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Home > Communalism Repository > Report of AIDWA Delegation’s visit to Orissa, November 2008

Report of AIDWA Delegation’s visit to Orissa, November 2008

by Subhashini Ali, 12 November 2008

print version of this article print version | 12 November 2008

[The following is the report of the delegation of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the Women’s wing of the Communist Party of India Marxist, which visited Orissa including Kandhamal earlier in November 2008, met with the victims and later also met with the Orissa Chief Minister, Mr. Naveen Pattnaik.]

4000 houses damaged, burnt and broken down; innumerable churches and
Christian prayer halls destroyed; many shops belonging to Christians
reduced to rubble; 35 persons killed in rioting; two women, a nun and
a minor girl, gang-raped. And all this in a district, Kandhamal, Orissa with a population of about six and a half lakhs of whom about one and half lakhs are Christians.

An Aidwa delegation comprising of Shyamali Gupta (Working President),
Sudha Sundararaman (General Secretary), Tapasi Praharaj and Pushpa Das
(President and Secretary of the Orissa State unit of AIDWA) and myself
visited Kandhamal District of Orissa on the 1st and 2nd of November,
2008. The district had been completely out of bounds to all organizations except some intrepid media persons from the third week of September till the 6th of October.

Even two months after the gory incidents of loot, killing and mayhem that followed the horrific killing of Lakhmanananda Saraswati of the VHP and four of his colleagues that included one woman, this most beautiful region of forests, mountains, streams and birds remained a place of fear, mistrust and terrible scars.

Our delegation visited some of the camps to which those whose homes
were burnt and damaged fled. At the peak of the violence, there were
more than a dozen camps opened and run by the State Govt. sheltering
about 25, 000 inmates. In addition, camps have been opened by Christian organizations in the area and in Bhubaneswar and many of the victims have also taken shelter with relatives elsewhere or migrated to other states. The killing occurred on 23rd August and, despite the fact that Maoist leaders publicly announced that they were responsible; VHP and other Sangh Parivar leaders incited their followers to attack Christians to take revenge. The administration explains its very delayed response to the fact that it was overtaken by the events. But this cannot be totally acceptable. After the attacks on Christians that occurred in the district around Christmas, 2007, there should have been many more preventive measures taken. The fact that Orissa has a BJD-BJP Government is also responsible for the fact that the Sangh Parivar has been given a fairly free hand to stoke enmity and hatred against the Christian population of the area.

The camp our delegation visited was at Tikabali situated in the Govt. High School. The local administration was quite co-operative and did not interfere with our interaction with the people in the camp. The number of people has halved to about 750. Many have gone back to their villages and others have gone to other places in search of work. So far, no one who has returned home has come back because of intimidation or attacks. We spoke to many of the families still in the camps. Most of them do visit their villages during the day a few times every week. Some have fields just outside their villages that they are tending, others have land in the villages. Their stories are mixed. Some say that they do not feel threatened by their old neighbours but that ‘outside forces’ are not allowing their neighbours to take them back; others say that they are being asked to become Hindus before they will be allowed home and still others say that they are fearful of going home.

We met the camp secretary, Bikram Pradhan, from Kottadi village of
Gardingia Block, one of the badly affected regions. He said that they
had registered group FIRs those who had burnt their homes who were all
people known to them. Now they were registering individual FIRs also.
He made a very significant point that only a small section of those
belonging to the majority community attacked them and many of their
neighbours had helped them by storing their possessions, safeguarding
their cattle, and even by trying to put out the flames. These deeds
did not, however, go unpunished. He said that Siddheshwar Pradhan who
was trying to help them was actually burnt to death. (This has been
corroborated by the district administration). The kind of hatred that
has been stoked is illustrated by what Monoranjan Digal from Budkinaju
said – a Christian belonging to Santhaguda village could not be buried
there even after the intervention of the BDO and had finally to be
buried near the camp.

Living in camps for so long and not knowing when they will be able to
return to a normal life has created many problems. Priya Kumari Digal,
from Behra village, is a young girl doing her + 2. She said that in
her village, the entire majority community of about 300 people turned
against the 45 Christian families forced them to flee. She said that
while younger children were being taught within the camp, but older
students like herself could not pursue their studies without books and
teachers. She was worried as to how she would prepare for the exams
which were due in December. Another young blind girl, Jhujhunrani, who
was studying in the IInd year was also worried – all her books,
including those in Braille, had been burnt.

Priyotima Digal also from Behra village, who was a member of the SHG
group called Jeevan Jyoti said that the grain meant for mid-day meals
prepared by her group was stored in her home and had been destroyed.
Other SHG members said that money that they had withdrawn from the
banks or collected from their members had also been lost and they were
worried that the banks would initiate recovery proceedings. The
inmates also complained about the fact that they had received only one
set of clothing and also had no soap, oil etc. They were very positive
to our suggestion that NREGA works could be started near the camp

Later, our delegation members also met the Pradhanacharya, Jagabandhu
Das, of Lakhmanananda Saraswati’s ashram at Chhakkapar. Very young
boys live and study here and we saw many of them being ordered to
perform menial tasks like sweeping, swabbing, washing clothes, cutting
vegetables etc. by men in khaki shorts. The Pradhanacharya was told
that our organization was deeply concerned about the restoration of
peace and also about the terrible attacks that had taken place. He was
quite cold-blooded in his response and said that the attacks were a
‘natural reaction’ to the murders of August 23rd and that the
Christians had been involved in these one way or the other and that
the victims could return to their villages only if they accepted
‘certain conditions’ and withdrew all cases.

After this, we met the Collector, Krishan Kumar and the SDM, Vinay
Krishan at the District Headquarter, Phulbani. He had a detailed
discussion with us and agreed to provide the camp inmates with books
and other necessities. He said that a lot of effort was being made to
see that those going back were not only safe but started to become
integrated into their villages again. He said they were starting NREGA
in every village and would see that all those returning from the camps
got jobs irrespective of registration or lack of Job Cards. They would
be paid in cash since most of them had lost their passbooks etc. Brick-
making would also be started so that when the reconstruction of burnt
homes began, bricks would be available. He also said that they would
try to create smaller camps nearer the villages of the inmates so that
they could look after their fields and also be near their homes and
former neighbours.

We went to the Balliguda Sub-division the next morning. On the way we
passed many villages and small market-places where there was much
evidence of terrible destruction. There were still ashes, burnt books and burnt clothes lying in front of many of the homes. We also passed through K. Nuagan where the large Mission building and school buildings stood desolate and desecrated. This was the place that had seen the public sexual assault on Sister Meena. There is a large camp here with more than 2000 victims.

The camp in Balliguda has been wound up and, according to the sub collector, all the former inmates have gone back to their villages. We visited one of these villages, Mediakia to which 27 families had returned. We were able to speak to most of these people and also saw for ourselves that a NREGA worksite had been started and most of them were getting work on it. Poor people belonging to the majority community were also getting work but they were working at another part of the site. All the Christians in the villages had suffered tremendous damage during the attacks. Many had also lost their animals though some also said that their neighbours had managed to save a few. All of them had started receiving compensation for re-building their homes. We were able to talk to them at length and they told us that they were not feeling threatened at the moment.

We also met some of the tribal men who were working at another part of
the work-site. They were not very forthcoming with information about
the attacks but did say that they were sure that they would not be
repeated. They said many peace-meetings were being held. They were
also very happy that the NREGA work had started and said that if this
was continued throughout the year, it would have a very positive
impact. Many of them were forced to go as far away as Kerala to find
work. None of them voiced any anger against their Christian

On the 3rd, we met the Chief Minister of Orissa and gave him our
memorandum. As far as the problems of the victims in camps were
concerned, he was very positive and issued some orders (about text-
books, clothes etc.) in our presence. He also assured us that he would
not spare the communal elements responsible for the attacks. When we
requested him to accede to Sister Meena’s demand for a CBI enquiry
into the atrocities and gang-rape that she had suffered, he expressed
his inability to do so but said that he was committed to ensuring
justice. 5 policemen had been suspended and 9 persons arrested and he
was willing for the investigations being carried out by his officers
in any place chosen by Sister Meena.

Kandhamal has many lessons to be learnt. The devious and hateful ways
in which religion is being used by the Sangh Parivar to divide the poorest of the poor and to incite violent attacks on very vulnerable members of minority communities have created a very dangerous situation in a very sensitive part of our country. Other religious forces also work in a way that accentuate religious divides and this has exacerbated the problem here. Today, the Maoists are also fishing in these very troubled waters.

The lesson to be learned is two-fold: the State cannot withdraw from
its responsibilities as far as the providing of education and livelihood opportunities is concerned and it cannot afford to give any space and opportunity to the Sangh Parivar to incite violence and hatred in the name of religion.

Subhashini Ali, President, AIDWA