Christian body may approach ECI to review Orissa’s polls

By Pervez Bari,,

Bhopal: The All India Christian Council, (AICC), is considering approaching the Election Commission of India in a legal memorandum, and the Election Commissioners individually, urging them to take a close look at the Kandhamal situation to see if free and fair elections are possible, and to take remedial action to make it possible for the people to exercise their democratic rights.

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“We are not sure at this early stage of seeking a deferment of the elections in the Kandhamal region of Orissa state in the wake of the anti-Christian violence of 2007-2008 is the possible solution”, Dr. John Dayal, Secretary General AICC, said in a statement .

Dr. Dayal said barring a miracle, there will be no Christian candidate chosen by any political party to contest the Parliamentary and State Legislative Assembly Elections in the troubled State of Orissa which goes to the polls mid-April 2009. This speaks amply about how the various parties– the ruling Biju Janata Dal, (BJD), its erstwhile coalition partner and otherwise minority-baiting Bharatiya Janata Party, (BJP), the new allies in the Left, and the old Opposition Congress Party — think of this hapless religious minority as someone to project and strengthen politically. Patently, Christians do not matter when it comes to elections in India.

“But even if they had chosen a Christian candidate or two as a concession to tokenism, it remains a moot question if he or she would have won, given the acute communal polarisation in the State in the wake of the anti-Christian violence of 2007-2008 that singed and scalded half of the State’s 30 districts”, he lamented.

Dr. Dayal observed that for the Christians in the Kandhamal district which was the epicenter of violence, in fact, the chances are quite dim that they will ever get a chance to exercise the Constitutional right of universal franchise. Three thousand of them are in government refugee camps, the rest are basically homeless, destitute, disenfranchised. Tens of thousands remain internally displaced persons, as a group of them had famously told the United Nations office in New Delhi last year.

Democratic norms are not really the strength of Orissa. The BJD-BJP alliance which had ruled the state eleven years – in religious bigotry at other times – broke up when the partners fell out on the sharing of seats. Patnaik, the butt of jokes and attacks through the crisis of the last two years, suddenly found new friends, even in the Left, and won a voice vote in the State Assembly after the BJP left him crying betrayal!

He said Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is yet to take action against the BJP and its friends of the “Hindutva Parivar” for killing, maiming and raping Christians, and for monumental arson amounting to a sort of genocide. Probably he never will, even if he returns to power in May 2009.

Dr. Dayal pointed out the words of Archbishop Raphael Cheenath which sum up the Kandhamal region’s situation. The Archbishop said: “Alliances and elections do not matter when life and security is under threat! My primary concern is the people of Kandhamal, not only the Christians but everyone there. Who is concerned about the affected people in Kandhamal? It is more than six months now and still the life and security of the people in Kandhamal is under threat. The state is trying to project peace by sending the people out from the camps. In some villages there is social boycott and the people are still living in fear. The Dalits and adivasi of Kandhamal feel that they have become victims of the narrow political interests of the political parties, whether BJD, BJP or Congress. The culprits have not been arrested and they continue to pose threat to peace. No reasonable compensation has reached the people. Every move of the political parties and opportunistic alliances are keenly being observed by the people and I am sure that they will teach an appropriate lesson to all of them.”

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath has culled out some of the major recommendations from reports which are as diverse as the Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Prof Angana Chatterji’s deposition in Washington before the United States government, and the National Commission for Minorities report to the Indian government, the former Revenue Secretary of the Government of India’s note to the State government, and a retired High Court judge whose report is yet to be published. The recommendations are basically in a random order, and remarkably, were mentioned in most, if not all, of the reports are as follows:

1.The attacks on Christians in 2008 were pre-planned. The guilty must be speedily identified; fast track courts set up to see that justice delivery is transparent and timely to make a difference;
2.The matters and circumstances that led to the Kandhamal violence of 2007 and 2008 in Orissa continue to pose a threat to the sanctity and security of human rights in the state, particularly of religious and ethnic minorities such as Christians and Muslims, disenfranchised Adivasi, Dalit, and caste groups, and other vulnerable groups such as women. Failure to take preventative and effective action continues to jeopardize the rule of law, the right to life and livelihood, freedom of religion, of speech, movement, assembly, inquiry, and the right to information in Orissa;
3.The atmosphere in Kandhamal District continues tense. Fresh violence is possible. Central Reserve police, of which three battalions still remain in Orissa, need to be retained to give confidence to the religious minoritie;.
4.Hindutva nationalist leaders, activists, and organizations in Orissa charged with involvement in criminal acts and involvement in actions that have led, or may lead, to communal violence must be investigated and prosecuted. The impunity being enjoyed by members of the RSS, VHP and others should be cracked by proceeding legally against them. The Government of Orissa and the Central Government must make concerted efforts to identify, investigate, and eradicate paramilitary hate camps being operated in Orissa by the Hindutva groups raining cadres in arms and militancy with the express purpose of threatening and destroying minority populations through social and economic boycotts, sporadic and organized intimidation, arson, rape, murder;
5.Police Force levels, strengthening of the Criminal Justice System and Rule of Law: Government must take these steps by mobilising man power in the area of criminal justice system at a level that is proportionate to the multiple crisis situations that the District is facing. Such a mobilisation will send the clearest signal yet so badly required to the entire area and beyond in regard to the Government’s earnestness in outlawing forces of disruption and re-establishing the Rule of Law;
6. Large numbers of Christians remain in the government refugee camps, and in other camps, because of the construing threat of forcible conversion to Hinduism; Though conditions in the camps are inhuman, and an affront to Human rights norms, the camps themselves must continue so long as complete conditions of peace, safety and security have not been restored in the affected villages. A basic requirement for the victims to return to their homes is assurance and self assurance that they may lead the kind of cultural and spiritual life they wish to live as guaranteed in the Constitution;
7.Guilty officers continue to enjoy impunity. Even the judicial commissions give signals of their bias. The government officials should be booked for the dereliction of their duty and the willful negligence in protecting the victims and stopping the violence. Police, judicial, and governmental reform, including diversity training, must be addressed by relevant state institutions, and action taken against officers of the law and political servants who abuse their position by using their power to influence and support Hindutva groups;
8.Orissa Minorities Commission must be established. Peace committees are bigoted, and have failed;
9.Women suffer the most, even in the government camps. In the tents, there was hardly space for anyone to move or stretch, what to speak of privacy for women to change. Those women live in the full view of the male inmates, including their own brothers on the one hand and strangers on the other. Their sanitary requirements at a personal level, including of women who have not attained menopause have not been factored in by those who designed or are running these camps;
10. Restoration of Tribal Identity and simultaneous justice to the long-time weaker sections residents of the area, the Dalits. Land rights in the Scheduled areas in letter and spirit, and in the rulings of the Supreme Court of India. The Government may examine in the Tribes Advisory Council if land can be made available to the riot-hit people. The Governor has certain powers in the Scheduled Areas as well;
11.The Collector must give importance of giving priority to programmes like the ICDS, Watershed Development, NREGS and Joint Forest Management as they are amenable to integrated approaches involving the entire community, thus providing a healing touch and togetherness;
12.Relief, Rehabilitation and Compensation package: Consumption finance is a very important part of the relief package in any programme of relief and rehabilitation. Its absence leads to the victims using the compensation intended for other purposes such as building destroyed and damaged houses for consumption needs and to stave off hunger;
13.Policy of zero tolerance to Discrimination: There are laws in this country that punish promotion of hatred and religious intolerance. It would serve the interests of the people of the State and act as a salve for the traumatised and therefore estranged sections of the society;
14.Probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI);
15. Extensive and proper damage assessment should be done by the government with the help of civil society organisations and full compensation ensured. The damaged and burned houses and institutions should be rebuilt by the government;
16. Police desks should be set up for registering minority grievances and filing FIRs, and the Government of Orissa must appoint a team of Special Public Prosecutors to conduct proceedings as necessary. Toward this, independent monitoring bodies must be supported and protected;
17. The Government of India and the Government of Orissa must take adequate and expeditious steps to ensure that those who convert voluntarily to Christianity, Islam, or any other faith are allowed to practice their religion;
18. The disparagement, demonization, and vilification of any religion should be statutorily prohibited and held punishable under the Indian Penal Code;
19. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, and the Orissa Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1960, must be reviewed and repealed and 20.On 29th November 1949, India became a signatory to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, approved by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 260 A (III) of 9 December 1948. On 27 August 1959, India ratified the Genocide Convention. However, India is yet to fulfill its obligatory commitment to enact legislation to implement the convention, which it must be compelled to undertake. ([email protected])