Orissa riots: A Trail of Destruction and Agony

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath, SVD

BHUBANESWAR, Orissa – Jan 5, 2008: The feast of Christmas, an event of joy and peace turned out to be a tragedy for the people of Kandhamal district in Orissa. Rioters have torched hundreds of churches, institutions and houses. Thousands of people are still stranded in the forests and on streets. Here is a first-hand account of the violence and aftermath that has left minorities especially Christians in fear and anxiety, submitted by Archbishop of Cuttack Raphael Cheenath, SVD.

The background of the incident:

The trouble began on 24th December in Bamunigam village, which is close to the police station under Daringibadi Block of Kandhamal District. Around 8 am, a mob of fundamentalists forcefully removed Christmas decorations put up by Ambedkar Baniko Sangho comprising local Christian entrepreneurs as a preparation for Christmas, with due permission from the administration. This was followed by exchange of words between two groups, as the fundamentalists insisted that the people stop Christmas celebrations. Within a few minutes a group of people who were stationed close-by pounced on the members of Ambedkar Baniko Sangho with sticks, swords, guns and other lethal weapons. During midnight Mass on 24th December, miscreants hurled explosives on Archbishop’s house in Bhubaneswar which though exploded, no damage was done.

Ambulance burnt at Balliguda

Destruction at Balliguda Carmel Covnent

Mother Mary’s statue at Carmel Convent

Devastating scene of a burnt house

The people dispersed out of fear sensing the trouble when they saw this armed gang coming to attack them. The miscreants started shooting people and two were critically injured. They also ransacked about fifteen shops belonging to the Christians after looting the shops and houses, and about seven members of Ambedkar Baniko Sangho were thrashed by the mob. On the second day on Christmas, 25th December, the crowd came back and destroyed the churches in Bamunigam area before entering the Christian villages and burnt their houses and properties. They also shouted slogans against the Christians and asked them to leave the place. Church and Christians were under mortal threat, but unfortunately there was no police security.

Attack on Bamunigam and Balliguda Parishes:

On 24th December at around 2.00 p.m. much larger crowd (comprising of 400 to 500 people) marched into Balliguda town parish by damaging and ransacking the church buildings. By 10.00 p.m. they attacked and burnt the church, presbytery, convent, computer room, dispensary, and 2 student hostels. The same armed mob then moved into the town and completely burnt down the church belonging to the Baptist Christians. They also attacked another church belonging to the Pentecostal Christians.

On the 25th December they were moving around menacingly threatening the priests and Christians so that they were not even able to file FIR (First Information Report) with the police. The situation continued to be desperate and there was great fear and anxiety among Christians.

A convent in Phulbani was attacked on the same day and the mob ransacked the convent by breaking the doors, and window glasses. They also damaged a new school bus. Immediately the priests and nuns in Pobingia parish were advised to move out to a safer place on 25th December. At 12.00 noon a group of Bajrangdal activists attacked the church of Pobingia parish and destroyed the church and priest’s residence in the afternoon.

All this happened with impunity — in the presence of police. More than half of 24 parishes in Kandhamal District could not celebrate Christmas mass due to the fear of attack. Two constables asked the priests of Phulbani parish to have no celebration lest there will be more troubles.

Shops belonging to Christians

Homeless women

St. Paul Church- Balliguda
Institutions So Far Attacked and Destroyed:
Parish Church – (5)
Village Churches – (48)
Convents (6)
Presbytery (3)
Hostels (6)
Other Institutions (3)
Minor Seminary (Balliguda)
Vocational Training Centre (Balliguda)
Sarshnanda, Leprosy Centre (Pobingia)

A good number of village churches have also been destroyed of which we do not have definite information. In Barakhama parish, 400 houses are gutted, five people were killed, property looted, one tractor, one jeep and two motor cycles were burnt. The formation house of Capuchin congregation was totally vandalized.
All these happened during the first three days of vandalism and arson. We are in receipt of information from various other churches and institutions that the attackers are still active and the destruction of property still continues. On the other hand the innocent Christians are apprehended and Christian officials are victimized in order to appease the fundamentalists.
Preplanned attack and destruction:

Orissa has a history of communal flare-ups every now and then. However, this time it was very intensive, violent and pre-planned from all points of view.
1. The speed with which attacks were carried out – This was not possible unless it was planned. Within half an hour, over two hundred people in Bamunigam parish premises and 400 to 500 people in Balliguda were attacked simultaneously, where maximum destruction took place.
2. They appeared on the scene of destruction with instruments capable of causing massive destruction in a short time. For instance, they carried acid with them in order to burn things. They had guns, iron-cutting swords (machine) to cut the grills of doors and windows.
3. The attackers had enough food stuff with them to prepare their meals in the area during attack. One must conclude that they had pre-planned this attack.
All these events show that without pre-planning such unprecedented destruction, it is not possible to cause maximum destruction within three days.

Sr. Sujata Kujur CSST who escaped the mob on 24 Dec, 2007

Destruction at Balliguda Carmel Covnent

Destruction at Balliguda Carmel Covnent
Nature of their operation:

I had told my priests and spiritual leaders that they should save themselves and not to worry about the property. So, I advised them to escape to anywhere they possibly can as soon as they hear about an impending attack. Because of this the institutions were kept ‘open’ to the rioters for total destruction.
• We could not rely on police force because they were very few or they were indifferent for the reasons I do not know.
• Destruction took place even in the presence of police force (20 of them) in Bamunigam who were mute spectators.

The fundamentalists broke open through the main door, smashed window glasses, twisted grills and gathered all that they could and piled up in the middle of the building. They poured kerosene/petrol/acid on the heap of things and made a bonfire. The end of the show! Then they moved to another place.

Who were the attackers?

In general the armed mob of fundamentalists belonged to what is called the ‘Sangh Parivar’, professing an extremist and intolerant Hindutva ideology of hate and violence. Nevertheless, the people who perpetrated the crimes were, as a rule, from other villages to avoid recognition. Hence, after committing the crimes, they disappeared from the scenes. So, often it is difficult to identify individuals involved in acts of arson and attempted murders.

How did the Government handle the problem?

In general the Government promised us all the support and protection. The ‘Kui Samaj’ had declared two day bandh on 25th and 26th of December in order to protest against giving scheduled caste status to SC Christians. Since 25th December is a celebration of Christmas, we expected some trouble. We approached the District Magistrate and Superintendent of police about the impending troubles and they promised us all their support. To make the long story short the following is our experience.

1. The district administration had not taken any precautionary measures to prevent any troubles; consequently they were not able to control or prevent the destruction.
2. When the troubles began on 24th December around 8. 00 a.m. I approached the Director General of Police (DGP) who promised us all support and protection. However, we are utterly disappointed because only after 26 hours after the first attack the force reached the places of attack in Bamunigam. Distance form Bhubaneswar to the area of trouble is 300 kilometers. From the District Head Quarters, Phulbani (Kandhamal) to the troubled area is over 85 kilometers.
3. Either the deployment of the Force was insufficient or the Force did not have the power to take necessary action on the spot.
4. The fundamentalists moved freely in trucks and other vehicles shouting slogans “Jai Shri Ram”, “Jai Bajrang Dal” etc. Destruction went on unabated.
5. So far no one has been apprehended even though most of the attacks took place in front of the police.
6. Most of the priests, pastors and religious nuns in Kandhamal District have taken shelter in the forest. In fact, the fundamentalists are in search of finding their hide-outs.
7. The Christians who are already attacked and those who are in great fear of being attacked fear with sufficient reasons that they are left to the mercy of the fundamentalists.

In general, I would say that the administration miserably failed to take necessary actions to prevent such unprecedented destruction of establishments to Christian community in Kandhamal District.

A delegation met the Hon’ble Chief Minister and made the following demands:

1. That a CBI inquiry may be ordered for proper and impartial investigation for justice.
2. Central Para Military Forces are deployed in adequate strength to all the affected and sensitive places to prevent any further recurrences as the local police have not been able to control the situation.
3. Impartial and proper assessment of the property damage caused to various Churches, Christian institutions and other establishments may be made and adequate compensation be provided as early as possible to restore confidence of the people in the administration.
4. Proper compensation is given to the deceased family and injured people.
5. The culprits responsible for creating communal disharmony and caused damages to people and properties should be severely dealt with and the Govt. officials be given exemplary punishments for their gross negligence, inaction, apathy amounting to connivance with the perpetrators.
6. A Fact Finding Committee consisting of various Church leaders and representatives proposed to visit various affected sites and personnel of the Kandhamal District and other affected places of the state to take stock of the situation and to console the victims and families. Therefore, we request to provide police protection to the team during their visit.

A Call For Solidarity And Support

Thousands of innocent victims who are left with no house, clothes and food have taken refuge in forests and in temporary relief camps after their houses were torched. Those who wish to extend their help in rebuilding their lives may contact:

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath, SVD
Archbishop’s House
Bhubaneswar -751007
Email: crcdc@satyam.net.in
Fr.Richard Vaz, SVD
Divine Word Missionaries
1835 Waukegan Road
P.O.Box 6099/Techny,
IL 60082-6099 USA
Email: richievaz@svdmissions.org

This Article is featured in Mangalorean.com

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