In 2008, the Christians of Kandhamal District in Odisha state in India experienced the most severe outbreak of anti-Christian violence in the country’s history. The attacks claimed over 100 lives, forced 56,000 people to flee their homes and saw the destruction of 5,600 homes and 300 churches. Father Ajaya Kumar Singh, a survivor of the tragedy in Kandhamal, sought to equip himself with the ability to advocate for fellow survivors following the attacks, and has campaigned tirelessly for compensation and justice.
On the 10th anniversary since the outbreak of the attacks, Father Ajaya spoke to CSW about the current situation in Kandhamal, and about what can be done by both the government of India and the international community to help bring justice, and to ensure that an event like the one which took place in Kandhamal never happens again.
[Text has been edited for clarity]
Q: Reflecting back on the ten years since the violence in Kandhamal, how has the tragedy changed your life?
Father Ajaya: Before the tragedy in Kandhamal I was a professional development worker with a focus on the social and economy development of the region. It had not dawned on me that religious freedom was such a critical and important issue for the community. The anti-Christian violence helped me to revisit the whole concept of development of the community. It has helped me to re-evaluate the intersectionality of caste, religion, social-cultural and economic dimensions of the community. Increasingly, I realise now there could be no development of human communities without freedom of religion and belief (FoRB), which I consider to be the basis for a just and peaceful society. FoRB is quintessential of human rights and dignity. It is the ultimate litmus test of human progress and peace.
“FoRB is quintessential of human rights and dignity. It is the ultimate litmus test of human progress and peace.”
On a personal front, I have come to admire how the poorest of the poor are able to so willingly risk their lives for the sake of their faith or belief. Moreover, I feel like I escaped death as I had only just escaped when the fanatics in Kandhamal surrounded my building. Hence, I feel that God has given me life, which I use and give to the promotion of freedom of religion, belief, expression, thought and assembly in both my community and worldwide.
Q: To what extent have the community and survivors of the Kandhamal violence healed in recent years?
Father Ajaya: It has already been ten years, but hundreds of survivors are yet to return. There was a visit of a national fact-finding team of civil society groups to Kandhamal. The survivors were sharing their fear and insecurities as they are were not sure what would happen in the night. They cannot trust their neighbours, who do not share their faith and who were involved in harming them during the tragedy almost 10 years ago. On face value, it is seen that things have moved on; but when we delve deeper and when they feel comfortable, the survivors open up their hearts to say that they are not sure what could happen again, and if another attack might happen, when that will be.
“On face value, it is seen that things have moved on; but when we delve deeper and when they feel comfortable, the survivors open up their hearts to say that they are not sure what could happen again, and if another attack might happen, when that will be.”
These fears and insecurities exist due to the impunity of the culprits, who are either acquitted or are on bail. There have been hardly any convictions; presently not a single person has been put behind bars. The perpetrators do not have remorse as they were not convicted, and the political parties, and indeed the state, are with them. There is an eerie silence and an uncertain future. Moreover, it is a human made disaster; mutual trust and respect is key to it [being restored].
Q: 56,000 people were forced to flee as a result of the violence in Kandhamal in 2008. 10 years later, what is the situation of these displaced peoples? Are you able to report on their welfare?
Father Ajaya: Survivors are staying in neighbouring towns and villages as well as having migrated to the cities. Neither the state nor the court assessed and compensated for the damages of moveable and immoveable properties. They were only given meagre compensation for housing; that too many have been denied of. Some are yet to return. There are stories of some have been fallen into the hands of traffickers and brothels too. Life has been a struggle. Government is yet to compensate despite repeated demands. Our demands have been to:
- Enhance the compensation for the damages
- Include the deserved those who have been left out in the damaged and death lists; hence reassess the damaged houses, buildings, institutions and churches
- Include buildings and properties of NGOs damaged during the violence.
There is also fear and insecurity among the community members as they cannot move freely to go to the forest to collect forest produce, which has hampered their economical sustenance.
“Life has been a struggle. Government is yet to compensate despite repeated demands.”
Q: On the 2 August 2016, it was announced that the Supreme Court in India had ordered the Odisha State government to re-investigate 315 cases of communal violence in Kandhamal as the assailants of those instigating the violence against Christians were not prosecuted. Two years later, have there been any movements on these cases?
Father Ajaya: It is sad that the state government has not taken the Supreme Court’s decision seriously. The state has escaped responsibility as the apex court has not set any deadline for these re-opened cases. In fact, the inaction of the Indian state is in contempt of court. We have submitted Memorandum to the district administration as well as the National Commission for Minorities in New Delhi. There seems to be nothing moving; at least we are yet to know anything. We are yet to see our concerns addressed. These are:
- Facilitate Witness Protection to stop witnesses turning hostile due to fear, intimidation and allurement
- Constitute Panel of lawyers with integrity, efficiency and experience
- Constitute Task Force to monitor the cases in time bound manner
- Recruit police officers for free and fair investigation to reopen the cases
“The state has escaped responsibility as the apex court has not set any deadline for these re-opened cases. In fact, the inaction of the Indian state is in contempt of court.”
Q: What can the people and government of India do to further push for justice for victims of anti-Christian violence and discrimination in Kandhamal?
Father Ajaya: The Government of India cannot escape its responsibilities despite law and order being the subject and responsibility of state administrations. We see even in ordinary building fires, the government rushes to the aid of its citizens. Kandhamal was the largest attack on Christians in India in 300 years but the Government refuses to address it. We therefore have numerous demands:
- Implement the Supreme Court verdict of August 2nd, 2016, which seeks to grant adequate compensation for victims.
- Enhance up to 15 lakh for death compensation, in line with Muzzaffanagar violence cases. Enlist the dead who are not listed in the death list for both compensation and for criminal justice.
- Release seven innocent Christians given life sentences for their apparent role in the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda.
- Implement the Supreme Court order to reopen the 315 closed/acquitted cases of violence.
- Book for both state and non-state actors perpetrators involved in the communal violence; institute special inquiry into the district and police administration, who are in nexus with the communal forces.
- Announce special package for repair and reconstruction of houses as recommended in a study by former UN Special Rapporteur, Miloon Kothari [for whom] up to 5 lakh and compensate those who lost their businesses. Enlist those who are not missed out by acts of commissions and omissions for swift compensation packages.
- Immediately establish Odisha Minority Commission.
- Facilitate Minority schemes and scholarships in a time bound manner and hold to account those the officials responsible for any lapses and delays in implementations.
- Ensure minority community presence in important administrative machinery to ward off biased decision making and to promote harmony and participation in decision making processes.
- Scrap Odisha anti-conversion law and Presidential Order 1950, paragraph 3, to make religion neutral and de-link it from affirmative action.
- Constitute for citizens and the community to interface with the administration to effectively combat violent communal forces.
“It is immaterial whether one is a part of another country; it is the duty and responsibility of the international community to assist when there is violations of rights of citizens in any country; be it for religion, belief, ethnic or whatsoever reason.”
Q: What can the international community do to help bring justice, and stand in solidarity, with the victims of the Kandhamal violence?
Father Ajaya: India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Right (UDHR) as well as to several treaty bodies that recognise the need to protect the human rights and dignity of every citizen. It is immaterial whether one is a part of another country; it is the duty and responsibility of the international community to assist when there is violations of rights of citizens in any country; be it for religion, belief, ethnic or whatsoever reason. The international community should share best practices of human rights protection mechanisms, so that India is encouraged to uphold these too. By uniting under this banner, supporting freedoms for all, we can secure a future free from violence because of one’s religion, belief and ethnicity; and a world where we what we saw in Kandhamal never happens again.