BHUBANESWAR, India — Local government agencies in the Indian state of Orissa were negligent and even biased during anti-Christian violence that left more than 100 people dead three years ago.
That was the conclusion of an independent tribunal examining the violence in eastern Orissa state, where Hindus hounded local Christians out of the remote jungle district of Kandhamal.
“The 2008 attacks in Kandhamal were widespread and were executed with substantial planning and preparation,” declared the jury of the National People’s Tribunal on Kandhamal. “The violence meets all the elements of ‘crimes against humanity,’ as defined in applicable international law.”
The tribunal pointed out that “Christians who refused to abandon their faith and convert to Hinduism were brutally killed or injured. … The brutality of the violence also falls within the definition of ‘torture’ under international law, particularly the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” the jury noted.
“The [government] officials have played a variety of negative roles during the violence, ranging from being silent spectator and bystanders to the violence, refusing to protect or assist the victim-survivors, even in context of brutal killings,” stated the people’s jury.
The final report of the people’s tribunal was released on Dec. 2 in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa state, in the presence of more than 1,000 people — including dozens of social activists, nuns and priests, and hundreds of victims of the violence in Kandhamal — nearly 200 miles from Bhubaneswar.
The initial hearing of the National People’s Tribunal had been held in New Delhi in August 2010 to mark the second anniversary of the Kandhamal carnage, with 45 victims, survivors and their kin narrating their nightmares before the jury.
Later, 15 experts presented studies, field surveys, research, fact-finding reports and statements to the tribunal before it put together the 200-page final report titled “Waiting for Justice.”
The jury of the people’s tribunal, comprised of a dozen notable Indians from different walks of life, including retired judges, also charged the Orissa police of “complicity” in the unabated violence that engulfed the Kandhamal jungle following the killing of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati in August 2008.
Though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu fundamentalist groups alleged that the murder was a “Christian conspiracy” and singled out the Christians and carried out retribution with impunity.
In the widespread violence that went on unabated for weeks, the jury said that more than 100 Christians were killed and 295 churches and nearly 6,000 Christian houses were also looted and torched, rendering more than 54,000 Christians homeless.
“The jury observed, with grave concern, the deliberate dereliction of constitutionally mandated duties by public officials, their connivance with communal forces, participation in and support to the violence and a deliberate scuttling of processes of justice through acts of commission and omission. … The state government has also failed in its responsibility to prevent the violence in Kandhamal in August 2008,” the tribunal declared in its verdict.
The tribunal also expressed “deep concern that the criminal-justice system has been rendered ineffective in protecting victim-survivors and witnesses, providing justice and ensuring accountability for the crimes perpetrated. Evidence of the attacks was systematically and meticulously destroyed in order to scuttle the processes of justice and accountability.”
Pointing to the rampant impunity the Hindu nationalists enjoyed in Kandhamal, the jury noted that “even Hindus who supported and protected Christians during the violence or tried to facilitate their return to the villages after the violence were also attacked.”
Sidheswar Pradhan, a Hindu leader, was killed for offering protection to Christians. Kamala Sahoo — a Hindu social worker — had her house and office destroyed by a Hindu mob, the tribunal pointed out, for speaking up for the beleaguered Christians.
Testimonies by the Christian victims before the tribunal, the jury said, “point to a refusal to arrest or an inordinate delay in arresting perpetrators. On the other (hand), victim-survivors were arrested or threatened with arrest under fabricated charges in order to silence or deter them from pursuing process of justice.”
“The complicity of the police and their collusion with the perpetrators during the phase of investigation and prosecution indicates an institutional bias against the targeted Christian community. Victims and witnesses engaged in the justice process have been threatened and intimidated, and there was no guarantee of safe passage to and from the courts,” the tribunal pointed out.
Speaking at the presentation of the report, retired high court Judge Michael Saldana, a Catholic, highlighted the contribution of the state machinery in the anti-Christian violence: “If the government had taken necessary precaution, most of the violence could have been prevented.”
“In the Kandhamal violence, the accused No. 1 and 2 are the Orissa and central (federal) governments,” said Saldana, evoking applause from the gathering.
“The orchestrated attack on Christians in Kandhamal and other places has a deep political agenda,” declared Ram Puniyani, a Hindu and convenor of the tribunal, introducing the tribunal verdict, in apparent reference to Hindu nationalists behind it.
Such violence, he said, was “a clear violation of freedom of religion guaranteed under the Indian constitution.”
The 200-page document, said Puniyani, a social activist from Mumbai, should be “popularized” in different languages and submitted to every constitutional body in the country “to ensure that justice will be done.”
The jury made a series of recommendations, including impartial retrial of closed cases, meaningful compensation for losses suffered by the Christians, and rehabilitation programs and urgent steps to uphold freedom of religion in Orissa amid continued persecution of Christians with the connivance of the administration.
The release of the final verdict of the people’s tribunal began with a photo exhibition depicting the brutality and viciousness of the orgy of violence in Kandhamal. Hundreds of photos from the violence had been arranged in an eye-catching manner in a temporary hall.
At the far end of the exhibition was the most telling scene. Photos and copies of identity cards of dozens of Christians who had been brutally murdered were displayed on placards on bamboo sticks.
Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur, originally hailing from Kandhamal, led others in paying floral tributes to the martyred Christians. While candles had been lit at the base of the portraits, relatives of the martyrs shed tears; others showered flower petals on the portraits.
Among those who flocked to the exhibition was Divine Word Missionary Father Edward Sequeira, who survived miraculously after being beaten and locked up inside the orphanage he managed at Kuntaplly during the violence.
The priest was rescued from the smoldering building after lying unconscious in smoke and soot for five hours. Rajani Mahji, a Hindu college student who helped care for the orphan boys, had been gang-raped and set on fire at the orphanage while the priest remained unconscious inside the burning building.
“I am happy to be here to express solidarity with the suffering of our people,” said Father Sequeira, standing next to the portrait of Father Thomas Chellan, who was brutalized in Kandhamal, while proudly holding in his hands his mission cross and rosary that remained intact amid the ashes at the charred orphanage building.
Both priests survived after they were airlifted to Mumbai for treatment.
Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.