Camps of fear

Print edition : November 07, 2008

Orissa: Christians in Kandhamal district continue to be a scared lot despite the assurances from the State administration.

in Kandhamal

A family waits for space to be allotted to it at a camp in Raikia in Kandhamal district on August 31.-DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

FIFTY-YEAR-OLD Nalini Nayak is a shattered woman after her husband, Fidem Nayak, was killed by rioters during the recent anti-Christian violence in Orissas Kandhamal district. Fidem was a pastor. He left his home in Tikabali along with two youth from his village on August 23 to organise a prayer meeting in a church in the neighbouring G. Udaygiri block the next day, a Sunday. But the worst was waiting to happen.

On the evening of August 23, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati was killed by suspected Maoists at an ashram in Jalespata in the Tumudibandha area of Kandhamal. It triggered communal violence across the district.

Fidem and the two youth did not return to their village. Nalini received information that the three were hacked to death by rioters when they were returning home on August 25. Nalinis house was looted and burnt down by miscreants the same day.

Nalini reached the relief camp set up for the riot-hit people in Tikabali town after spending four nights in a jungle with fellow villagers. Now it is almost two months since the violence, but she is in no mood to return to her village to rebuild her home.

I will not return to my village because there is nothing left there for me. I will also not change my religion to Hinduism. Why should I convert when I have lost everything for no fault on our part? Nalini said in a choked voice.

Of the 23,000-odd people who took shelter in the 19 relief camps set up for riot-hit families in Kandhamal, over 3,000 were in the Tikabali relief camp when violence was still spreading. With the incidence of violence decreasing in the district, the total number of refugees in the relief camps came down to 13,000 by mid-October; at Tikabali it was 900.

Many of the Christian families who had taken shelter at the Tikabali camp had by now left for distant towns as they were not willing to succumb to pressures from Hindutva forces to convert to Hinduism. Some families, however, have returned to their villages to become Hindus and resume normal life. But those like Nalini are still stuck in the camps.

Some people living in the camp have tried to return to their homes, but in vain. After spending more than a month in the Tikabali relief camp, 30-year-old Basant Digal went to his village along with his wife and sister-in-law in the hope of rebuilding his house. But a mob of around 40 people, many of them women, stopped them on their way.

We were asked to convert to Hinduism if we wanted to live in the village, so we have returned to the camp. Some members of the group even tried to attack us when we refused to change our religion. We were lucky to escape death, said Basant.

Now we have lost all hopes in the administration. The police are going soft on those who killed people and burnt down houses. We dont know what will happen to us even at the relief camp, he added. The Christian families that agreed to become Hindus were also attacked in the subsequent days. The family of Sukhdev Digal continued to live in its home in Dagpadar village in Tikabali block until September 26, more than a month after violence started in the region. The family agreed to the condition laid down by Sangh Parivar activists that Christian families which wanted to live in the village should convert to Hinduism. But communal hatred finally took its toll.

On September 26, Sukhdev and two of his brothers, Bispat Digal and Santarai Digal, had gone to fetch relief materials from a village a few kilometres away. Since they could not return to their village before sunset, they took shelter in the house of a friend who belonged to the majority community. Around midnight, Sukhdev woke up to see a mob dragging his two brothers out of the adjacent room in which they were sleeping. The mob hacked his brothers to death. Sukhdev managed to flee under cover of darkness.

I saw my brothers being killed by the mob, but I could not do anything to save them. There were about 100 of them and most of them were armed, said Sukhdev.

Sukhdev ran a distance of 15 km to reach the Tikabali relief camp before sunrise. The next day, a police team accompanied him when he went to take his parents in his village to the relief camp. I have lodged a complaint with the police and I am expecting them to take stringent action against those who killed my brothers.

Even as the Naveen Patnaik government made tall claims about the situation in Kandhamal turning normal, the ground reality remained totally different.

The governments claim that peace is being restored with the help of peace committees formed at various levels is a hoax. Peace returns only in the villages where Christian families have opted to become Hindus, and the authorities know it very well, said a resident of Ladapadar village in Phiringia block where 22 of the 30 families changed their religion to Hinduism on October 2.

In Ladapadar, Jonathan Digal converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Sujit Digal. I will change my name officially after the situation becomes normal, he said. Jonathan, who is now living with his grandmother, last saw his parents seven weeks back. Jonathans father Jakhyachandra Digal worked as a pastor in a church and lived in the G. Udaygiri area. Several days after the violence broke out, Jonathan got information that his parents had taken shelter in a relief camp in G. Udaygiri town.

Meanwhile, the VHP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bajrang Dal have dropped their plans to take out processions in villages across the State in memory of Swami Lakshmanananda. The State government had taken steps to prevent these rallies following a Supreme Court order to protect Christians in the State. The organisations, however, are now busy holding demonstrations in various towns demanding the arrest of the killers of the swami.

A saffron flag hoisted on a broken and burnt Christian prayer house at Ladapadar village in Phiringia block of Kandhamal district.-LINGARAJ PANDA

A saffron flag

Sabyasachi Panda, a top leader of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), in an interview to a group of journalists (including this correspondent), claimed that his outfit had killed the swami because he was forcibly converting both tribals and Christians into Hinduism.

Panda, who blamed the VHP and its allies for fanning communalism by spreading misinformation that militant Christians had killed the Swami, also accused Chief Minister Patnaik of allowing riots to spread in the district. Communal violence spread to most areas of Kandhamal only because the State government allowed the VHP to take the body of the swami in a procession covering many areas in the district, Panda said.

Meanwhile, the Crime Branch of the State police has arrested three Maoists for alleged involvement in the killing of the swami. However, the Sangh Parivar is not in a mood to accept the fact that the swami was killed by Maoists.

The violence has been controlled to a great extent in Kandhamal after the arrest of some local leaders of the VHP, the RSS, the Bajrang Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The arrests were made more than a month after the violence in the district, when the Centre kept pressuring the State government to take strong measures to contain the violence. On the other hand, the rioters have started attacking the State police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. These attacks began in protest against the arrest of those who were allegedly involved in the communal violence, which claimed over 40 lives and left thousands of houses destroyed. A constable of the State police was shot dead in a mob attack on the Gochhapada police station. A CRPF jawan was hacked to death later.

More than 600 rioters have been arrested in Kandhamal alone, while around 400 have been booked in other districts. More arrests are likely in Kandhamal, according to the police.

The administration has been finding it difficult to cope with the situation as the Kui Samaj Samanwaya Samiti, an umbrella organisation of the Kondh tribal people, has been demanding the withdrawal of the CRPF.

Interestingly, Lambodar Kanhar, general secretary of the Samiti, is believed to have close links with the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which is headed by the Chief Minister. Kanhar, who hopes to contest the coming Assembly elections on the BJD ticket, is also trying to attract the followers and supporters of the slain swami. He organised a meeting of the Samiti at Chakapad where the swami had an ashram. Those who attended the meeting paid rich tributes to the Swami.

There is no doubt that the ruling BJD-BJP alliance is out to capitalise on the polarisation that has taken place in the State after the murder of the VHP leader. But the Chief Minister has started making bold statements in order to keep his secular credentials intact.

In an interview to a television channel, he went to the extent of terming the Bajrang Dal a fundamentalist organisation. But it is common knowledge that Naveen Patnaik cannot make a hat trick as Chief Minister if his party severs its ties with the BJP.

In his attempt to underplay the communal violence, Patnaik said that the long-standing ill feeling between the tribal people and Dalits had aggravated the situation in the district. He announced a special development package for the district to make the poor of Kandhamal happy. But with 78 per cent of the families in the district living below the poverty line, the package appears to be too small, too late.

Patnaik, who holds the Home portfolio, has handed over to the Crime Branch the investigation into the cases pertaining to the killing of the swami and to the killings, rapes, and damaging of houses, churches, prayer houses and other properties . A total of eight persons have been arrested in the case relating to the rape of a Catholic nun in the K. Nuagaon area of Kandhamal on August 25.

The Chief Minister, whose so-called clean image has suffered a severe beating in the wake of the violence, has refused to transfer any of these cases to the Central Bureau of Investigation despite demands from various quarters. More than 900 cases pertaining to the violence have been registered and the number is growing.

As the situation in Kandhamal remains volatile, only a thorough investigation of these cases and action against the guilty can help the Naveen Patnaik government regain whatever credibility it had.

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