India: Christians in Orissa Still Targeted After Attacks

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Victims of Christmas season violence in Kandhamal face threats and ostracism.

NEW DELHI (Compass Direct News) -- Still struggling to rebuild their homes and lives after suffering large-scale attacks last Christmas season, Christians in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district continue to face ostracism and threats from Hindu nationalists.

Returning from Orissa on Friday (June 6), the secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC) said life is far from normal more than five months after violence in Kandhamal last Christmas season that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

“Christians who had started making a life for themselves through running shops and self-employment were particular targets – they are still being socially boycotted,” Dr. John Dayal told Compass. “Even now, many [Christian] girls cannot go to school for fear of molestation after threats have been issued to Christians.”

According to an AICC report, intolerant Hindu leaders in three villages near Barakhama – Salagud, Madagudami, and Perbapanga – have ostracized Christian families. The Christians are barred from collecting firewood or food from the surrounding jungles and buying from and selling anything in local stores.

“This means they must travel long distances to buy construction materials” to rebuild their homes destroyed in the attacks, the report states. “Not only do they have to spend more money for travel but also for bricks and other supplies.”

Followers of Laxmananda Saraswati, a Hindu nationalist leader widely believed to have incited the Christmas attacks, forcibly took 26 Christians to a police station near Kurder village on May 21, according to the report. Police detained the Christians, releasing them only after friends enlisted the aid of the district sub-collector, or deputy administrative head.

The followers of Saraswati also stole two cows belonging to the Christians. The Christians had just bought cattle and were passing by a rally organized by Saraswati when the Hindu nationalists apprehended them.

Disappointed in Government Response

Dayal said he was “deeply disappointed and saddened” by the “lethargic and insensitive, almost inhuman, response” of the federal and the state governments in the Kandhamal crisis.

“The monsoons are setting in, and up to 400 families are without a roof over their heads,” he said. “The Orissa government has been doling out money in driblets.”

Grants for destroyed houses are 50,000 rupees (US$1,165), and no more than half of that total for partially damaged homes.

“But half-burnt houses cannot be rebuilt,” he added. “They have to be razed to the ground and built from scratch, and the government does not recognize this.”

The cost of rebuilding a house is at least 85,000 rupees (about US$2,000), he estimated. “This means unless the dole is raised, the victims will have half-built houses when the rains come,” Dayal said. “There is no option but to move the courts to get the government to give the money.”

Dayal added that apart from the cost of construction of houses, the victims of the violence have lost a half a year of income. “Half a year of labor has been lost, there is no livelihood,” he said.

Dire Camp Conditions

Many victims are still in the jungles fearing further physical attack, while hundreds of displaced Christians in Kandhamal remain in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Relief camp conditions are dire, with malaria running rampant. Dayal said that after contracting malaria, a 16-year-old Christian girl who was apparently 16 weeks pregnant had a miscarriage in Barakhama refugee camp. Rashmi, daughter of Suniya Digal of Tikarbari village, had come to the camp with her parents after her house was burned in the Christmas week violence and her husband had fled.

The disease along with the strong anti-malarial drug she was prescribed led to complications and the miscarriage, Dayal said.

“When [human rights activist] Teesta Setalvad was visiting the Barakhama camp and saw Rashmi, she knew the girl was not well,” said Dayal, who was in Kandhamal with Setalvad for an independent tribunal that heard testimony of victims on May 13 and 15. “She called and asked me to rush her [Rashmi] to a hospital, saying she was on the brink of septicemia, or blood poisoning, unless a gynecologist examined her immediately and evacuated the remains of her pregnancy.”

The four-member tribunal consisted of former High Court Justice Hospet Suresh and Justice Kolse Patil, former Gujarat director general of police R.B. Sreekumar, and Setalvad. The tribunal has yet to release its report.

A government panel to investigate the Christmas season violence, the Justice Panigrahi Enquiry commission, will begin a probe on Saturday (June 14).

The National Commission for Minorities, which sent two researchers to Kandhamal district, reported on January 17 that the violence was “organized and pre-planned.” The team attributed the large-scale violence to the inaction of the administration. Dayal also led a fact-finding team in January that also concluded the violence was carried out in a planned manner.

Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups, mainly the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), carried out the attacks under the pretext of avenging an alleged assault on Saraswati after the first anti-Christian incident was reported from Brahmanigaon village.

Copyright © 2008 Compass Direct News