by relatives and NGOs. It also does not count persons injured in the violence who died during treatment months later.

It ignores the trauma and displacement, which lasted more than a year and disrupted the education of 12,000 children. Many of them could not resume their education. Educational, social service and health institutions – some owned by the government – were looted or destroyed, impacting the life of the survivors.

Survivors sent more than 3,300 complaints to the police in Kandhamal. Only 820 or so FIRs were actually registered. Chargesheets were filed in court in just 518 cases. The remaining complaints were dismissed as false reports. Courts have disposed of 247 cases. The rest are still pending.

The accused persons in a large number of cases were acquitted. In the cases in which the criminals were actually convicted, most were soon out on bail.

According to a study by Supreme Court Advocate Vrinda Grover and law professor Dr. Saumya Uma, the conviction rate was as low as 5.13% of the charge sheeted cases. If one were to take the complaints, just 1% of the victims have received a measure of justice. Till late July’s judgement, not one of the criminals responsible for killings, rape and destruction was in jail.

Reparations are unheard of for communal violence in India, but central and state governments have often whimsically given ex-gratia amounts for damage to houses or to the relatives of the dead. While some of this was given to the victims of Kandhamal also, the compensation has been far less than paid in other states.

On August 2, 2016, the Supreme Court bench of Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice Uday Lalit ruled that the quantum and scope for compensation was not satisfactory. They also found it disturbing that offenders were not booked by the police. The Supreme Court ordered review of 315 cases of communal violence that were filed. The cases are still to be reopened after four years of the Supreme Court ruling, which indeed had not set any deadline.

Houses, churches, institutions and voluntary organisations, whose properties were destroyed, were never put in the compensation list. Even many common people are yet to receive compensation for damaged homes despite the order of the highest court in the land. Police and courts did not list valuables, clothes and household goods destroyed or looted as deserving of compensation.

A People’s Tribunal in Delhi was organised in 2010 headed by Justice AP Shah, former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court and chairperson of the National Law Commission. The tribunal’s report is possibly the most comprehensive document on Kandhamal so far, with the book by Grover and Uma the only work of its kind analysing the frozen course of justice.

Many of the displaced even now live in new colonies without access to resources and livelihood. One such colony is ironically called Shantinagar. The widows and other relatives of those killed are fighting a court battle in the face of threats by religious and political fanatics.

Several groups of survivors have demanded implementation of the Supreme Court verdict of August 2, 2016 and reopening of the 315 closed/acquitted cases of violence. They want a Task Force to monitor the cases, ensure a ‘Witness Protection Mechanism’, ensure free and fair investigation and reopening the cases.

Of special importance is the demand to register cases against state and non-state actors. The role of many leaders of the Sangh Parivar had been documented. The complicity of the police and civil administration was obscenely obvious for all to see. The compensation needs to be enhanced to Rs. 15 lakh in case of death in line with the disbursement to victims of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in Western Uttar Pradesh.

But for the forests, the toll would have been worse than in Gujarat 2002.

(John Dayal and Sanjukta Basu visited the Kandhamal region and met some of the survivors of the said violence in 2018 as part of a Karwan-e-Mohabbat team)

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