Chilling memories

Print edition : February 27, 2009
in Kandhamal

A camp at the Government High School at Tikabali in Kandhamal district. Classes are held in makeshift sheds outside.-PHOTOGRAPHS: LINGARAJ PANDA

VIOLENCE has by and large come to an end in Kandhamal, but the district, now heavily policed by paramilitary forces, continues to live in the shadow of the communal carnage that tore it apart five months ago. The police administration, meanwhile, has managed to file charge sheets in the case of the rape of a nun and also that of the murder of Lakshmanananda Saraswati on August 23, 2008, which sparked off the lootings, arson and killings. Investigations in both cases, however, have been kept open because several suspects have not been arrested so far.

Lakshmanananda Saraswati of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was killed by suspected Maoists. The Crime Branch has now confirmed that one of the seven people charge-sheeted for the murder is a Maoist, while the others are Maoist sympathisers who belong to the local population. Ten men have been charge-sheeted in the rape case, and efforts are on to arrest 20 other suspects.

Meanwhile, the police in Kandhamal have registered a total of 780 cases in police stations across the district on the basis of complaints filed by riot victims. More than 11,000 people have been named as accused. Only 700, though, have been arrested so far. Many of the tribal people who attacked the Dalit Panas are on the run to avoid police action.

For the Dalit Panas, a largely Christian community that faced the wrath of their tribal brethren, the Kuis, life has not been the same ever since. Kandhamal was lush green when the violence started at the end of the rainy season last year. Now it is filled with the sights and sounds of spring. Flowers are now blooming across the district, but the divisive tensions that came to the fore with last years violence are refusing to go away.

More than 40 people were killed in the violence that followed the murder of Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Churches and homes of Christians were burnt down. Some 25,000 people fled their homes and sought shelter in relief camps set up in schools and other government buildings. They fled with their children, hiding in forests and hilly terrains, and braving the rains for days until they reached the camps in other parts of the district or in Berhampur, Bhubaneswar or Cuttack.

The number of people still living in relief camps is down to 6,500. But most of those who left the camps chose not to stay on in Kandhamal and are trying to rebuild their lives in Bhubaneswar or in other cities. People still living in the camps said that many of those who did return to Kandhamal could do so only after converting to Hinduism. Some district officials corroborated this version.

Ruben Digal (35), a resident of Breka village, said: I have not been able to muster the courage to return to my village because if I go there I will have to change my religion and become a Hindu. We have been told by those working for the VHP and such other organisations that we should return to our villages as Hindus or leave Kandhamal for ever.

Ruben has been living in a relief camp at the Tikabali block headquarter town since August 29, 2008, with his wife, two daughters and two sons. The administration has not been able to give him any work, and the education of all his children has come to a complete halt. One of his daughters, Runima, was a Class X student in a convent school at Raikia block when the violence drove them away from home. Like scores of other children in the camp, it is uncertain whether she will be able to appear in the board examinations that are now just a few months away.

Binod Chandra Digal (extreme right) and his family were the first to return to their village, Tengedapathar. Here, they stand on the remains of their home. A December 2008 picture.-

A shopkeeper in Phulbani, the district headquarters, said: The communal violence was the handiwork of divisive forces. The common man did not support the violence. Now the situation has improved, but people are apprehensive because the general elections are approaching.

Most people are reluctant to talk about what happened. In the interior areas of Kandhamal, the suspicion seems to run deeper, and any outsider is suspect. The district is now largely peaceful, thanks to paramilitary personnel posted at sensitive locations, but sporadic clashes between members of different communities and between local residents and security personnel are reported from interior areas.

Indeed, the tensions between the tribal population and the Dalit communities have deepened, a situation that becomes particularly dangerous in the context of vote-bank politics. One consequence is that the people live in fear, while vested interests try to exploit the feeling of insecurity.

It is clear that Naveen Patnaiks government has not been able to restore confidence in the local population. His governments measures to rehabilitate the riot victims also fall far short of the actual requirements. Not a single damaged church has been rebuilt. As for the damaged homes, the compensation offered by the government is often not enough to rebuild them. The roof of our house has multiple cracks, and all the doors and windows are burnt. What will we do with the Rs.20,000 that the government is going to give us for repairing the house? said Sevika Digal, a resident of Tengedapathar who returned to her village recently. The government should repair our houses instead of handing over the compensation money to us, she said. A few other families in the village who had returned from relief camps said the sum of Rs.50,000, offered for completely damaged houses, was just not enough.

If the story of compensation and rehabilitation is one of too little too late, the people are also taking a hit as the economy of the district shows signs of distress in the aftermath of last years violence. Agriculture is suffering, and income from tourism has all but vanished.

THE DESTROYED BELIEVER'S Church at Tengedapathar. Not a single church destroyed in the violence has been rebuilt.-

The State government has announced a special development package for Kandhamal, but so far it is largely on paper. That the government is not serious seems evident from the fact that a top official who was appointed as Special Commissioner to oversee the implementation of the package continues to hold charge as Secretary of the Higher Education Department. The announcement of the package may help the State government to claim that it has done its bit. It may also help the ruling alliance to woo voters in the forthcoming elections. But political parties are unlikely to be in any great crisis to heal the wounds inflicted by the violence, for divisive politics brings in votes.

The Naveen Patnaik government passes off the Kandhamal violence as a case of ethno-communal conflict, denying that religious identity played a major role. But the flames were fanned by leaders who were trying to create a vote bank in the name of protecting the interests of the tribal Kui people of the district. Religion was a handy tool in their hands.

The violence raged for weeks as the tribal people were egged on by their leaders to attack the Dalit Panas. Policemen who tried to intervene were attacked, too. The violence was checked only after the administration swung into action and arrested a large number of people, including those belonging to the Sangh Parivar, following advisories from the Centre asking the State government to take strong measures to control the situation.

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