By Anirban Bhattacharya and Nandini Dey
It has been ten years since the sheltered calmness of the plateaus of Kandhamal witnessed one of the bloodiest episodes of communal violence unleashed on Christian minorities in India. Dalits and tribals found themselves under siege from mobs led by Hindutva fanatics.
Dismembered limbs, axed bodies, rape, arson, razed churches, loot and terror-plagued the district for months while the state administration stood on the sidelines. The scars it left behind, the rampant impunity, the acquittals, the colossal displacement it left in its wake, and the omnipresence of fear still haunts the survivors ten years on.
It is in this context that some of us, democratic rights activists of several hues, are coming together to mark the tenth year since the violence in Kandhamal and to pledge, never again. We feel that it is imperative that we bring to the fore the horrors of this largely forgotten episode so that the appropriate lessons can be learned.
At face value, this tragedy seemed to have arisen from the killing of Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, on August 23, 2008. However subsequent enquiries revealed months of planning, thorough organization and mobilization of resources which made such a widespread and coordinated attack possible.
The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Pravin Togadia was allowed to march through the district with Laxmanananda’s body despite Section 144; a move which ignited hatred and fury. As per the conservative government’s estimates, 39 persons were killed in the carnage though democratic rights groups put the death toll much higher at 100. Over 40 women were raped, molested or abused. 393 churches and places of worship were attacked and razed to the ground. Even schools, leprosy homes and NGOs were not spared the destruction.
In the spate of violence, 2000 people were forcibly “reconverted” to Hinduism as part of the agenda of ‘ghar wapsi’ of the Sangh Parivar. In all, more than 600 villages were pillaged, 6,500 houses were scorched, looted, destroyed and at least 56,000 people were displaced.
Since then, many people have left Kandhamal due to a lack of personal security and stability. Many have never returned to their native villages owing to the fact that the state has not only failed to punish the perpetrators, but also failed to guarantee their safety. Adults lost their livelihoods while children were deprived of their access to education. Some were made to stay in rehabilitation settlements away from their villages whilst thousands migrated away to live in slums in various cities forced into the unorganized workforce.
Several of those who remained did not just lose their land and livelihood but had to face residing alongside their perpetrators who had suffered no consequence. Compensation was meager and barely dispersed. “Peace and reconciliation” proved itself to be a farce as it is clear there could be no peace without justice.
The 2008 violence should have come as no surprise. The warning signs were evident from as early as 2007 when Christmas celebrations were thwarted and violence was unleashed in Daringbadi and Baliguda blocks. Laxmanananda, a VHP proselytizer, was recruited as far back as the 1960s to oversee the Hinduization of the tribals in the area.
Through the 80s and the 90s, there were multiple instances of open and outright hate speeches by him and his recruits against the Christians. There were sporadic attacks on pastors and on churches as part of a hate-filled campaign of forced “reconversion” or what they call ‘ghar wapsi’. Throughout the preceding decades, despite so-called “secular” forces being in power, these hate mongers were not discouraged by the administration.
Such passivity still exists today, serving as a contributing factor to the current popularity of communalist thinking.
The National People’s Tribunal held in August 2010 in New Delhi under Justice AP Shah observed that the state government and administration and public officials remained complicit during the course of the violence and did not intervene despite prior knowledge of the impending violence.
In the aftermath of the pogrom, the integrity of the criminal justice system was disregarded completely, so as to shield the perpetrators and expose the victim-survivors to threats and intimidations. Refusal to register or faulty/delayed registration of FIRs, shoddy and biased investigation, diluted charge-sheets and false charges against the aggrieved all contributed towards making the deliverance of justice an illusion. So much so that today the emotions on the ground range from anger to frustration to a sense of resignation.
The sequence of events following the violence in Kandhamal also brings to light a pattern now clearly established in other instances of communal violence in India’s independent history. This is the complete failure of the justice delivery system to bring perpetrators of communal crimes to account– instead of allowing them to climb the rungs of power. Conversely, the impact of communal violence on victim-survivors is displacement and a loss of livelihood resigned to a fate of living in constant fear and insecurity.
This ten year anniversary should be an opportunity for us to extend our solidarity and support to victim-survivors in Kandhamal and in other parts of India in their pursuit of justice; to strengthen our solidarity and resolve to eliminate their struggles.
We are conscious of the fact that when we remember Kandhamal, we do so at a time when the country is witnessing a brazen display of Hindutva violence and hate campaign with the ascendance of BJP at the helm of affairs at both the center and throughout the states. The oppressed – the Dalits, the Christians and particularly the Muslims have all come under intensified attack from the Brahmanical Hindutva fascist forces that have been emboldened exponentially under the Modi-regime.
Thus remembering Kandhamal should be an exercise in forging a stronger unity between the various persecuted minorities – the Sikhs, the Christians, the Muslims and all hues of democratic and progressive forces willing to close ranks against saffron terror. The tenth anniversary of Kandhamal should be an occasion for us to not just remember Kandhamal, but to pledge never again.
The now termed Kandhamal Day has seen thousands of residents gather since 2008 to remember those who lost their lives in the violence and to express solidarity with others still suffering in its aftermath. This year we would like to join them, to grow their numbers and share their memories. The idea is to hold a program of solidarity in Delhi and as many other cities as possible across the month of August. The Delhi program is being envisaged as a form of interaction and dialogue between various survivors of communal carnage – from Delhi (1984) to Gujarat (2002) to Kandhamal (2008).
There would also be photo exhibitions, documentary film screenings and the launching of a people’s archive of the Kandhamal carnage. This would be followed up with a convention focusing specifically on the question of sabotage of justice in Kandhamal and every single instance of communal carnage in the country.
We appeal to progressive democratic forces across the country to hold programs in solidarity with Kandhamal and renew our pledge to confront the rising tide of Hindutva communalism. The month-long program will culminate in a convention in Bhubaneswar and most importantly a national call for Chalo Kandhamal in the district. This is crucial for reassuring the people of Kandhamal that there are still plenty of voices that stand by them and resonate with their struggle for justice.