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Normalcy Far from Returning to Kandhamal

by Pramodini Pradhan, Ranjana Padhi , 5 November 2008

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Economic and Political Weekly, November 1, 2008

Eyewitness reports in the first fortnight of October from Kandhamal describe the miserable conditions in which the victims of the recent riots in this district of Orissa continue to live. It is clear that the government’s claims of a return to normalcy in the area are false and that much needs to be done. People are leaving the camps to live in towns and even to other states. There is a palpable fear of insecurity among the survivors.

...From the very start of these horrible and shameful incidents of communal violence my government has taken whatever steps it possibly could to bring normalcy and peace back to that disturbed district. For the last week or more there has been normalcy and it has been brought under control.
— Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik in an interview to the CNN-IBN: news channel (telecast on October 12, 2008).

Since August 23 Kandhamal district in Orissa has witnessed an endless spate of gruesome and brutal attacks on Christians of both adivasi and dalit backgrounds. Over 50,000 Christians have been displaced from their lands and means of livelihood. They are in deep trauma, despair and uncertainty and forced to live in relief camps. There is also the impossibility of returning to their homesteads without facing the coercion to join the Hindu fold by sword-wielding cadres of the Sangh parivar from their own villages.

This article offers a glimpse into the deep terror as experienced even now by the survivors of the Kandhamal violence and their dispossession, based upon inter- views. We have interviewed (in the first fortnight of October) both people who have sought refuge outside Kandhamal as well as people in one of the relief camps set up in G Udayagiri block. We met some survivors hospitalised at the MKCG Medical College Hospital in Berhampur. Contrary to the claims of the Orissa gov- ernment that the situation in Kandhamal is under control and steps are being taken through arrests that began only a fortnight earlier, it remains a question as to how safe Kandhamal is today for those who have lived here for several decades and more. The Christian community is living in a state of deep insecurity. Even in camps, people are in constant fear of being attacked any moment. They will tell you the names of people who had actively instigated the attacks on them but are still roaming around freely. They will tell you the names of local police officials who are passing on information to the rioters.

Claims by the Orissa Government The government claims to have arrested more than 500 people in Kandhamal district for attacks on Christians. The recent arrests of people involved in attacks against the Christians might have resulted in bringing down the scale of violence. But the affected dalit Christians have no confidence in the Orissa police that had not responded to their calls for help when the mobs came. On the other hand, Kui Samaj Samanwaya Samiti, the umbrella organisation of the adivasis in Kandhamal, has been insisting on its demand for the Central Reserve Police Forces to withdraw from the area and the release of "innocents" who have been arrested, as a precondition for restora- tion of peace (Times of India, October 15, 2008; ’Kandhamal Tribals Set Terms for Truce’).
The Orissa government has been repeatedly saying that the situation in
Kandhamal is returning to normal and people have been leaving the camps. It
has been claimed that the number of people in the camps has come down to
13,000 from 23,000. The government officials in charge of handling the situation in Kandhamal are trying their best to persuade people living in camps to
return to their villages. "We have no choice in choosing our neighbours, we
have to live with them", Tara Dutt, the commissioner for scheduled castes and
scheduled tribes, had said in the peace committee meeting held in Phulbani,
the district headquarters of Kandhamal. The government has managed to persuade
some people in some areas to return home. But in most places people have
left these camps on their own. There is an inflow and outflow of people in the
camps but there was only a one-time registration done and there have been no official records maintained on people leaving the camps.

In G Udayagiri block, three camps have been set up accommodating nearly 4,000 people. Many have left these camps, but not a single person has returned home.
Where have these people gone then? And those who have returned to their villages, under what circumstances?
The decrease in numbers in the relief camps as asserted by the Orissa government is no indication of people returning to their villages. Many people are heading for other states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala while hundreds are seeking refuge in other towns in Orissa. There are more than 250 people in Bhubaneswar supported by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and they receive relief from the government too. Many people have taken shelter in Missionaries of Charity at Jaanla, near Khurdha. There are many instances of people having travelled either directly from Kandhamal or from relief camps to seek temporary shelter in the houses of relatives. They live incognito and spoke to us pleading for anonymity. Relief is being organised by relatives or a few well- wishers in a clandestine manner. Such places include Cuttack and Berhampur and possibly many others. At a very con- servative estimate there are at least 200 people in Berhampur. According to local people who are offering support, the ad- ministration has assured their safety and security provided they meet no one and take no relief. Any such interaction is supposed to draw the attention of the local Bajrang Dal elements which the administration is keen to avoid. There- fore, safety is assured at the cost of the survivors maintaining silence and to the police anonymity. How are they then expected to seek support or even file their first information reports (FIRs)? The terror and anxiety of the people who are in Berhampur underline anything and everything they have to say of their current situation.

A 32-year old man has his wife hidden in his uncle’s house as the latter’s family is Hindu. The family is too terrified to keep the wife for long as it worries that this will be discovered by the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members. His two children aged four and two are with him. He is anxious about his wife’s safety and states clearly that he has to leave for Allahabad where a cousin will help him become a coolie as it is most important for him that his family is safe and together. He has been a small cultivator but is today ready to take on any hardship to have his family safe. He says we are adivasis; we can do any work how- ever hard it is... It will take time but I will do well in whatever I do. Our lives are no longer safe in any place there in Kandhamal, not even here, not even in relief camps. What is the fault of these children? I have to bring them up properly.

Other people shared their thoughts about the possibility of moving to Kerala. Leaving Kandhamal and Orissa is a certainty for them as many others have already fled Orissa. The exact estimate of how many such people have already left and are leaving is any- body’s guess as the number of such people is on the increase. A 55-year old survivor who is helping many people seek refuge told one of us that you only need to go to a railway station and you will find people either roaming around or waiting to leave as soon as some relative or acquaintance provides them money. All of them want to go any- where other than to their villages.

The Terrible Dilemma

Most people we spoke to are too shocked to even think of returning to their villages. Almost every person has an identical story to share of being approached by local RSS cadre or the RSS-organised village committees or panchayats to consider converting from Christianity to Hinduism. This has generally happened twice, once usually before attacks have taken place in villages and others when the adivasis had been hiding in the jungles. The Sangh parivar has given the Christians a choice: to change their religion to Hinduism and they can come back to their villages; or, "to get lost". Photocopies of an application form, addressed to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), have been circulated. Anybody wanting to convert to Hinduism can sign it and send it to the local leaders and only then would they be allowed to return to the village. Following the appli- cation, some rituals are being performed, and a fine has to be paid varying in amount from Rs 350 to 1,500. Some people have already made this choice. And we met a few people who have signed it but have also fled. A 33-year old man said he had to sign the form or other- wise he risked being killed. He said that even after that he did not feel safe. Yet another survivor told us in a similar vein that it is not easy to stay even after signing because in any case they would be coerced to do what the Sangh parivar is engaged in, i e, join the violence against Christians. Returning back to the village is fraught with many other problems too as the terror and the boycott persist. In Baliguda block, 14 families from Madinada village, who had taken refuge in the camp, have been persuaded to go back to their village. Their houses were burnt during the violence in August. After going through various rituals of peace-building efforts, the government officials took these families to their villages. They were given 10 kg of rice, 1 kg of dal and a few utensils. In the village, nobody talks to these families. They cannot sleep at night fearing attacks from the hostile villagers. They are afraid to go to the marketplace. They used to live by collecting and selling fuel wood and leaves. Now they do not have the courage to go to the market. These families are extremely poor. They were given job cards but not a single day’s work has been provided under this scheme. During the 2007/2008 December-January violence too, these families had fled their village and taken shelter in a relief camp in Baliguda for two weeks. A young woman of about 20 breaks down while talking about her family’s stay in this camp. She had lost her one-year old child in the camp. Their houses were not destroyed at that time. But out of fear of being attacked they had left the village. They continue to be mar- ginalised; one can surmise from here what return has in store for the thousands of such families.
On the way back from a Christian basti one met a poor adivasi woman making bundles of fuel wood for sale. Asked about the National Rural Employment Guaran- tee Scheme (NREGS) and work available, it was found that she had no idea about the 100 days of employment guarantee that the scheme promises. When enquired as to why people are not talking with the Christian families, her facial expression immedi- ately changed. She started asking in a hostile tone "who told you that we are not talking? Did those people tell you?" Driving through the roads in Kandhamal, one would notice the remains of deserted houses, either broken or burnt, and dam- aged churches. While this was not shock- ing, what one had not anticipated were saffron flags flying atop the houses in what is so-called "Hindu villages" now. In the small town market places, as in G Udayagiri, a saffron flag is flying in front of every "Hindu shop". Saffron flags are displayed prominently for sale in shops. And there was a broken church too with a saffron flag. Obviously, the Sangh parivar has used force, coercion and violence in full measure in Kandhamal as part of its "crusade".

Conditions in Relief Camp

People are staying either in school build- ings or in tents put up in the school premises or adjoining open fields. The open field camps stink unbearably when it rains. There has been an outbreak of gastro- enteritis and fever. This has also been re- ported in national dailies (Times of India;

September 20, 2008, ’Kandhamal Grapples with Disease, Rain’). Temporary toilets constructed by the administration are not in usable condition; while adults go out for defecation, children are using the campsite field. Dogs and cows freely roam around in the camp.

The people in the camps have been given just one set of clothes each: one saree, one petticoat and a blouse for women, a dhoti and a shirt for men and one pant and a shirt/frock for children. Adults have been provided with one blanket each. There is no provision of sanitary clothes for women. Two buckets have been provided for one tent where six to eight families are put up. Similarly the number of mats provided is not enough to cover the floor space in the tent. Though one mosquito net is to be provided for a family, not all families have received it. Each family is provided with one soap, a small pouch of washing powder and a pouch of hair oil.

Children and Their Education

One of the biggest setbacks is the abrupt ending of children’s education. There is no mention or hope of being able to go back to the same schools. At a few places books have just been distributed but no provision to engage the children in edu- cation or related activity. Many children in relief camps cry in their sleep or shout in deep sleep at the attackers. This has also been reported in dailies (Times of India, October 7, 2008; ’If I Return They Will Kill Me: Riot Affected Children Refuse to Go Back to Their Homes’). As the families have to begin life from scratch, it seems highly doubtful if the amount of effort and hard work that had gone into these children being sent to school in the first place can be repeated again.

Violence against Women

While the gang rape of a nun has got much publicity, there have been two other incidents of rape. It is not possible at this moment to surmise the exact number of incidents of sexual assault and let us hope the number is few. What is more pervasive however is the fear and terror expressed by almost all women we met. This is true not only of women who have to go out of the camps to defecate and also bathe but also of all women who are on the move in search of refuge or hospital or public transport. The provision of sanitary napkins or cloth for menstruation is not there. Pregnant mothers are in bad shape. Meanwhile, miscarriages have happened too.

Rendered completely homeless, their insecurity in negotiating with new and strange people in new places continuously makes them vulnerable, leave alone safe or normal as the government would like us to believe. Some of them recalled with horror how the mobs cried out "we will do the same to your women what you did to our mata" (referring to the assault on Bhaktimoyi Mata, a disciple who was killed along with Laxmanananda Saraswati on August 23).

Restoration of Normalcy

Pointing toward the decrease in numbers in the relief camps as an indication of people settling down or normalcy being restored can be the crudest joke the Orissa government can play at a time when the entire demographic profile of the district itself is getting drastically altered over-night. In response to the chief minister’s assertion in the CNN-IBN interview that action is being taken through arrests of over 1,000 people in the state, one can only say that it is too little and has come too late. The perpetrators of the mass scale of violence loom large in every lane and street. Virtually all people we have spoken to say that almost all attackers be- long to their own village or neighbouring villages. The terror of going back to the same neighbours is palpably high.

Government institutions have to create an atmosphere of safety for peace to prevail so that people can even begin to think of appealing for relief or recording the crimes committed on them or resuming their lives. Relief camps need to be assured of basic cleanliness and hygiene as right now they are fast becoming a breeding ground of illnesses like malaria, diarrhoea and gastroenteritis. Records need to be maintained of people coming in and where they are going to so that a mere drop in the total number is not proclaimed by the administration as signs of people returning to their houses. Complete security needs to be given to refugee camps as there are still regular attack on camps (bombs being thrown or water tankers being contaminated or squads of women from the local "durga vahinis" threatening the people in the camp (Times of India, October 1, 2008, ’3 Bombs Near G Udayagiri Relief Camp’). Relief needs to be provided to hundreds and hundreds of people in neighbouring towns; they do not figure in any government records as our interviews revealed. And they are only too keen to be provided support and relief and help in registering FIRs.

FIRs need to be registered for each and every family that has been attacked, and whose property has been looted, on whom injuries have been inflicted, and for the loss of livestock, for plundering of the year’s stock of grains, mental torture and abject humiliation. Children have to be sent back to the same schools. Last but not least, houses need to be rebuilt. The current communal onslaught has happened in one of the poorest districts of the country; over 75 per cent people in Kandhamal district live below the poverty line. Thousands of us need to speak up if we wish for people to live with dignity and not leave it to only the Chris- tian community to help out. Even if we can hope for all this to happen, it might still take many years for the situation to become "normal".