Monday, December 19, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Barefoot: Remembering Kandhamal

December 17, 2011
Barefoot: Remembering Kandhamal
Harsh Mander

The Hindu Remains of a church in Kandhamal district. File Photo: Lingaraj Panda

Kandhamal was not a spontaneous outburst of mass anger. And the
victims still await justice.

It was a terrifying Christmas in 2007 for tribal and dalit Christians
who live in the second poorest, deeply forested district of Odisha,
Kandhamal. Long-smouldering violence targeting them exploded, and was
to continue to rage for another full year. During this time, 600
villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses were looted and burnt, 54,000
persons rendered homeless, 295 churches and places of worship
destroyed, and 13 schools, colleges and orphanages were damaged. The
official death toll was 39, although unofficially the figure is
claimed to be closer to 100. 30,000 people were forced to live in
relief camps, and it is estimated that nearly half are still unable to
return home.

Four years later, many of the survivors gathered in Bhubaneshwar to
remember and to mourn. In an exhibition organised by Anhad, some of
the vandalised remains of churches and homes were displayed. In one
corner, blurred, blown-up passport sized pictures of men and women who
had been killed were pasted on bamboo sticks. Many stood there and
wept quietly. The occasion was the release of the report of a National
People's Tribunal on Kandhamal, aptly titled 'Waiting for Justice'.
The Tribunal was chaired by Justice A.P. Shah, and included among its
members Syeda Hameed, Ruth Manorama, Mahesh Bhatt, Vinod Raina, Vrinda
Grover, Miloon Kothari, P.S. Krishnan and Sukumar Muralidharan. I too
was a member of the Tribunal.

Striking similarities

Although the states of Odisha and Gujarat are located at the furthest
eastern and western corners of India, separated by several thousand
kilometres, the mass-targeted hate violence in both states, in 2007-08
and 2002 respectively have many striking — and deeply troubling —
similarities. Each was characterised by a long build-up of hatred
against religious minority residents, there is evidence of systematic
advance preparation, state authorities were openly complicit in
enabling the violence to persist for weeks and months, the attacks
were unusually brutal and targeted women, thousands were displaced and
discouraged from returning to their homes, facing organised social and
economic boycott. And in both, compensation was tight-fisted and
justice systematically subverted.

There is evidence in both Gujarat and Odisha of systematic planning
and organisation prior to and during the attacks, as though they were
both only awaiting a flashpoint to let loose the terror and mass
violence. These were not spontaneous outbursts of mass anger. They
were planned attacks cynically facilitated and criminally abetted by
the state administration in the two states. The Tribunal notes:
'Victim-survivors testimonials repeatedly referred to the perpetrators
wearing red head bands, carrying numerous weapons such as axes,
daggers, swords, guns, crowbars, pickaxes, lathis, bows and arrows,
lighted torches, bombs, petrol and kerosene barrels, trishuls, tangia,
pharsa bhujali and bars'. They could have been speaking of Gujarat,
where we heard literally hundreds of similar testimonials.

One survivor, Keshamati, recalls further: "It is 'Sahukars' from the
towns of different parts of Kandhamal who took the leadership in
creating the violence, supplying weapons, arms and explosives like
petrol and diesel to some of our people." Another adds, "The rioters
brought trucks from other villages and they carried away looted
valuables from our villages in the trucks. Many speak of preparatory
meetings in villages the night prior to the attacks.

In Odisha, once again like in Gujarat five years earlier, the attacks
were marked by exceptional cruelty. Kanaka Nayak recalls the horrific
mob slaughter of her husband when he refused to reconvert to Hinduism.
"They spat on him and started to sing and dance around him; they
paraded him, and dragged him. They told him 'you sing your songs and
let Jesus come and save you'. And they started attacking and cut his
body into three pieces." Many attacks were on women. Christodas
recounts, "When we were fleeing to the relief camp, my wife was
attacked with a sword by a violent mob..... I saw her palms being cut;
she had a cut on her skull and her backbone." An orphanage was
destroyed. The body of the warden was burnt, the lower part of her
body was completely burnt so as to destroy all evidence of alleged
gang rape.

Women who suffered sexual violence in both massacres continue to live
with the agony of memory and silences of shame. One said in confidence
to the Tribunal, 'The attackers removed their mask before they raped
me. Earlier, they would respect me. I was shocked that they took
revenge on me for my uncle's refusal to convert to Hinduism... Lots of
things have changed in my life after that incident. I have been in
hiding. I am traumatised, sad, depressed and struggling. I feel
ashamed. I am unable to forget about the incident and carry on with
life. But I feel I should be strong to get justice."

Surprise element

Another surprising common feature in the two mass slaughters was the
role played by women's organisations such as the Durga Vahini. The
Tribunal records evidence of the mass mobilisation of women who formed
violent mobs and perpetrated the attacks.

The two massacres are also linked by the open support to the violence
by the state administrations, which permitted these to blaze for long
weeks and months, reducing an entire religious community to fear and
destitution. The Tribunal quotes the earlier report by the National
Campaign on Dalit Human Rights: 'The local government by and large not
only stood by and silently watched, as the horrendous events were
unfolding, but in several ways, according to the eye-witnesses,
facilitated the gangs indulging destruction of human life and valuable
property. What followed by way of administrative action — controlling
the situation, relief measures for the afflicted and punishing the
guilty — could only be described as formal-ritual motions to satisfy
the letter of the law'.

State apathy

To take just two illustrations, survivor Premashila testifies to the
Tribunal, "The police and the district administration were aware of
strategies of the rioters before the incident took place, because
these rioters were organising meetings, rallies in the presence of the
police and district administration in many places." Father Kullu
describes their role in the destruction of the Madhupur Church: "
front of the police and the deputed magistrate the rioters destroyed,
burnt and ransacked everything whatever they could in two hours. Many
valuables were stolen. They completely destroyed the church, priest
residence, hostels, convent, dispensary and Maria grottos."

In both hate carnages, people were openly attacked because of their
adherence to what was incorrectly described as 'foreign religions', in
one case Islam and the other Christianity. The Tribunal notes,
'Thousands of Christians being chased and herded in groups into Hindu
temples and forced to undergo "reconversion" ceremonies with their
heads tonsured. They were made to drink cow-dung water as a mark of
"purification" and some of them forced to burn Bibles or damage
churches to prove that they had forsaken the Christian faith. The
"reconverted" Christians were forced to sign "voluntary declarations"
stating that they were becoming Hindus voluntarily — a condition
required by the anti-conversion law in Orissa'.

In my next column, I will trace the echoes of Gujarat in Kandhamal
five years later, in ways that boycott was organised, reparation
withheld and justice subverted.

Openly instigating violence, VHP leader Pravin Tagodia had a free
passage across the state in the build-up to the protracted violence.
He thundered, "There is no place for Christians. If Christians don't
become Hindus, they have to go. We don't care where they go. They must
leave Orissa." The purpose of the violence was to punish and terrorise
those adivasis and dalits who had converted to Christianity, some
generations earlier. In Odisha, as in Gujarat before it, ultimately
the aim of the violence was to reduce the religious minorities to
permanent fearful submission to people of the majority faith, in
destruction of the secular democratic Constitution of the land.


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