Journalists ignore anti-Christian pogrom


NEW DELHI - Shock does not come alone. It comes in droves. What happened two years ago in Kandhamal was shocking. The depositions of the Kandhamal victims before the National People's Tribunal were even more shocking. What drove me to the venue of the Tribunal was Nobel-laureate Elie Wiesel's famous line: "There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest".

I was not at all prepared for the shock the so-called "national" newspapers inflicted on me on August 23, the day after the Tribunal started functioning. I searched for a report on the Tribunal and I did not find even a word in most of them. And they included newspapers that claim to practice "Journalism of courage" and "Dharmosmat Kula Daivathom".

And that set me, a practitioner of the profession for the last 37 years, thinking. Was the event not newsworthy? Sixty victims had travelled all the way from Kandhamal to New Delhi. Each one of them had a story to narrate that would shock the conscience of the nation, if there was one.

The Tribunal was not official in the sense it was not organised by the government. However, the jury members were persons with unimpeachable integrity. It was headed by Justice A.P. Shah, a former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court. There were others like Harsh Mander, an IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre who quit the service in protest against the government's collusion in the Gujarat riots, Syeda Hameed, a member of the Planning Commission, and film producer Mahesh Bhatt.

The National Solidarity Forum, an umbrella body of several civil society groups, that organised the Tribunal had put together an exhibition of photographs and "remnants" of the pogrom which itself was worthy of a detailed coverage. And it was inaugurated by no less a person than film lyricist Javed Akhter, MP. The exhibition also depicted some drawings by impressionable children drawing upon their experience of persecution.

One excuse journalists often give about not reporting an event is that it took place far away.

That could not be said about the Constitution Club, the venue of the Tribunal, which is in the heart of New Delhi, directly across from the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) building which houses the offices of most newspaper organisations.

The organisers had sent Press notes also about the event. I can only conclude that the agony of the poor does not count in New Delhi where everybody is busy making money. To be fair, let me also add, that two days later when the Tribunal gave its verdict, many newspapers gave a reasonably good coverage to it.

It was the first time that I witnessed a People's Tribunal. I was, therefore, a little curious when I reached the venue. The Tribunal functions like a judicial court. An introduction is first made about the victim and then he or she is allowed to narrate the incident that happened. Afterwards, the jury members can ask any questions related to the deposition.

T.K. John, one of the leading theologians of the country, whom I bumped into at the Constitution Club, had a suggestion to make -- the witnesses should also be cross-examined by a lawyer to make it procedurally comparable to the judicial process. Since there were over a dozen jury members, each a specialist in his/her field, they were also expected to play the role of a cross-examiner.

As the Tribunal started functioning, I saw a couple of elegantly-dressed ladies with peculiar tattoos on their faces quietly and -- I must add -- professionally video-graphing the whole function. A little probe revealed that they were victims of the orgy of violence let loose by the Sangh Parivar in Kandhamal two years ago.

I could see on their faces the kind of spirit that guided "protomartyr" Stephen in 35 AD. Every time I looked at the manner in which they were carrying out their job, the poem "We shall overcome" that inspired millions in the US civil rights movement came to my mind.

There was pin-drop silence in the cross-shaped hall, which was jampacked, every time a victim deposed. Even my own eyes got moistened, when one of the first deponents narrated how her husband was cut into three pieces right in front of her. In police records, the unfortunate man is "traceless" and, therefore, there are no "murderers" to be taken to task.

One common refrain of the victims was the non-cooperative attitude of the police and the administration. Most of them had a harrowing time to register FIRs (First Information Reports). And even when FIRs are registered, appropriate charges are not made against the accused, with a view to protecting them. How truly it is said, "Of all injustice, that is the greatest which goes under the name of law; and of all sorts of tyranny the forcing of the letter of the law against the equity, is the most insupportable".

Every now and then, newspapers carry reports of the special fast-track court hearing the Kandhamal cases punishing somebody or the other. What is overlooked is the fact that while minor punishments in minor cases are awarded, those guilty of heinous crimes like murder, rape, arson and loot get away scot-free.

How does this happen? John Dayal, who conducted the programme and who has been visiting Kandhamal regularly, explained to the Jury that justice could not be expected from the court. No, he was not questioning the impartiality of the judge or the judicial procedure as such. His reference was to the practical problems the witnesses faced in giving true evidence.

The building where the court functions is swarmed by the supporters of the Sangh Parivar. They are not just onlookers. They reach there with a purpose. And that is to intimidate the witnesses with threats that they would be finished if they depose against the perpetrators of violence.

Many of them know that it is not just an empty threat. The Sangh Parivar cadres have proved that they are capable of going to any extent to wreak vengeance. Vengeance for what? Ask any Sangh Parivar activist why Kandhamal occurred. He will immediately point out the murder of Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Swami Lakshmananda that preceded the pogrom.

Nobody in his senses ever supported the murder, not just because the "Christian God" had commanded against it on the stone tablets. In this case, the murder was committed by the Maoists, who had their own perverted reason to get even with the swami. But the Sangh Parivar portrayed the murder as the handiwork of the Christians with a clear purpose -- to hound them out of Kandhamal.

Not for one moment did they think that though Mahatma Gandhi was killed by Nathuram Godse, who had his political baptism in the ideology of the RSS, not one Hindu was touched in retaliation. But the poor Christians of Kandhamal were targeted for someone else's crime. And they were not even Christians!

"Even inside the court, the influence of the Sangh Parivar is overpowering", said Dayal. Small wonder that even those accused of murder are loitering in the area, either on bail or in the belief that nothing would happen to them. "To control the situation, there are just two hapless police constables, who themselves deserve sympathy".

It is often mentioned, mostly by the Sangh Parivar activists, that conversion is the root cause of all the troubles in Kandhamal.

Who else could have answered this question more effectively than Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath, who is now better known across the globe as 'Archbishop Cheenath of Kandhamal'.

I understood why John Dayal calls him "the hero of the faith for Christians", when I heard the Archbishop depose before the Tribunal. One of the jury members asked him a bit bluntly whether it was true that conversion played a role in the pogrom. "I have a personal staff member, who was not born Christian. But he is a firm believer who goes to the church regularly to pray. Now, tell me can I tell him not to go to church?

"Conversion is a bogey they use all the time to denigrate Christians. Orissa is one of the first states to introduce a law to ban conversions. It is called the Freedom of Religion Act. Even after decades, not a single Christian has been convicted for converting any one to Christianity by using force or other fraudulent means.

"Come to think of it, a poor person can select a school for his children, a particular dress for himself. He can also vote for a party he likes and marry a person of his choice but he has no freedom to choose a God or a religion. For that, he has to seek the permission of the district magistrate. What kind of democracy is this?"

The Archbishop does not mince his words. The Scheduled Castes have for generations provided cheap labour to the upper castes. With the arrival of the church in the area, they got access to quality education. "Today there are IAS and IPS officers hailing from Kandhamal. Among them are Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes".

An educated person is a person who is aware of the privileges of enlightened citizenship. He knows the value of labour. He knows about minimum wages and other laws. In other words, he cannot be bluffed. Nor can he be kept in servitude. This is what the upper castes cannot tolerate. They have no problem with Christian institutions so long as they serve the upper classes as in the case of some "Christian-run" institutions in Delhi.

"Conversion is just a ruse", said the Archbishop. Conversion of a different kind happens in Kandhamal. This is in wanton violation of the very Freedom of Religion Act, enacted to prevent it. Many of the Christians who were forced to abandon their houses in the wake of the pogrom were able to return to their villages only when they underwent "conversion to Hinduism".

Conversion means having to drink cow's urine. Some of the Christians succumbed to pressures, while most of them resisted it and are, therefore, unable to return to their ancestral villages. They are the ones who remain in relief camps where even menstruating women have no privacy. But they have not abandoned their faith.

As in every such situation, children and women are the worst sufferers. Not all the victims are Christians. There are victims from the Hindu community too.

Listen to what Jyoti says: "I saw bad people burning down my house in 2007. I also saw them attacking my grandmother and father. We are Hindus and my father is a journalist and works as correspondent of two local newspapers. My father had questioned the people when they attacked the church and destroyed it and written about it. So they burnt our house. My father knows these people. When I grow up, I will become a collector and put all of them in jail".

While my best wishes are with Jyoti, the Collector, who "oversaw" the anti-Christian violence and who allowed the body of the slain Swami to be carried around to incite people, is still in place waiting, perhaps, for Jyoti to complete her studies and clear the Civil Services exam to become an IAS officer!

The findings of the Jury are an indictment of the state and Central governments which have failed in protecting the Constitutional rights the people of India, including those of Kandhamal, enjoy. To that extent, Kandhamal is a blot on India. It can be removed only if the poor people who were driven out of their villages are able to return to their hearths and homes, rebuild their lives and practice their faith without any trace of fear. [See the Asian Center for Human Rights report on Kandhamal massacre.]

Asia, JusticeAJ Philip