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Home > Communalism Repository > "These are concentration camps, not refugee camps”

"These are concentration camps, not refugee camps”

— an inmate of a camp run by the Orissa Government for the victims of the anti Christian violence in August-October 2008

by John Dayal, 1 April 2009

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31 March 09

Camp and Culpability

It was almost a year ago. In Barakhama’s village-town in Kandhamal district on March 19, 2008, the death of an old Catholic woman in the local refugee camp for want of adequate medicare, and prohibitory orders banning outsiders from meeting the Christian refugees because of a buffalo sacrifice festival in the grounds close by, marked a tense and troubled Holy Week in Orissa. Despite the elections, more than 3,000 Central Reserve police Force and state apparatus with a suddenly awakened conscience — after Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik severed his ruling Biju Janata Dal’s political umbilicus with long term partners Bharatiya Janata party – the situation remains equally tense. More than 3,000 Christians are still in government run refugee camps, possibly as many as 30,000 are internally displaced, perhaps more than ten thousand of the originally 50,000 displaced having the left the State for jobs and security in New Delhi, Kerala, Mumbai, even Chennai and Andhra Pradesh.

But to get back to the Barakhama’s refugee camp a year ago – remember violence broke out in Orissa on 24th December 2007, and the tension continued till Kandhamal exploded once again on 24th August 2008, a day after the body of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad vice president Lakhmanananda Saraswati was paraded through 200 kilometres of the main roads in the large and forested district. Visiting Christian Priests and nuns, and I despite my credentials as a Member of the National Integration Council of the Indian Government which has the Prime Minister as its Chair, who had come to meet the bereaved family, were unceremoniously ejected by the Assistant Tehsildar, a special magistrate, on orders of the sub collector. He said there was tension in the village and he had strict orders not to allow anyone inside the camp. The posse of the Central Reserve Police had erected a barricade on the road to the camp. There was however no ban on the movements of others, the hostile gangs, in the village.

The old woman, Mrs. Borili Digal, had suddenly fallen ill with fever two days ago, her son Pero Digal told me and Supreme Court advocate, Sister Mary Scaria who came to the camp. The family took the women to the local government hospital where she was prescribed some medicines. “We could not purchase the medicines,” Pero Digal said. His mother died early the next morning. She was buried in a hastily made coffin by the youth in the refugee camp, and then buried in the Christian hillside cemetery about half a kilometre behind the camp. The camp was, and till recently was still located in a government school. Borili Digal’s husband Doya Digal had died ten years ago. The Barakhama camp then had 345 Christian families whose houses were burnt on Christmas Day 2007 by a mob allegedly led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists under orders of Lakhmanananda Saraswati, listed in police records for fomenting anti Christian violence even before the Christmas 2008, and who had famously asked his followers “No use burning tyres. Tell me how many Christian houses you have burnt.” Seven churches were also destroyed in the violence in Barakhama, part of the total of more than 100 Christian churches torched by marauding mobs between 24 and 27 December last year.

I had been vesting this camp from 2 January 2008, and had seen the living conditions for myself – three families to the tent, one sari given to a family even if it had three grown up women in it – mother and two daughters.
The full force of what it meant to live in a refugee camp would sink in later as the women recounted their tales, and I and Father Nicky Barla, who is also an advocate, tasted the food for ourselves. It stank of grit and large scale corruption The real plight of the women would unfold over the coming months as I visited with women companions. What the male eye had missed, the women activists discerned at a glance. Sanitation and personal hygiene. The government had no provision for privacy in the daily toilet routine, and had not even thought of a woman’s personal needs for hygiene. It would take a former Secretary to the Prime Minister of India to put the plight in words, as I recount later in this article. But both Sister Mary, and Teesta Setalvad, a lawyer-activist, also discovered abortions, incomplete ones, which could lead to blood poisoning. The absolute dearth of women doctors or counsellors from the side of the government had put the entire female population in the government camps, and outside it, at risk of death if not from violence, then from disease. It had also left the women open to sexual abuse and perhaps what in their eyes was even worse, a loss of dignity. As they had to leave the camp to go out to defecate and even to urinate, they would be chased by aggressive mobs, saying they had no place on land owned by tribals! And when we took a young girl with an incomplete abortion to the hospital in Balliguda, the government doctors demanded money for everything from anaesthesia to a test for malaria.

— -

I have some experience with refugee camps, run by international organisations including the United Nations, by national and state governments, even by the Military, during my four decades as a diplomatic and political correspondent. Not just the permanent camps in Palestine in the 1980s, or those set up in 1971 for the influx from East Pakistan, but more recent ones for refugees from Sri Lanka in Tamil Nadu, Kashmir Muslim and Pandit refugees in Delhi and near Jammu, and of course, the major camps set up in 1984 for the Sikhs who survived the three day pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the camps in Gujarat set up by the Government and by Muslim organisations for the survivors of the 2002 genocidal violence against Muslims following the Godra. I even saw, and recorded the living conditions in the temporary colonies, which could really be called camps, for people which were set up after they had been displaced from their homes which were eradicated by the government bulldozers in Delhi under orders the late Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Extra-Constitutional centre of authority under the State of Emergency.

A refugee camp is a terrible place, and indeed robs its inmates of their innate dignity. It also stresses family structures. It means a loss of privacy with the implied direct and indirect gender violence. And no one expects Five Star cuisine in a refugee camp or deluxe apartments. Often community toilets are filthy, and tarpaulin and plastic canvas tents can be hot in summer and hyper cold in winter— and winter is sever in the high plateau of Kandhamal.. Such is in the nature of these camps.

But they differed from those in Kandhamal in several major aspects. These were issues of security, issues of the government acknowledging its role as caretaker and seeking collaboration, the government culpability for the health, welfare and quality of life of the people living in the camps. The authorities of course had also taken care, by and large, to incorporate almost all refugees in its safety and security blanket.

Security of course is the paramount issue. Most of the camps I have earlier mentioned had the Army and the Central government police forces guarding them at all times. But what was important then was that the security was in force even though the violence, and to an extent the threat of violence, had long ceased. In Gujarat and Delhi for instance, the violence lasted less than a week, but the camps remained largely secure long afterwards too. In fact, outside agencies and NGOs were able to reach and work in the camps from Day Two, so to speak.

The situation in the Orissa refugee camps was very different, and indeed the situation in Kandhamal was unique in the history of anti minority riots in the country. The spat in the meeting of the National Integration Council between chief minister Naveen Patnaik and the then Union Home Minister, the unlamented Shivraj Patil, made quite clear the absolute disjunct and helplessness of both governments in tackling the mobs of the Sangh Parivar. The Centre sent trainee forces, the State failed to deploy even those. For over a month, the writ of the Constitution and the rule of law did not run in the entire district of Kandhamal. Certainly refugee camps set up in those circumstances could expect little security.
Over 29,000 people rushed to the refugee camps, the major ones set up in G Udaygiri, Raikia, Barakhama, Balliguda, and possibly another twenty thousand took refigure in the forests as they were too far and the route to the camps too dangerous. For weeks the camps faced constant threats from armed gangs, and sometimes from gangs of women members of the Hindutva organisations. There were reported bomb attacks, and threats to poison the water wells which were the solitary supply for drinking water. Convoys of support material were stopped, and the government, in the most peculiar orders ever, prevented Christian and international charities from coming to the refugee of the displaced persons.

The conditions in the overcrowded camps worsened speedily. Lack of hygiene made the health of little babies precarious. The government has not kept a count of those babies who may have died. There are grave issues of culpability of the government in not providing medicare. In the G. Udaygiri and Mandasar, the unacceptable numbers of people living in each tent in these camps render their lives miserable in the extreme and inhuman. Wrote the former secretary to the Prime Minister Mr. Venugopal said in a letter to G.V. Venugopala Sarma, Secretary in the State government’s Revenue and Disaster Management Department “In one tent where I spent an hour at G. Udaygiri speaking to the inmates there were 48 persons of whom several were women. Its dimensions were about 25x15 feet. There was hardly space for anyone to move or stretch, what to speak of privacy for women to change. Those women live in the full view of the male inmates, including their own brothers on the one hand and strangers on the other. Their sanitary requirements at a personal level, including of women who have not attained menopause have not been factored in by those who designed or are running these camps. If the official argument is that these women would not know how to use sanitary napkins or pads even if supplied, then they should be provided with whatever they are accustomed to, in consultation with them. It is deplorable that this has not been done. Outside these tents, there are less than 10 toilets for the thousands living in the camp with hardly 5 of them in usable condition. I tried to walk towards these toilets but could not approach them for such was the intolerable mess in the toileting area strewn with human refuse all over. These conditions violate every conceivable human right and dignity of the people kept in these camps relating to residence, health, and equality and therefore to life itself, what to talk of the loss of opportunities to other rights like education of the children? The quality of food in these camps and poor supply of drinking water and water for other needs compound the hazards and woes of the inmates. The inmates are borrowing money at usurious rates of interest to meet their essential every day needs, as verified by me personally.”

There is equal culpability of the government in not carrying out autopsies of injured who died in the camps. It is as if the government did not want to link these deaths with the preceding violence. This is now coming to fore with widows denied relief saying their husbands did not die in the carnage, but later. The government keeps the death figures low, and many a suspect escaped charges of murder or even attempted murder because the death was not registered as arising out of the violence. “These are not refugee camps. These are concentration camps. We can neither leave them, nor live in them as human beings,” refugees have told me.

The government has made persistent efforts to reduce the number of
refugee camps, close down as many as it can in as much of a hurry as
it can. Though refugees were reluctant to return to their homes
because the villagers and the Sangh Parivar wanted them to convert to
Hinduism before they would be allowed in, the government regardless of
the threat pushed them out. The result has been a series of small
shanty slums outside major villages where the Christians huddle
together. The government has washed its hands of all of it. an
independent fact-finding team, comprising prominent social activists,
has urged the State government to keep the relief camps open till
normality was restored in the affected villages. Observing that the
victims should be able to return to their homes with dignity, peace
and security, Mr. Venugopal told the State government that “there can
never be any dignity if people practising a particular religion – here
Christianity – are told that they can return to their homes only as
Hindus. Such threats are unconstitutional and the State has a duty to
intervene proactively to put a stop to that and guarantee peaceful
residence to the citizens with a right to their religious conviction,”
The government of course does not provide any employment to the people in the camp, nor does it gave any sustenance allowance other than the food. The result has been that the first tranche of the money given for rehabilitation has been consumed for additional food, clothing and medicines, things which should have been the state’s responsibilities. How will they ever begin constructing the houses are a matter left for the future? I may remind readers that houses demolished in December 2007 are yet to be fully constructed. Most remain roofless as the government dole was just not sufficient.

Experts feel the camps must continue so long as complete conditions of peace, safety and security have not been restored in the affected villages of the District to the satisfaction of the victims. “In addition, a basic requirement for the victims to return to their homes is the dignity that is associated with security and peace. Dignity comes from assurance and self assurance that they may lead the kind of cultural and spiritual life they wish to live as guaranteed in the Constitution so long as those practices are peaceful and do not affect public order and the rights of others. These are well established principles in the constitutional law and life of our country. However, in Kandhamal these conditions do not obtain in large tracts as evidenced by the numbers still present in the camps and the prevailing sense of insecurity. There can never be any dignity if people practising a particular religion – here Christianity – are told that they can return to their homes only as Hindus. Such threats are unconstitutional and the State has a duty to intervene proactively to put a stop to that and guarantee peaceful residence to the citizens with a right to their religious conviction. All these involve the relevant fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens under Part III of our Constitution as in articles 19, 21 and 25, not to mention the articles that guarantee the right to equality before law and equal protection of the laws and the right not to be discriminated on any account,” said a report.

The threat of violence and the tension has kept the men away from work. Work in government projects is not still open to them. They have no source of livelihood. Even those living in Christian camps in Bhubaneswar and elsewhere are no better off in this matter, and in that of the real victims – the children.

The plight of the children was brought home to the high level delegation of diplomats of the European Union who visited Orissa before Christmas 2008. They were banned from going to Kandhamal but could see the camps run outside the district, and some outside the state.

The Indian and European fact Finding teams have noted that the Union and State governments have not been able to ensure implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966; the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 1967; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1967; the Declaration on the Right to Development, 1986 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. “We fully realize the administrative difficulties any Government faces in situations of this kind but we also believe that every State Government in India has the capacity to overcome these difficulties if the required political will is summoned. Failure to do this will, in our considered opinion, attract action by the National Human rights Commission under some of the provisions of Section 12 of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993,” wrote Mr. Venugopal.

The European team’s specially interaction with a range of people brought out the serious implications for children and highlighted many child rights issues. There were 12 orphanages in Orissa but 7 had been since closed down Some of the newly born babies born during or after the riots had been given names such as “Danga”—meaning ‘communal violence’—reflecting the events surrounding their birth, I heard as I accompanied some of these teams. Patently, many children have witnessed acts of violence, including attacks leading to death, and had to flee to the forest often for several days. Coping with the trauma and fear, many children have also had to suffer discomfort and lack of food Even in the camps, in the relief camps the visitors could see that several were suffering from anaemia, stomach problems and in some cases malaria.

UNICEF confirmed that they are responding to the relief effort by providing assistance with shelter, water and sanitation, and education programme for children in the camps. They are conscious of the displaced families in private camps, including in the remote and distant areas, and are finding ways to access them. NGOs have told EU their concern for the future of the children and have urged the Union n to consider this in the context of international human rights conventions. The EU was told first hand that once in the relief camps the children were generally unable to go to school and there was little evidence of any tuition in the camps visited. Many will drop out of school for ever, I am sure.

An entire generation has been irreparably affected.

[Also published in Combat Law, New Delhi, April 2009]