By A.C. Michael
New Delhi, Jan 31, 2019: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India has brought together supporters of Kandhamal survivors to seek fresh legal options for seven “innocent” Christians convicted of murdering a Hindu religious leader more than ten years ago.
The January 29 meeting at the CBCI headquarters in New Delhi was held after the Orissa High Court summarily dismissed the bail application of the seven on December 4, 2018.
The national consultation also discussed the situation in Kandhamal and cases related to the 2008 communal violence in the district of Odisha state.
More than 100 people were killed; thousands of Christian homes and places of worship damaged and tens of thousands of Christians were forced to flee their villages to refugee camps.
CBCI secretary general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas welcomed the gathering on behalf of Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the president.
He thanked those who over the past ten years have assisted, helped and have labored in what the prelate said was “very difficult and sometimes hostile circumstances” to bring relief and legal help to the affected people.
The consultation, he explained, was convened at the request of Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar who wanted to review the Church’s interventions in Kandhamal, especially after the refusal of bail to the seven who he says were falsely implicated in the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
The Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese covers Kandhamal district.
Archbishop Barwa, Fathers Dibya Singh Parichha, a lawyer, and other activists highlighted the need for those aiding legal and other battles for the Kandhamal survivors to come together for renewed efforts to bring justice.
Mascarenhas underlined the need for patience and perseverance while commending the participants’ efforts in dealing with the cases of the seven and compensation for other survivors.
“Whatever steps we take should be in favor of delivering justice to the victims but also making sure that old wounds are not reopened and our final aim should be to work for a complete reconciliation and promote peace and social harmony,” the Church official said.
Father Parichha, who has been handling the survivors’ cases, explained that the high court summarily dismissed the bail plea for the seven without much discussion. He and Father Singh told the participants that the cases were being conducted in a “very hostile” legal climate.
Father Parichha pointed out that more than 315 cases against rioters have been reopened in the trial court, as many as 150 cases have not been tried and 284 cases have been partly heard and are pending in the Sessions Court. As of now 493 people have been convicted in 78 cases and another 170 cases of appeals and reviews are coming up for hearing in the High court. Two rape cases are also under trial.
The activists stressed the need for central coordination and requested that the CBCI take up the leadership and provide the direction.
The participants noted that funds were needed “in a big way at this crucial stage.” They suggested creation of a central fund at the CBCI and all Christian denominations declare a Kandhamal Day for fund collection through various ways.
The participants urged the Catholic Church to speed up the causes of canonization of the Catholic martyrs and that the Word Council of Churches take up the cases of other Christian martyrs through its own procedures. Such a move would provide a big boost to the Kandhamal area, they added.
The consultation noted that the sufferings of Kandhamal survivors were not sufficiently diffused in the country and called for ways and means to spread information about what happened so that the victims and the legal process find help and support.
Similarly, the meeting also suggested prioritizing the cases according to the solidity of the evidence available.
Vrinda Grove, renowned activist and lawyer who has been one of the eminent lawyers heading the legal battle for the Kandhamal survivors, requested streamlining the work and bringing it under one coordinating authority to avoid fissures between lawyers.
Bishop Mascarenhas thanked Kandhamal supporters such as Grover, John Dayal, Colin Gonsalves, Rebecca John and journalist Anto Akkara, who has been probing the political and communal angles of the case with “much courage and determination.”
The consultation was also attended by Father Jervis D’Souza, CBCI deputy secretary general, Sister Lalita Roshni, assistant secretary of the CBCI office for Tribal Affairs, Sonia Daniel, director projects of Evangelical Fellowship of India, Michael Williams, president, United Christian Forum, Sister Teresa Paul, Tehmina Arora of the Alliance Defending Freedom.