Home > 2016 > The Kandhamal Encounter: Reality and Response

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 47 New Delhi November 12, 2016

The Kandhamal Encounter: Reality and Response

Wednesday 16 November 2016

by Kamalakanta Roul

The recent Kandhamal encounter killing has been surrounded by multiple controversies and engulfs a national level political debate. Any sensible human being would lend sympathetic support to the six innocent Adivasi/Dalit civilians who were killed in broad daylight by Special Police Officers (SPO) on July 8, 2016 in the Malapanga forest of Tumudibandh block. The heart-rending incident was accentuated by the fact that one of the victims was an eighteen- month infant, Gose Digal (a girl child). One of the deceased was identified as a former ‘Naib Sarpanch’ (Kukala Digal, 42) and amongst them three were women. The encounter left five more civilians severely wounded. (The Orissa Post, July 9, 2016)

The deceased and injured persons were labourers working under the MGNREGA scheme and returning to their village Gumudimaha (Parampanga panchayat) after collecting their wages from the Baliguda Bank. The encounter by the State Police has been termed as a ‘fake encounter’ and a ‘cold-blooded murder’ by civil society activists. However, the encounter caul-dron has opened up three major facets of the Kandhamal crisis: acute poverty, emergence of Maoists and the repressive role of the state.

 Structural Failures and Social Turmoil

The Maoist upsurge in Kandhamal has been a multidimensional issue. Hence, Kandhamal is a classic case where caste, class, ethnicity and religion have got enmeshed in such a degree that it defies any stereotypical explanation. A series of encounters in Kandhamal has seriously challenged the competency of the state as the authoritative agency to settle conflicts and puts a question-mark on the credibility and impar-tiality of the state institutions. The dubious role of the civil society has only complicated the issue. Considering the complexity of the problem there is a need to address these multidimensional issues instead of only focusing on any single factor. In fact, the Kandhamal crisis is the mani-festation of the state’s failure to address the structural issues of poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy. (Roul, 2016)

Kandhamal is primarily dominated by the Kandha Adivasis. It became a district when the Phulbani district was divided into two districts: Baudha and Kandhamal in 1994. As per the Census 2011, the total population of the Kandhamal district is 7,31,952 which is 1.11 per cent of Odisha’s population. The sex ratio of the district is 1000: 1037. The Census record of 2001 states that the district has 51.96 per cent STs and 16.89 per cent SCs. Out of the total population Hindus constitute 81.42 per cent, Christians 18.2 per cent and Muslims 0.35 per cent. The district has 48 per cent illiteracy, the maximum of such illiterates being Adivasis. Primary schools are available only in 59.98 per cent villages of the total 153 Gram Panchayats and 45 per cent villages have no primary school within five km radius. As many as 550 villages still have no electricity. The district has scarce means of communication: only 853 village roads for a total 2515 villages and no rail connection. (Roul, 2014)

It is one of the poorest districts and ranked 300 at the national and 29 at the State level in terms of poverty measurement. The annual per capita income is Rs 4743 only and more than 60 per cent tribal and Dalit people are unem-ployed. Cultivation of ginger and turmeric is a major occupation of the Kandhas. Some of them collect minor forest produce like Sal leaves, dry woods, honey, fruits and Mohua flowers etc. The district has 78 per cent Adivasi BPL benefi-ciaries and only 21.4 per cent have permanent houses.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP, 2008) identified Kandhamal as an ‘extremely food insecure’ district of Odisha. The rate of food insecurity was so acute in the Kandhamal district that it fell behind the infamous KBK region (Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput) in all indicators such as food availability, access to food, food absorption, the food insecurity index (FSI) and food security outcome index (FSOI). The district was placed at the bottom in four out five indicators of food security. The ‘Food Security Atlas of Orissa’, which was prepared by the WFP in association with the New Delhi-based Institute of Human Development (IHD), states that “the infant mortality rate in Kandhamal district was 119 per over 1000 live births compared Orissa’s 65 per 1000 live births and national IMR of 57. Similarly, for under-five mortality, the central district of Kandhamal, lying in the Eastern Ghats region, has the highest figure of 187 child deaths per 1000. FSOI, which was calculated on the basis of under-five mortality and underweight children, was the most critical in the strife-torn district.” (The Hindu, October 26, 2008) However, basic medical facilities are available in 6.89 per cent of the villages.

The district is bestowed with huge natural resources. It is widely known as the land of species and famous for handicrafts. Approxi-mately, seventytwo per cent land is covered with dense forest and towering mountains. Unfortunately, the district is a development-free region. The other parts of Odisha are persisting with development-related conflicts such as displacement and social movements but this district has no probems of such kind.

Kandhamal is also an industry-free district and the state has not acquired much land for the purpose of projects for industrial develop-ment. The real problem lies with the land alienation of some non-tribals such as outsiders, petty traders, moneylenders and contractors which reduced the original land owners to sharecroppers. Moreover, out of the total private lands recorded, 56 per cent belong to Adivasis, nine per cent belong to Dalits and the rest 35 per cent land belong to others (31 per cent) including local Odiya communities, business communities, government officials, basically outsiders. Most of the Dalit Panas are still land- less and a very small number of Dalits has land, that is, nine per cent only. The higher caste Odiya communities possess more land in comparison to Dalits, that is, 35 per cent. However, there is a longstanding conflict between the Dalit Pana and Kandha Adivasis over land alienation. Outsiders, such as higher caste Odiyas, do not have any conflict with the tribals. The land alienation and accumulation of Adivasi land began with the colonial administration and it still continues in present-day Kandhamal. F.G- Bailey stated that the British administration at last acknowledged in the last part of the 1850s that the Kandha resistance struggle was not so much to protect their customs but “because they feared their land would be taken or taxed”. (Bailey, 1960: 181)

The petty bourgeoisie manipulate land records with the help of district officials. Large tracts of land have been encroached by outsiders. Benami transfer of land made the Adivasis a landless poor community whereas once the same community used to consider themselves as “Kandha Raja”. The grabbed land has been used for three important practices: private farming by the petty bourgeoisie, religious practices and stationing of security forces. (Roul, 2016) According to official reports, “there are over 1.06 lakh cases of encroachments on tribal lands in the state pending before the government awaiting settlement”. (Guru, 2011: 115) In Odisha, the tribal lands continue to pass into the hands of non-tribals. ‘There are substantial cases of land transfers from tribals to non-tribals in Koraput district.’ (Patnaik, 1972: 13; quoted in Ambagudia, 2010: 62) “Data sheet on tribals reveals that a total of 8,41,916.50 acres of tribal land was alienated in Orissa by the end of December 1999, with the highest in Koraput district (28,901.55 acres) followed by Kandhamal district (15,864.55 acres). The lowest alienation of tribal land was recorded in Balasore district (only 41.76 acres). (SCSTRTI 2001; quoted in Ambagudia, 2010:62) However, labour migration is widespread in Kandhamal district and they migrate to nearby cities of Kerala, Hyderabad, Madras, Surat and Mumbai mainly. Girls are also being trafficked in a big way lured as they are by false promises of providing jobs and recently some girls have been rescued from Mumbai.

Kandhamal has 71 per cent forest area. The Forest Rights Act 2006 had banned their entry and debarred them from access to their traditional livelihood. More than 24 thousand tribals are booked for violation of the Forest Act in the State. In fact, in 8000 cases the charge is theft of minor forest produce worth not exceeding Rupees one hundred only. On the other hand, forest officials have nexus with wood mafias and contractors. They are cutting down trees for the purpose of making sophisti-cated furniture to be sold in the towns and cities at high cost. But they blame and arrest innocent tribals by holding them responsible for the deforestation in Kandhamal.

Kandha tribals are the most unrepresentative community in jobs in the government sector. The vacancies in government schools under the ST category are filled up by several Dalit Panas and the higher caste people producing fake ST certificate. “There were 826 cases of fake caste certificates but no action has been taken as yet on any single case. Special investigation team has referred 510 cases to the state level committee. But again 160 cases, out of the total 510, have been shuttled back to the team for fresh investigation. Though FIRs have been lodged in 46 cases...” (Guru, 2011: 112) but action has not been taken by the administration. Moreover, the Dalit Pana community demanded ST status in 2007 and they also sought legal action for providing ST status to them. The ambiguous judgment of the Odisha High Court over this issue added more crises to the war over jobs.

The district has a longstanding dispute between the Kandha Adivasis and Dalit Chris-tians over several issues for decades. Owing to religious mobilisation the conflict has taken a communal shape. Consequently, the region has witnessed a series of sporadic violence which claimed more than a hundred lives since 2008. By and large, the district has three major problems: first, caste conflict; second, sectarian role of religious leaders; and finally, identity politics.

Kandha-Pana have a longstanding dialectical ethnic interaction among themselves for more than 200 years. Kui, the language of the Kandhas, has also become the dialect of the Panas. The Pana women have tattoo like the Kandha women over the face, hands and other parts of the body. The Panas have been observing the same rites and customs of the Kandhas on the occasion of birth, death and marriage. They also participate in the worship of Dharni Penu. Kandhas require the help of Panas during the marriage ceremony for three purposes: one, “the service of Pana middle-man (Sitenau) was always needed for negotiation of marriage” (Behera, 1996: 114), two, they make meat after killing the goat or hen for the guests in marriage, and three, will beat the drum during the marriage ceremony, podu yatra, kandula yatra, and meriah sacrifice.

After independence, “the panas, with the help of the state as well as church, have been cornering the maximum benefits of constitu-tional reservation due to their educational and economic advantage”. (Kanungo, 2008: 17) More-over, “the abolition of untouchability, reservation of jobs and electoral constituencies in post-colonial period made pans less and less dependent on the old order. New institutions helped this caste to attain a new-found mobility. As the kondhs, unlike pans, were tied to the privileges of the old order, they were not sufficiently motivated to make use of new avenues for mobility. In recent years, the pre-eminence of pans in the area is seen by the kondhs as a subversion of this old orders. This change is a major source of resentment as far as kondhs in Phulbani are concerned.” (Moha-patra and Bhattacharyya, 1996: 161) What is more, a section of Panas, benefiting from the education imparted by the Church, has joined politics and bureaucracy.

Since the 19th century, they have been fighting over many issues. “The Kandha-pana ethnic divide is not of recent origin. Historically, Kandhas, the original inhabitants of Kandhamal, due to their control over land, perceived them-selves as ‘raja’ (kings) and the migrant landless panas from the plains as their ‘prajas’ (subjects). This sense of superiority was extended to the social and cultural spheres as well. However, colonial intervention changed this scenario by introducing new land relations and depriving the Kandhas of their traditional rights over the forest land.” (Kanungo, 2008: 17) The The Panas “did not see their future in the old ‘kondh-dominated’ social hierarchy. For them, the future was outside this order and in the larger arena of politics.” (Mohapatra and Bhattacharyya, 1996: 161) Consequently, Panas could be able to possess control over the material and political benefits. “Clearly, the bone of contention in the dispute between the two communities was the share of local power and the question of status in the village hierarchy.” (Ibid.) The Kandhas used Panas as middle men. Sometimes they cheat Kandhas in day-to-day monetary transaction. They call Panas “liars”, “cheats” and “hypo-crites”.

Kandhamal has become a ‘religious war zone’ for religious organisations. They engage them-selves in philanthropic and welfare schemes to attract people towards them. There has been a consistent competition between religious groups in regard to evangelism, conversion and recon-version. The Sangh Parivar and missionaries have their own way of harsh and confrontationist approaches against each other on religious ground which is leading towards competitive communalism.

Broadly, the Sangh Parivar leads the campaign to save the Hindu religion which is as follows: (a) to counter the influence of missionaries; (b) to convert willing people to Hinduism; (c) to stop cow slaughter and trafficking; and (d) to stop conversion. Swami Laxmanananda had organised several religious programmes such as Pancha Mahayagya (1986), Yagya Rath Yatra (1986, 1987), Go Mata Rath (1990), Jagannath Rath (every year), Mata Dharani Penu Rath Yatra (1998), Satsang (every year), Jaga Yagya (every year), Bhagabata Mala (every month), Janama ashtamai (2008) Sapta Maha Yagya (2006), Kalasa Yatra (2000), Kandula Yatra (1988), Nadia Kirtana (1996) and ashtaprahara nama-yagya (2007). (Roul, 2014)

Hate speech and hatred propaganda have become a religious policy which sometimes generates tensions. Similarly, insulting gods and goddesses and making local public figures hero for communal canvassing are part of communal strategies. Conversion and reconversion are two solid weapons for them in creating space for competitive religiosity and conflict. Religious organisations are playing politics with the cultural identity. The Sangh Parivar is projecting the Jagannath cult and Odia nationalism as a common ground for stigmatising the Hindu people as well as Adivasis. The Hindutva activists convince the Adivasis that Hindu traditions and culture were very much connected with their history and culture. The RSS activists argue that Lord Jagannath was the link-pin between the Adivasis and Hindus as Nila-madhab, the god of Adivasis, was the first incarnation of Jagannath. ‘Dwaintapati’, the priests at the Jagannath temple of Puri, were Adivasis by origin. (Roul, 2014)

The Hindu communalist forces are also trying to communalise the Dalit identity and Dalit assertion in some ways in Kandhamal. They instrumentalise the theory of ‘pastness’ for canvassing their communal agenda. The strategy of using ‘pastness’ in Odisha starts from interpreting mythological books such as ‘Odia Mahabharata’ of Sarala Das and ‘Laxmi Purana’ of Balaram Das. In fact, both the writers were sudras by caste.

There are two major causes which put tribal identity at risk in Odisha: development trajec-tory, and competitive communalism. Conse-quently, Adivasi lands have been encroached; religious places and cultural fabrics have been disturbed. On the other hand, competitive conversion in Mayurbhanj, Kandhamal and other parts of Odisha also exemplify the politics of identity. The evangelism of Christian missionaries and the ‘paravartan’ (reconversion) by the Sangh Parivar are posing a grave challenge to the traditional cultural identity and practices of the Adivasis.

Kandhamal has two major ethno-cultural organisations: Kui Samaj of Adivasis and Pana Samaj of Dalits. Kui Samaj, under the leadership of Lambodar Kanhar, has aroused a feeling of new ethnic solidarity among the Kondhs. The Kui Samaj considers Dalit Panas as their dead enemy and always carry out vociferous violence against them. The Kui Samaj took active part in the 2007 and 2008 violence against the Dalits. Similarly, the Pana Samaj (association of Chris-tian Dalits) is also quite active in articulating their demands for reservation and ST category status. They also retaliate with violence through the Dalit Christian mobilisation.

Emergence of Maoists

The emergence of the Maoist movement began in the 1990s in the Kandhamal district. Sabya-sachi Panda, a Maoist leader from Nayagarh, founded the Kui Lewang Sangh (KLS) in 1990 for reclaiming land from Sahukars and petty bourgeoisie. The movement was also supported by Chasi Mulia Samiti (CMS). Both the organi-sations were banned in 2006. As a result, Chasi Mulia Adivasis Sangh (CMAS) was formed in the same year. The CMAS was supported by the Maoists and the movement was intensified for reclaiming land and thousand acres of land were acquired in Malkangiri, Raygada and Koraput. The movement had a great impact in Kandhamal. But the movement was interrupted in a big way by the higher caste and religious people. In fact, they were the biggest land encroachers in Kandhamal. They tactfully transformed the movement into a caste conflict and religious conflict between Kandha Adivasis and Dalit Panas and protected themselves.

In the 1960s, the Maoist movement began in Odisha to extend support to the Naxalbari rebels. It spread with the formation of the Odisha State Coordination Committee (OSCC) under the leadership of Nagabhushan Patnaik, a Communist. A major development took place in 1980. The People’s War Group (PWG) of Andhra Pradesh entered into the border districts of Odisha and Sabyasachi Panda became its leader. The Maoist movement became famous in Southern Odisha because of continuous protest against Bethi (slavery), Goti (bonded labour), protest against the exploitation of forest officials, police and local landlords and the food liberation movement in Koraput. (Behera, 2016)

The Chitrakonda Police Station attack in 1968 was the first Maoist violence in Odisha by the Odisha State Coordination Committee (OSCC) led by Nagabhushan Patnaik. Maoist forces were present in Kandhamal since the 1990s under the leadership of the OSCC leader, Sabyasachi Panda, and Azad. But they didn’t organise any violence till 2007. It became active in Brahmunigaon after the December 2007 Kandhamal violence between the Adivasis and Dalits. Some of the parts such as Brahmunigaon, Katogarh, Daringibari and Raikia are known as the “Lal Corridor” of Kandhamal. In 2008, Maoists were involved in killing VHP leader Laxmanananada Saraswati that was followed by a series of month-long violence and more than eightyfive people were killed and thousands were displaced. Dhanu Pradhan, a close aide of Laxmananda Saraswati, was murdered before the murder of Saraswati. On November 24, 2010, Manoj Sahu, a contractor was shot down by the Maoists. On November 27, 2010 they planted a landmine and killed six people in Brahmunigaon. The Odisha State Organising Committee (OSOC) of the CPI-Maoist led by Sabyasachi Panda took two Italian tourists hostage from the Kandhamal-Ganjam forest area on March 14, 2012.

The killing of Saraswati and abduction of the Italian tourists led to a wide rift between Maoist groups and resulted in a division in the Odisha Maoists. One group was headed by Sabyasachi Panda and the second one was led by Daya, Secretary of the Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zone Committee (AOBSZC). Sabyasachi was expelled from the CPI (Maoist) party and formed the Odisha Maobadi Party (OMP) in 2012. The OMP was rechristened as the CPI-Marxist- Leninist-Maoist (MLM) in May 2014 before Sabyasachi was arrested in July 2014. (Ibid.)

The VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed by the Odisha State Committee (OSC) Maoist Group headed by Sabyasachi Panda on August 23, 2008. The killing had two arguments: first, Maoists inter-vention in religious affairs, and second, the Maoist-Christian link. “Panda claimed the Maoists killed the VHP leader as he was involved in converting the tribals to Hinduism.” The logic behind the killing of the VHP leader may be the vociferous campaign and tribal mobili-sation towards the Hindutva groups but it affected the recruitment process of the Maoist outfits. Gradually, the religious mobilisation discouraged the tribal youth from joining the Maoist groups. However, the tribal youth were the real strength of Maoists in forest areas. The second argument is well advanced by the Sangh Parivar. It asserts that Maoists were hired by the local Christian leaders to get rid of the VHP leader as he posed a religious threat to their strategy of conversion and evangelism. (Roul, 2014)

The State Repression 

Maoists garnerd the support of Adivasis and Dalits in Kandhamal. Many young persons from the same communities have joined the red cadres. The Odisha State has adopted the Battalion approach instead of developmental initiatives. Its mechanism is hell-bent on finishing the Maoists by creating a war-like situation in the tribal corridors. The tribal areas have been stationed continuously by high-level task forces. It has become a battleground for the state against the dissenting people. The govern-ment launched a special attack by the ‘Grey-hound force’ (specialised and trained military personnel). So far the government inducted many task forces via different operations such as Operation Green Hunt, Combing Operation, Kobra Commandoes, Greyhound Force, Special Police Officers (SPOs), Special Operation Group (SOG), and District Voluntary Force (DVF) etc. “There are currently seven battalions of the Central Government, the CRPF and five battalions of the Border Security Force deployed across Odisha, accounting for about 12,000 paramilitary troopers. There are also about 700 prisoners currently facing trial in Maoist-related cases, indicating that the State Government in Odisha is faced with tough decisions.” According to a recent report, there are 4480 SPOs working in Odisha. Finally, the state has even gone to the extreme measure by recruitment of adivasis as SPOs in a policy to divide the locals and arm one against the other without accountability. (Roul, 2011)

Civilian casualties during military operations become a serious human rights issue in these regions. In 2010, twentyfive people had been encountered by military commandos in Odisha. On July, 26, 2015, a tribal couple, Duba Nayak and his wife Budi, was butchered by military personnel when the couple was talking over phone to their son who was a migrant labourer working in Kerala. In November 2015, three Adivasis of Kalahandi, who were herding goats, had been shot dead by SOG Jawans. On February 27, 2016, a Dongaria Kandh, named Munda Kadraka, of Raygada district was killed by the forces. (The Orissa Post, July 10, 2016) Neither the Human Rights Commission nor the State administration is concerned or serious about the butchering of civilians by commandos. Maoists are treated as “terrorists”.

The state forgets that it is the poor tribals and Dalits who are the supporters of this move-ment. Maoists are common citizens but they are red rebels against marginalisation and exploi-tation. The Indian state adopts three major strategies to tackle the Maoist problem in India. These are: military strategy, development initiative and surrender and rehabilitation policy. Never-theless, the Odisha State is more active in military strategy. The aggressive attitude and battalion approach of the Odisha state have enhanced the Maoist activism in the tribal areas. Consequently, nineteen districts out of thirty are now under the control of the Maoist group. Biju Patnaik, the then Chief Minister of Odisha, humbly admitted while speaking in the State Legislative Assembly in 1995 that the “Naxalite movement is a spontaneous people’s resentment against the administration”. While supporting the cause of the Maoist movement, he said that his name be put first in the list of ‘Naxalites’. Although his statement created a political controversy, he indeed spoke the truth from his heart.


The Kandhamal district has been afflicted with poverty, unemployment, and inequalities. A tiny section grabbed all opportunities and resources to lead their modern life full of comfort while creating oppressive human conditions for the mass of Adivasis and Dalits in the district. Shrinking resources (job, zamin, jungle) create severe problem of deprivation and destitution among the indigenous Kandha communities. It also creates severe structural issues of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and malnutrition. The economic inequality and social deprivation promote the vulnerable people to suspect the other privileged classes for their exploitations and sufferings. These induce the common Adivasis and Dalits to join the Left-wing radical groups. They repose their faith over the Maoist outfits for dispensing justice.

The Odisha State must give up its repressive battalion approach to deal with the Maoist problem. It should frame a policy for more inclusive development in the backward regions. The local people should be encouraged to participate in the development process and they should also be consulted in making the development strategy, particularly in the back-ward regions. The state should not impose a top-down state-centric development model over the underdeveloped people. The policy of garrison governance in the Maoist affected areas must be transformed into good governance and there should not be any trust deficit between the people and administration. Despatching more military battalions might not resolve the problems; rather it may enhance and accentuate the problems. It is well known that violence breeds more violence. Inserting bullets in the chest of civilians would provoke the people against the government. No doubt, a responsive administration and bottom-up development model would wipe out the militancy and bloodbath in the Maoist dominated areas.


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Dr Kamalakanta Roul teaches Political Science at the University of Delhi. He did his Ph.D on the Kandhamal violence. He can be contacted at kaamalakantaroul[at]gmail.com