Death threats buffet India prosecutions of Orissa strife

NEW DELHI — Nearly 11 months after an unprecedented wave of anti-Christian attacks shook the eastern-India state of Orissa, a reign of terror continues in the region, with former rioters issuing death threats to witnesses.

Of more than 750 cases filed in various police stations in Orissa's Kandhamal and Gajapati districts, only one has resulted in a conviction. Some trials are underway amid reports of armed extremists threatening to kill witnesses.

Dibya Paricha, a clergyman in the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese, said several witnesses are shrinking away to save their lives. On July 9, a witness in the village of Salapsahi refused to testify in a murder case.

"During the trial, the complainant, the younger brother of the victim, said he did not know anything about the case," Paricha, coordinator of the Christian Legal Association's (CLA) legal cell in Kandhamal, told Compass Direct News. "The previous day, he had said that he would tell the truth so that the culprits would be punished.... From a reliable source, we came to know that he was threatened with death."

On June 30, three men carrying pistols — Sanjeeb Pradhan, Bikram Pradhan and Pratap Pradhan — threatened witnesses in the Gondaguda area of Kandhamal, Paricha said.

The three men have been issuing death threats to witnesses through area villages, he said.

"I know them [the three gunmen] personally," Paricha said. "They were living hand-to-mouth until recently, and now they are riding a motor vehicle and threatening the survivors."

Information on the threats has been provided to the sub-collector (an administrative officer in charge of a sub-district), the sub-divisional police officer and the district collector (administrative head), Paricha said, and a First Information Report has been registered at the local police station.

Another witness and complainant in an Orissa riot-related case, 55-year-old Batia Digal, was threatened June 17, Paricha said. Gobida Chandra Pradhan from the village of Piserama and Shricharnan Mohan Pradhan from the village of Dodaingia tried to pressure Digal to withdraw the case, in which a local legislator from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Manoj Pradhan, is one of the accused.

The local police station is investigating the case.

On July 4, Christians saw a ray of hope when a fast-track court in Phulbani in the Kandhamal district convicted a tribal leader of arson — the first conviction in a 2008 violence case. The court sentenced 58-year-old Chakradhar Mallick to two years in prison and a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$20). Mallick had burned the house of a Christian, Loknath Digal, and threatened to kill him in August 2008.

But the granting of bail to one of the prime suspects in numerous anti-Christian riot cases — local BJP legislator Pradhan of the G. Udayagiri assembly constituency — on July 6 dampened the spirits of Christians. Bail was granted for 15 days so that Pradhan could take his oath as a member of the new assembly, the Indo-Asian News Service reported. Pradhan was arrested in October 2008 on various charges, including murder, rioting and arson.

More than 100 people were killed in the spate of violence that erupted in Orissa's Kandhamal district in August-September 2008; 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions were incinerated. The violence began following the assassination of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, by a Maoist, or extreme Marxist, group. Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for the assassination.

Only 26 murder cases, however, have been registered under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. According to Christian Legal Association statistics, 13 cases were registered in the Raikia police station alone. Five complaints were filed in Tikabali, two each in G. Udayagiri, Sarangada and Balliguda and one each in Gocchapada and Phiringia.

At least nine cases were registered for attempted murder: four in Balliguda, two in G. Udayagiri and one each in Tumudibandha, Phulbani and Sarangada. Two rape cases were registered, one each in the Phulbani and Balliguda.

More than 550 cases have been filed for arson and looting: 323 in G. Udayagiri alone, 59 in Tikabali, 32 in Raikia, 31 in Gocchapada, 26 in Phulbani, 23 each in Phiringia and Balliguda, 18 in Daringbadi, 10 in Sarangada, four each in Tumudibandha and Kotagarh and three in Khajuripada.

Some 680 people were arrested in the numerous cases, but some have managed to get bail from courts, according to The Deccan Herald newspaper.

The Christian Legal Association and a nonprofit group, the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), are providing free legal services to the victims and their relatives in Kandhamal. In neighboring Gajapati district, which also faced numerous anti-Christian attacks in August-September 2008 as fallout from Saraswati's murder, the All India Christian Council (AICC), in partnership with the HRLN, is providing free legal aid to victims of the violence.

"At least 337 families lost homes or businesses [in Gajapati district]," Sam Paul, AICC spokesman, told Compass. "[However,] most rehabilitation as well as public attention has focused on Kandhamal district."

Commenting on the need for legal help in Gajapati, Paul added, "On one single day [in June], the lawyers counseled and drafted petitions for 30 persons."

The AICC and HRLN also are helping the victims in Gajapati to receive compensation and recover lost identity cards and other documents.

Meanwhile, a judicial commission headed by Justice S.C. Mohapatra to probe the August-September 2008 violence submitted a 28-page interim report to Orissa's state government on July 1 without blaming any group or organization for the violence.

"Sources of the violence were deeply rooted in land disputes, conversion and re-conversion and fake certificate issues.... Suspicion among the scheduled tribe and scheduled caste inhabitants of Kandhamal is the main cause of riots, with the tribals suspecting that Pana Dalits were capturing their land through fraudulent means," Mohapatra wrote, according to The Hindu newspaper.

Those belonging to the Kui tribe in Kandhamal are mostly Hindu. Christians make up an estimated 16 percent of the 650,000 people in the district, with more than 60 percent of them belonging to the Pana community and classified as "Scheduled Castes," better known as Dalits (formerly "untouchables").

The Pana community has been demanding recognition as a tribal community, as Dalits lose their right to government's affirmative action after they convert to Christianity. The Kui people, however, oppose the demand, as it would increase the number of candidates eligible for government-reserved jobs. Some of the Kui believe that Pana Dalits make fake certificates to get the land that can belong only to tribal people.

"I know it will take at least two years to complete inquiry, but the interim report will help the government to make immediate intervention," Mohapatra added.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told private channel Zee News, "Justice Mohapatra had given remarks on other matters without touching the subject for which the commission was set up, to investigate culpability in the series of attacks on Christians." Cheenath said conversion was "not at all" a factor behind the Kandhamal violence.

The National Commission for Minorities in October 2008 had accused the then-ruling state government, a coalition of a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (NJD) and the BJP, of not controlling the violence. It said that despite knowing that public reaction to the murder of a prominent religious leader like Laxmanananda would be extreme, there was little evidence of action by political and administrative higher-ups in Bhubaneswar, The Indian Express daily reported in October 2008.

In March 2009, the BJD broke its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP, saying it did not want to partner with a "communal" party. The BJD fought and won the April-May state assembly election alone. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik held the BJP and groups linked with it, such as the Hindu extremist VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal, responsible for the violence, according to private news channel CNN-IBN.

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