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Kandhamal

Kandhamal

It is very difficult for me to describe the emotions I had when I read Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice 2007-2015 by Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma (Media House, Pages 304, Rs 595). No, the authors who are lawyers and human rights activists did not make any attempt to arouse passions among the readers. All that they have done is to present the events in Kandhamal in as clinical and detached a way as possible.

One of the reasons why it touched me in the way it did was because I had an occasion to travel in Kandhamal, visit most of the places that figure in the book, including the western-style toilet where Swami Lakshmananda was shot on August 23, 2008, church after church which were razed to the ground, the fast-track court where those in the dock looked down every time I looked at them, the corner area of an NGO's office where Sister AA was gang-raped and the refugee camp where I met a young couple who found love in each other despite the squalor around.

The worst experience I had was when the driver of our Tata Sumo abandoned us on the way when he got a lift in a passing vehicle to reach his home before sunset. I wondered how a driver could do so as I struggled to drive the vehicle, too big for my comfort. My anger ended only when I learnt that the driver's own brother was killed in the pogrom that Kandhamal witnessed in 2007 and 2008. A victim cannot be expected to be normal when he saw his own sibling being hacked to death for no other reason than that they professed a faith different from that of the rioters. I know I have used a wrong word because a "riot" presupposes the presence of two groups violently attacking each other.

The fact is that what Kandhamal witnessed were not riots but unilateral attacks on a community with a view to decimating them. In all "600 villages were ransacked; at least 5,600 houses were looted; at least 54,000 people were left homeless; 295 churches and other places of worship, big and small, were destroyed; 13 schools, colleges, philanthropic institutions, including leprosy homes, TB sanatoriums and offices of several non-profit organisations, were looted, damaged or burnt". I saw -- to use a questionable expression -- "with my own eyes", an emaciated Sardar, his wife and two small children being pounced upon by a violent mob the moment they got down from a train from Dhanbad at the Patna Junction within a few hours of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in distant New Delhi. I will never be able to forget that sight.

I can also never forget a Muslim Minister from Hazaribagh breaking down when I interviewed him in his bedroom on the third day of the riot in the land of "thousand gardens". He was accused of instigating the riots in which an overwhelming majority of the victims were Muslims. Surprisingly, a majority of those rounded up as rioters and kept in an open jail were also Muslims. Ansari who used to win in a Hindu-majority constituency on the strength of  Hindu votes understood that the riots were a part of the conspiracy to end his political career. He lost badly in the next elections.

I visited Moradabad, Bhagalpur, Meerut, Jamshedpur and Nellie, though long after the riots, and met some of the victims. I met some of the victims of Gujarat when they were brought to Delhi by an NGO. What is common about all these places is the failure of the state to punish the guilty. What's more, some have built a career out of the violence and have reached dizzying positions of power where they appear to be destined to stay beyond 2019. Nobody knows for sure how many were killed in the run-up to the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and afterwards.  Alas, some of the conspirators of the demolition are today either venerated margadarshaks or strong votaries of development. The book under review provides ample proof that the state has failed to deal with organised violence.

History bears proof that violence cannot altogether be prevented. What can be prevented is its repetition. Even more important is the way justice is done in such cases. Take the case of Gujarat. The violence was triggered by the killing of some Hindu Karsevaks returning from Ayodhya at Godhra, situated close to the Madhya Pradesh border, but it was in distant Ahmedabad and nearby places that Muslims suffered targeted killing and attacks.

One thing common between Gujarat and Kandhamal is the use of dead bodies. The bodies of karsevaks were taken around in Gujarat to arouse anger and to instigate violence. In Kandhamal, the swami's body was used in a similar manner. It could have been taken straight to the place where the body was finally buried. Instead, a circuitous route was chosen and all the churches and Christian establishments on the way suffered extensive damages.

Nobody ever accused ordinary Hindus for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He was killed by Godse whose followers are determined to make him a hero worthy of worship like Veer Savarkar, who apologised to the British to escape from Andamans, while thousands perished in the island in the struggle for freedom. But in Kandhamal, the Christians were attacked for the killing of the Swami by the Maoists. Investigations also proved that he was killed for political, rather than religious reasons. Some Sikhs living peacefully at Ranni in Kerala were attacked following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Was there any logic to the retributive killing of Sikhs the whole country witnessed?

The authors have succeeded in documenting how the Indian state has failed to do justice to the victims of Kandhamal. Many of them still live like refugees in other parts of the country. They are still scared of returning to the land of their ancestors. What has the state done for them? A lot, some may say. They may even point out how two inquiry commissions were appointed and two fast-track courts were set up. They may even point out how compensation was paid at the fabulous rate of Rs 2 lakh for the destruction of big churches. Kandhamal is different from other riots. Here an attempt was made to document every attack, every killing and every incident of crime. An attempt was also made to bring the guilty to book. Anybody who has even a cursory knowledge of the law knows that the success of a criminal case is dependent on the sincerity of the state. For instance, much depends on the First Information Report.

When that very document is compromised, little can be expected. Of course, the Supreme Court had ruled that an FIR is not the last word in a case, as circumstantial evidence is far more important. What can be expected when the commissions of inquiry blindly believe or pretend to believe that what was an out and out targeted attack and killing was the result of a tug of war between the  Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes?

The book makes it clear that such obfuscation was clearly aimed at exonerating characters like the merchant of death from Gujarat, a doctor by profession, who went about preaching hatred in the district. In its bid to spread calumny and confusion, a Sangh Parivar group even brought out a book that even quoted a church register where the church committee decided and minuted in their minutes book their decision to kill the Swami. What can be more bizarre?

No, their role was not confined to spreading such falsehood. The book documents how efforts were made, successfully at that, to browbeat witnesses into submission. As the authors note, their foot soldiers could threaten the witnesses even when they were being cross-examined in a fast-track court. The book also mentions the heroism, though not in so many words, of people like the late Archbishop Raphael Cheenath who used the law and his moral courage to fight for the victims at every fora, right up to the Supreme Court. The book cites several other instances of indomitable courage.

Like the case of the widow whose husband was axed and burnt to death in her presence. It was she who boldly told the court about the nefarious activities of Manoj Pradhan, a former BJP MLA. He was able to escape from many cases filed against him but at least in one, he was punished. Riots have, over the years, undergone a metamorphosis. There were clashes in the past which would end as soon as they began. I once visited Moradabad in UP where the ruse of riot was used to finish the business of Muslims. They were doing well in brass business but after the riots their business was finished.

In Bhagalpur, the Muslims were doing well as handloom owners. After the riots, the loom owners found themselves begging for alms.  The first thing Yogi Adityanath has done as CM is to close down all abattoirs which will render 25 lakh people jobless. The story of the Best Bakery in Gujarat is too well known to recount here. What is significant is not just that the bakery was destroyed but its oven was used to burn the victims to ashes. The Christians of Kandhamal were not rich but they were relatively better educated and, therefore, better off. The modern rioter, trained in hatred, knows that he should not only kill but also break the back of the community he targets. That is why houses, churches and business establishments were looted and destroyed. The rioter is not a freelance but a proud member of a group well-versed in the art of terror. The Kandhamal riots were also to break the backbone of the Christian community.

I met a heroic couple who returned to their village. They erected four poles and spread a polythene sheet for roof. And in that house, the man did his tailoring work, earning Rs 20 for a blouse while his counterpart in Delhi today charges upwards of Rs 500. He told me that he would make a living by the "sweat of his brow" and would prefer to die, rather  than renounce his faith. While the authors see the arm of the organised might in the mayhem, judges, enquiry commissions, officials and even the media, alas, fail to see it. The ideology-driven rioter is also trained to use his boneless organ to perpetrate violence. In Kandhamal, hundreds of girls and women fell prey to the rioters' passions, though they were reluctant to admit the same in public for reasons of shame. How one wishes that they had heard what author Kamala Das or Madhavikutty had written, "there is no shame that cannot  be washed clean with a piece of soap".

The reparative justice system whereby the victim is also helped to lead a fuller life and overcome the trauma failed in Kandhamal too. If refusal to file criminal cases was used with effect in Kandhamal, there were also umpteen cases where false charges were slapped against the innocent in order to derail the justice system. Worse, the district officials who ordered against Christian relief agencies supplying relief to those in the refugee camps have not been punished. Nor have those who forced the refugees to leave the camp for an uncertain future been brought to book.

The sum and substance of the book is that every organ of the mighty Indian state failed to deliver justice to the victims of Kandhamal. They are still scared of a future where the agents of death and destruction can again be unleashed against them. Of course, their experience was not different from that of the victims of Nellie (1983), Delhi (1984), Bhagalpur (1989), Mumbai (1992-93) and Gujarat (2002).

In India it may not be easy for an individual murderer to escape punishment but if someone organises a pogrom in which thousands are killed, he can even become a national leader who can, thereafter, even preach morality using the national radio and television infrastructure. Small wonder that many of those who killed the Sikhs in 1984, the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and the Christians in Kandhamal in 2008 and 2009 are enjoying the company of their children and grandchildren. Thank goodness, we have authors like Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma who may let us forgive the perpetrators but will not let us forget that a grave injustice was done to a people who made the mistake of worshipping another manifestation of God. As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at   ajphilip@gmail.com

#(Published on 27th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 13)