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Two More Victims Of Violence Succumb To Injuries In Orissa
Christian leaders report lax concern for refugees remaining in camps

2/20/08 NEW DELHI (Compass Direct News) – Two Christians have died in refugee camps from injuries sustained in Christmas season violence against Christians in Kandhamal district in Orissa. These deaths push the overall toll to six.

Christian leaders confirmed last month that four Christians died in attacks widely believed to have been led by Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) groups beginning December 24 in the mountainous district of Kandhamal.

“At least two Christians in a relief camp in Barakhama village have recently succumbed to injuries they received during the violence by Hindutva extremists,” said John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC). Dayal recently traveled to Kandhamal for the second time since the attacks. His visit left him with troubling questions about government treatment of Christian victims and what he believes is lax law enforcement and lack of concern for the Christians’ well-being.

“Why did these men die in the camp, and not in a hospital in Bhubaneswar [the state capital] or the district capital at Phulbani? No one seems to know,” Dayal told Compass. “Were the bodies examined in a forensic autopsy to find the cause of death? Apparently not. Have people been charged with the murder of these two men? The police and magistracy [senior administrative officials] are not telling.”

Dayal said that Rameshwar Digal, 55, died February 3 in a Barakhama village camp in Baliguda area. Digal was attacked December 26 in Kotasahi village. Law enforcement officials neither registered his case as murder nor performed an autopsy. Kojuna Digal, 65, died January 15. Both were agricultural workers. The men’s surname is shared by those belonging to the Kui tribe. They were not otherwise related.

Police, however, maintain only one person has died in the camp, and they attributed that death to natural causes. Kandhamal police superintendent Nikhil Kumar Kanodia claimed that no injured person has died after the attacks ended January 3. “Only one old man has died in a relief camp,” he said.

The Rev. P.R. Parichha, president of the Orissa chapter of the AICC, confirmed that two Christians had died in the relief camp from their injuries. Parichha said that the toll could rise as a few Christians remained missing. “Most of the missing Christians have returned though,” he added.

Hindutva groups, mainly the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), carried out attacks under the pretext of avenging an alleged assault on its leader Laxmananda Saraswati after the first anti-Christian incident was reported from Brahmanigaon village. Alleging that forced conversion was the main cause behind the communal riots in Kandhamal district, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is demanding that activities of foreign funded non-governmental organizations be monitored, The Indian Express newspaper reported February 9. Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a local party, Biju Janata Dal, and the BJP.

The attacks that lasted for more than a week razed at least 730 houses and 95 churches, according to a fact-finding team of the AICC Orissa chapter. Hundreds of displaced Christians remain in relief camps set up by the Orissa government.

Detention of Christian Activist

Meanwhile, on February 20, Baliguda area police detained the state coordinator of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), the Rev. Asit Mohanty, on charges of interfering in the judicial process. GCIC national president Sajan K. George told Compass that police dragged Mohanty more than 500 yards. Police also tried to assault him. George said Mohanty was harassed because he was following up on cases of continued oppression and forced conversion of Dalit Christians at gunpoint by VHP and other radical groups. Mohanty was released three hours later.

“Some lawyers, seemingly belonging to Hindutva groups, had lodged a complaint against Mohanty,” George said.

There have been several reports of forced conversions of Christians to Hinduism in Kandhamal following the violence. (See Compass Direct News, “Hindu Nationalists Plan to Revive Tensions in Orissa State,” January 23.)

Plight of Christian Refugees

Dayal said women, especially pregnant women, are suffering amid dire conditions in the camps that lack even toilets. “They have to suffer the pangs of being a woman in an absolutely undeveloped situation. The women have no gynecological experts available on hand,” he said. When refugees relieve themselves in fields outside the camps, they face hostile Hindu mobs who harass them for coming out of the camp. “The taunts can be dangerous,” Dayal said.

Refugee students are without books and supplies. They are missing exams and school registration that will force them to miss an entire academic year. Older students may miss job opportunities, he said.

Police Bias

Local Christians also complain about police bias. After dark, several villages are without men because they fear being arrested on false charges. “Such is the terror of the police against the Christians that the men just cannot sleep in their own homes. They remain in the forested hills,” Dayal said.

Police superintendent Kanodia, however, said the police are neutral. “A criminal is a criminal. His religious affiliation does not matter to the police,” he said.

Kanodia also said 127 cases related to “communal and ethnic” violence had been registered. He also claimed that the death toll was three and included only one Christian.

Christians do not believe that the Orissa violence was merely due to ethnic tensions. Christians make up approximately 16 percent of the 650,000 people in Kandhamal district. More than 60 percent of the Christians belong to the Pana community. They are classified as “scheduled castes,” or Dalits. They demand recognition as a tribal community, claiming they too speak the local language of Kui. But Kui tribal peoples oppose their recognition as it would add to the number of candidates for jobs reserved for them through the government’s affirmative action program.

According to the Indian Constitution, only Hindu Dalits can benefit from affirmative action in government jobs and education. A Dalit loses such privileges after converting to Christianity.

The National Commission for Minorities, which sent two researchers to Kandhamal district, reported on January 17 that the violence was “organized and preplanned.”

“The team maintained that the large-scale violence was because of the inaction of the administration,” reported the New Indian Express newspaper. In January, Dayal led a fact-finding team that also concluded the violence was carried out in a planned manner. (See Compass Direct News, “Fact-Finding Mission Suggests India Violence Was Preplanned,” January 4.)

Arunachal Das, the assistant district magistrate of Kandhamal, told Compass that 3,091 victims, both Christian and Hindu, live in five relief camps: two in Baliguda and three in the Daringbadi area. Attacks on Hindus’ houses were also reported during the Kandhamal violence.

According to an order of the district magistrate, only the state government can distribute relief through the Red Cross. Other non-profit organizations and churches are not allowed to bring aid.

The week-long spate of violence in Orissa began in Kandhamal on December 24. Special armed forces remain deployed in affected areas.

The Times of India newspaper reported on January 22 that the 700 members of the Central Reserve Police Force initially deployed would remain in Kandhamal until March 15.