The man spearheading the campaign for “justice” for the victims of the worst case of anti-Christian violence in India’s history has denounced the failure of the Odisha state government to follow up on a Supreme Court order to investigate why there have been so few criminal convictions despite nearly 6,500 arrests.
Almost 100 Christians were killed in the Kandhamal district of Odisha in August 2008 following claims Christians were behind the killing of a Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Sarawati. Three hundred churches and 6,000 Christian homes were also attacked, rendering 56,000 people homeless.
Yet, despite 6,495 arrests and 827 criminal cases being registered against alleged perpetrators, India’s Supreme Court ordered an investigation in August 2016 as to why there had been only 78 convictions.
“Such a large proportion [of acquittals] is very disturbing,” said Chief Justice T. S. Thakur, as he delivered his verdict on 2 August, 2016, on what he called “inadequate” compensation paid to the victims of the violence. He ordered the state government to investigate “wherever acquittals were not justified on facts”.
But two years later, campaigner Father Ajay Singh, speaking at an event in Odisha on 29 August to mark the ten-year anniversary of the violence, said “nothing has happened two years after the Supreme Court made this order”.
“Nobody is bothered about what the Supreme Court had ordered on the shocking [number of] acquittals,” he added. “When will we get justice?”
At another commemorative event in New Delhi on 23 August, Hindu activist Swami Agnivesh claimed the 2008 murder of Swami Sarawati had been orchestrated by Hindu nationalists seeking to stir up violence against Christians. (Swami Sarawati had been a vocal critic of Christian evangelism.)
The violence that followed his murder came after the Hindu leader’s body was taken on a procession across Kandhamal.
“The long march with the dead body of the swami was responsible for triggering the communal flare up against Christians,” said Swami Agnivesh at another event in the Odisha capital, Bhubaneswar, on 29 August, warning that similar outbreaks of violence could follow in future if Indians continue to be divided along religious lines.
“Kandhamal will be repeated and justice will not be done as long as religion-based polarisation goes on,” he said.
Fellow activist Harsh Mander concurred, saying: “The attacks and the suffering of [innocent people] do not end. These are the products of lies that are systematically spread to polarise communities.”
‘I haven’t got a penny’
Over 3,000 Christians – most of them victims of the 2008 violence – gathered in Phulbani, the administrative headquarters of Kandhamal, to mark the tenth anniversary on 28 August, under the banner: “No more bloodshed in the name of religion. Kandhamal never again. We want justice.”
Junos Nayak, a policeman forced to retire following injuries sustained in the 2008 violence, said: “I have heard that the Supreme Court has ordered compensation for the injured victims. I have not got a penny earlier or now.
“I do not know whom to approach for the compensation. My name does not appear in the government list of the injured.”
Nayak, who belongs to the Church of North India, was lucky to survive after being shot with a hunting gun. His elder brother Lalji died in the same attack after he was stabbed because, according to his brother, he refused to convert to Hinduism.
“I have heard that the Supreme Court has ordered compensation for the injured victims. I have not got a penny earlier or now.”
Lalji Nayak’s eldest son, Umesh, told World Watch Monitor that though his mother Mandakini received initial compensation of Rs 500,000 (US$ 7,100) from the government, officials raised technicalities when he approached them for the additional promised compensation of Rs 300,000 after his mother, who suffered a broken skull in the attack, died in 2012.
“They told me to bring all the family together to the government to collect the additional compensation,” Lalji Nayak said.
The federal Supreme Court in its 2 August, 2016, verdict ordered the additional sum of Rs 300,000 ($4,250) to be given to dependants of those killed, on top of the $7,100 they received earlier.
The apex court also ordered compensation of Rs 30,000 ($425) for those “seriously injured” and Rs 10,000 ($140) for those who received “minor injuries”. Neither of these groups had previously received any compensation from the Odisha government.
The court also ordered the state government to pay Rs 10,000 to those whose homes were “partially” damaged and Rs 50,000 to those whose homes were “fully damaged”.
But there was no provision for those initially denied compensation, due to their damage not meeting the technical criteria.
Gladish Naik, who heads the Church of North India’s social-service wing, told World Watch Monitor that “many are not even aware of the enhanced compensation”.
“The government claims that they have already deposited Rs 150 million to the bank accounts of the Rs 210 million the government has set apart for distribution,” said Fr. Dibakar Parichha, who heads the legal and rehabilitation department of the Catholic Church that accounts for more than half of the 120,000 Christians in Kandhamal.
“The challenge is to find out whether all those listed have got the compensation,” Fr. Parichha said.