On 24th August this year, Kandhamal will complete four years of its trial by fire, gun and axe. The violence, which lasted several weeks and saw sporadic incidents even three months later, registered over 52,000 people hiding for their life in nearby Sal forests, almost 6,000 houses burnt to the ground, more than 300 places of worship and church-run institutions destroyed, and perhaps as many as 100 persons, some of them women, killed in the most horrendous manner. Just one person has been convicted of murder, and in other cases, frightened witnesses, bad investigation and shoddy court cases have meant that ringleaders have escaped the law. Hundreds of families still have no house, and several hundred more have not completed reconstruction because, despite massive help from the church, the money ran out. Many remain unemployed, hundreds have lost out on education, and businesses are yet to be rebuilt. At a more human level, perhaps the entire Kandhamal needs sustained trauma counselling. In the words of a young priest or pastor, “I am still afraid when I try to go back to my area.”
Patently, there is a sort of a disjunct between the efforts of the Church, which can rightly point out it has spent crores during various facets of relief and rehabilitation – from money spent in feeding refugees in the first months of the violence, to finally upto Rs 30,000 or more given to each family to reconstruct their houses because the government grant of Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 was either not forthcoming or grossly insufficient to rebuild houses where the cost came from a minimum of Rs 70,000 to upward of Rs 100,000, depending on the location and the size of the house. In most cases, the house that was destroyed was bigger than the house that was sought to be rebuilt in the given amount of money. And no one thought of how the family would furnish the house, and buy other commodities that make a house into a home. No one is accusing anyone in the church of corruption, but perhaps each church, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecost, needs to make a discreet private audit of its resources committed to Kandhamal since 2007. Funding agencies and generous churches across the country and around the world would want to know, and hope, that their donations have made a lasting difference in the lives of the victims. And there has been no government assistance in rebuilding the places of worship.
So how do we observe the fourth anniversary of the worst violence against the Christian community in India in recent centuries, other than in prayer and protest?
The pursuit of Justice would be a good way, I think. Justice at all levels. And holding the State – not Orissa alone, but the Indian State – to account, learning our Constitutional lessons from developments in Gujarat which saw a near genocide against the Muslim community in 2002, and the violence against Sikhs in Delhi and other cities in 1984.
The Sikhs lawyers and retired judges, and the widows, have taught us the valuable lesson of persistence in the pursuit of justice. Decades later, they have not lost an iota of their zeal. The intensity of their passion to see that justice is done, is remarkable, and is, in fact bearing fruit. They have shown that it is possible to demand, and get, appropriate reparation and relief. They have also networked effectively with civil society, got the highest in the land to apologise, and have held powerful politicians accountable for their actions. The Muslims community, too, has proved the relevance of networking with civil society and using all means, judicial, political, and civil to get justice to the victims. The Supreme Court of India in many epochal judgements effectively ensured justice in Gujarat. The final word is till to be said, and there is hope that political bosses, police officers and even subordinate judiciary will pay for their crimes and their abetment to crime, or impunity, before long.
Public outcry in Kandhamal too, as a matter of fact, began when the then Archbishop, Raphael Cheenath, approached the Supreme court and successfully urged it to upturn the order of the Collector, Krishan Kumar, who had banned Christian organisations from brining relief to the ravaged district. Cheenath was again in court seeking appropriate relief and rehabilitation. Now a group of religious have approached the Supreme Court to order a fresh look into the cases of murder in the district during the violence.
We have been advocating that Church and the victims approach the Supreme Court for a fresh investigation and retrial into all cases of murder as the so-called Fast Track Courts have seine veritable miscarriage of justice. It has also been our case that instead of a display of charity, what rebuilding in Kandhamal needed was concerted action to ensure that that the government, through the district administration met the entire expense, rather than give a pro rata amount decided by some bureaucrats on their whim and fancy without even determining how much was really needed to pay for the bricks, cement, steel, wood and asbestos or steel sheets needed to build, a house. It was the governments job, many felt, to ensure reemployment, rebuilding of businesses and local self help groups which were earlier flourishing in the turmeric and ginger trade. The church relief could then have gone into rebuilding lives.
An important recent order of the Supreme Court relates to its refusing to stay a Gujarat High court order of 8 February 2012 asking the Gujarat government to pay compensation to over 500 shrines damaged during the infamous 2002 riots in the wake of Godhra train carnage. A bench of justices K S Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra asked the state government to furnish details of the number of religious structures actually damaged and the financial cost of their reconstruction. The Gujarat government has been reluctant, saying public funds cannot be used for religious porpoises, forgetting the crores of rupees it has spent in such functions as Shabri Kumbhs in the Dangs some years ago. High Court Acting Chief Justice Bhaskar Bhattacharya and Justice J B Pardiwala had ordered compensation for over 500 places of worships in the state on a plea by Islamic Relief Committee of Gujarat (IRCG), an NGO. The court also ordered that principal judges of 26 districts of the state will receive the applications for compensation of religious structures in their respective districts and decide on it. They have been asked to send their decisions to the high court within six months.
That is the way to go. Charity is easy. The pursuit of justice is not easy. It is time consuming, expensive, and needs a dedicated core team which will not accept defeat. Kandhamal needs such a pursuit of justice.