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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

A Forgotten Episode in Contemporary India

Sunday 24 December 2017, by D. Bandyopadhyay


Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice 2007-2015 by Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma;
Media House and United Christian Forum; 2017; pages 304.

Being a member of the majority community it is difficult for this author to assess the inner threat that the members of the minority groups and communities feel living among the vast mass of the majority community. We are really oblivious of their threat perception and their inner feelings. With such a blockage of mind, how could one appreciate what the minority groups feel and think? This becomes apparent to me whenever I travel though the Park Circus area of Kolkata though I consider myself a secular person bearing no adverse feelings against any minority group.

The normal majority thinking is that everything is hunky-dory. The minority groups are living happily along with the majority group. This mental attitude pervades the entire administration. The authors rightly refer to certain instances to explain this point. They write: “In the anti-Muslim violence in Muzaffar-nagar in 2013, the Uttar Pradesh Police refused to register FIRs regarding gang rape of seven women under the new provision of the IPC for rape during communal violence which constitutes aggravated form of rape until the lapse was brought to the attention of the Supreme Court. This indicates the institutional bias embedded in the police. Acquittal of accused persons in a murder and gang-rape cases before the Fast Track Court, Muzaffarnagar in 2015-16 was due to key witnesses turning hostile. This was ostensibly because of severe threat to witnesses and absence of protective measures for them. There is a dire need for an effective law on witness protection.” (p. 22) The authors correctly state with “the reluctance to acknow-ledge that shoddy police investigations betray an institutional bias against religious minorities, the nature of evidence placed before the court remains severely compromised. The State’s abdication of its constitutional obligation is complete when reparative justice is whittled to compensation and a few crumbs given to the victims.” (p. 23)

Some figures need to be quoted to indicate how severe was the damage to life and property of the Christian community living in the affected Kandhamal area. According to the government figures, during the violence from August to December 2003 in Kandhamal district, a total of 39 persons were killed and they included two police personnel and three rioters. (p. 26) But the human rights groups estimated that around 100 persons were killed, including disabled and elderly persons, children, men and women. More than 600 villages were ransacked, at least 5600 houses were looted and burnt, and not less than 54,000 persons were rendered homeless, 295 churches and other places of worship were destroyed, 13 schools, colleges, and philanthropic institutions including leprosy homes and TB hospitals along with other properties belonging to the Christian community were looted, burnt and/or damaged. About 30,000 persons were displaced and had to stay in relief camps. More horrendous was the fact that about 2000 persons were forced to renounce their Christian faith. I would not like to burden the reader with figures but some statistics have to be recorded to indicate the gravity and magnitude of the crime. According to a reliable non-official estimate, the small Christian community in the area suffered property and livelihood-related loss of Rs 2.28 crores and the affected families suffered on an average loss of property worth Rs 1.86 lakhs. (p. 27) Further, the attacks against Christians were part of a concerted campaign of the Right-wing Hindu organisations collectively called the Sangh Parivar. Their main aim is to promote and exploit communal clashes to increase their political power base.

State governments in India are quite prompt to establish Commissions of Inquiry soon after any incident of major riots and/or violence. It serves the purpose of smoothening the ruffled feathers. Such Commissions take their own time to complete the task. Since most of such Commissions are headed by either serving or retired judges of a High Court or of the Supreme Court, they follow the usual procedures of such organisations, which are time-consuming. Public memory being short, the public in general tend to forget the issue and get involved in their day-to-day pressing matters. That suits everybody except the victims.

Six months after the incidents, the State Government of Odisha set up the Panigrahi Commission dated July 14, 2008. The Commission did not submit any report till February 2015. In February 2015 the Commission sent a request to the State Government for extension of one more year to submit its report.

This is not the end of the story. Key witnesses were unable to tender evidence, because of fear of their life. John Dayal, a key applicant before the Panigrahi Commission, sent a petition by speed post from Delhi expressing his inability to appear before the Commission for fear of his life. He wrote in his petition to the Commission stating, inter alia, “the assilants are scot free and the few arrested may be out on bail.... I apprehend serious threat to my security and to my life and limb and to my freedom of movement.... I pray that my deposition be deferred to such further dates as and when the environment is conducive and my security is guaranteed.” (p. 45)

Threat of life prevents and, in fact, prevented many victim-survivors to come forward and tender evidence. Advocate Divya Singh Parichha, who regularly appeared before the Commission on behalf of the victims recorded, inter alia, that the Commission paid no heed to the difficulties faced by the victim-survivors. It was stated that very few victim-survivors filed affidavits due to the cumbersome and lengthy proceedings. The Commission has given no thought to how the poor victim-survivors would travel to Bhubaneswar to participate in the proceedings. They made no logistical arrangements for the victim-survivors whatsoever. This reflects a callous attitude of the Commission as well as the State Government which established the same.

The peculiar behaviour of different Commissions of Inquiry set up by State governments creates an impression that these are set up promptly by many State governments to divert the attention of the public from such gruesome incidents. The subject matters of any such Commission are not discussed in the media, either print or electronic. After a while, public memory being short, it would disappear from the public view. Authorities would live happily thereafter, till another such horrendous incident occurs and shakes the conscience of the nation. But that is a temporary matter. And the same procedure would follow till the matter goes out of public gaze.

I may be allowed to mention about the State Commission set up to enquire into the excesses of the Internal Emergency promulgated by the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi. How many persons today know about it? One of the main actors, against whom there were a large number of complaints of excesses, is now a valued member of a prestigious organisation in New Delhi which he visits regularly. Neither he nor anybody else cares anything about what happened during those dark days of contemporary India.

One of the sordid aspects of the whole episode was the blatant attempt to manufacture incorrect statements by the government officials. One can understand that those directly involved would try to escape the liability by such ignoble attempts. But why should others not involved in the matter do so? It appears that there is some truth about the allegation of “trade union of civil servants” which results in hiding the truth to help a “fellow trade unionist” when he is in trouble. This affliction creates problems for any independent authority to assess the correct event. It is not the lower level officials that suffer from it, even sometime the national level organisations have the same problem. This, to say the least, is deplorable. I would like to narrate an incident recorded in the book.

The National Human Rights Commission painted a hunky-dory picture of relief camps. A diametrically opposite picture was presented by the National People’s Tribunal on Kandhamal headed by Justice (Retd.) A.P. Shah. It spoke about unhealthy surroundings, overcrowding, lack of basic amenities, lack of medical facilities etc. in the relief camps.

This reviewer highly appreciates the conclu-sions in page 82 of the book. It is difficult to resist the temptation to quote a few lines. “The National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) are guided in their work by the Paris Principles. The Paris Principles emphasise the importance of independent functioning of such institutions. In the case of Kandhamal violence, the NHRC did not appear to have inquired and assessed the situation in an independent, non-partisan manner, contrary to the Paris Principles. The National Commission for Minorities, however, expressed its continued concern with the issue, by making three visits to Kandhamal in 2007-08. It made an independent assessment of the situation at the ground level and gave various recommendations with facts, aimed at restoring peace and ensuring accountability for the violence.” (p. 82)

This book is a valuable contribution to the state of current affairs of India. Behind our civlilised facade there lies hidden the primeval “hunter-gatherer man”. In case of communal violence that “hunter-gatherer man” comes out with all his ugliness. Those who are interested to know about the current situation in India should read this book. Those who hold a contrary view based on facts should also come out and contribute creating a lively debate, out of which the real truth may emerge.

The reviewer, a veteran civil servant, was a Member of the Rajya Sabha (2011-17). A former Secretary, Department of Land and Land Reforms, Government of West Bengal, he was the architect of ‘Operation Barga’ launched by the Left Front Government in the State. Subsequently he was in the forefront of public support to the land struggle by the peasantry of Singur and Nandigram.

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