Justice Panigrahi Judicial panel to begin Orissa anti-Christian violence hearings on July 14

By Pervez Bari, TwoCircles.net,

Bhopal: Justice Basudev Panigrahi, retired Judge of the Orissa High Court, will begin hearings in Phulbani on Monday (14th July 2008) into the circumstances of the anti-Christian violence that devastated the Kandhamal district of eastern Indian Orissa during Christmas week 24-27 December 2007.

Support TwoCircles

Over 100 Churches and church institutions including convents and hostels for boys and girls, over 700 houses and other structures were burnt and pillaged by well trained mobs in a deeply planned and ruthlessly orchestrated wave of violence that engulfed towns and deep villages of the heavily forested plateau in the heart of the state.

Over five thousand Dalits and Tribals, more than 95 per cent of them Christians, were rendered homeless and forced to live in refugee camps. Hundreds are still living in a refugee camp in Barakhama township.

The one-man Justice Basudev Panigrahi Commission was announced by Orissa State Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in the wake of a national outcry against the communal attacks on the minority community. Over 450 affidavits had been filed before the Commission by the last date of 15th July 2008. At the request of the Church officials and victims, Justice Panigrahi agreed to hold the first sittings in Kandhamal to enable the village people to depose before the Commission.

According to a Press release issued by Dr. John Dayal, National Integration Council member, Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar diocese which covers Kandhamal, has been asked by Justice Panigrahi to depose on 15th July after the procedures of the Commission are finalized on 14th July.

The Archbishop has called upon the Orissa State Government to ensure the security of witnesses, particularly the poor Dalits and Tribals some of whom are still not living in their homes out of fear. There have been reports that witnesses who signed their affidavits are facing coercion. This has been conveyed to the State and district authorities by Church leaders, lawyers as well as human rights activists.

Meanwhile, two independent People’s Commissions have also probed the Kandhamal violence, the worst of it kind seen in India ever. Justice Hosbet Suresh and Justice Kolse Patil, both formerly of the Bombay High Court, Director general of Gujarat police RS Sreekumar and famed human rights activist Ms Teesta Setalvad constituted the Independent Tribunal on Kandhamal which toured the district for one week in May 2008, and unearthed serious cases of gender violence and erosion of civil liberties and human rights in various villages. The People’s Commission is expected to submit its report later this month.

A Citizens Commission set up by people’s human rights groups in Orissa is also currently in the midst of its hearings, after holding sittings in Kandhamal last week. The Commission, which is chaired by two former judges of the Orissa High Court, together with state intellectuals, is also expected to meet Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and civil and police authorities, Commission sources have disclosed.

Orissa had in 1999 witnessed the macabre burning to death of Graham Stuart Staines and his two young sons Philip and Timothy as well as a Catholic father Arul Doss. The then President of India, K. R. Narayanan, had described it as a `blot on the nation’s conscience.’ The mastermind- Dara Singh, is in prison serving a life term for the multiple murders.

The Christian community leaders in their several meetings with Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, President of India Mrs. Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this year had demanded that the State set up a judicial Commission headed by a sitting Judge of the Orissa High Court to go into the roots of the criminal conspiracy to eliminate Christians belonging to all castes, tribes and classes, from the Kandhamal district. They also demanded an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigations, (CBI), or a Special Investigating Group which would have the credibility and the know-how to fully unravel the conspiracy and the well-oiled hate machinery which carried out the violence in four days while the Kandhamal district was isolated from the rest of the state and the country, and did it under the eyes of an inept and bigoted District police apparatus.

The National Women’s Commission has also been moved to probe in depth the extent of gender violence. Even preliminary reports of interviews conducted by women Supreme Court lawyers have unearthed cases of rape, sexual molestation, sexual threats and sexual harassment in several villages of Kandhamal from 24th December 2007 till now. There are reports that girls and young women cannot go to school for fear of sexual violence on the forest roads in several villages. ([email protected])