Independent Tribunal hears on Kandhamal Violence

KANDHAMAL, Orissa – The four-member Independent Tribunal consisting of eminent jurists Justice Hospet Suresh, Justice Kolse Patil [both former High Court judges], Director General of Police [retired], Gujarat, Mr. R. B. Sreekumar and Ms Teesta Setalvad, the noted Human rights activist, returned from Kandhamal on the evening of 16th May 2008 after extensive Public hearings in the district between 13 and 15 May 2008.  Justice Suresh left for Mumbai early, but Justice Kolse presided over a press conference also addressed by Ms Teesta Setalvad and Mr. R B Sreekumar at Swosti Hotel in Bhubaneswar today. The Tribunal did not issue a written statement, but made oral preliminary remarks and said the Interim report will be prepared and questionnaires sent to the State and Central Government authorities for their comments and responses before the final report was made public.

The following are excerpts from the typescript of the Press conference:

Justice Kolse Patil: We have been going places through the country where there is human rights violations and prejudice. We were requested by Ms Teesta Setalvad and we have been to Kandhamal for the Independent Tribunal. We have practically visited most affected villages, tried to talk to victims personally, and we also invited them for giving evidence before the Tribunal.  We have recorded the evidence.

One thing we noted prominently is that aid has not reached the victims.  Churches, hostels, hospitals which are destroyed – they are as it is.  Now we know the area is facing monsoons. By June, within these fifteen days, if aid is not reached, the condition of these victims will be pathetic. Many of them have no houses yet.  Hundreds of families are either staying in a camp or with their relatives, wherever they got shelter.

This is a religious as well as an economic problem. A community rich in resources is being exploited. The culminative effect of this exploitation, we know, is that every six months or a year, riots take place.

The womenfolk who deposed before us said they were so independent before 1970. “We had our own traditions, our own sanskruti and we used to have tremendous independence.” We in the Tribunal found that this happiness of the people there is being jeopardized by the religious, political economic exploiters.  The area is being destroyed. The ultimate ulterior motive of the leaders, religious, economic or political, is clear. Many of the down trodden are doing business now and they are educated, and because of their education and upliftment, the class that was exploiting them earlier, is making life miserable for them.

The evidence is with us and we will analyse it. We have tried to invite all state machinery to give evidence. We also tried to contact them to give and other facilities to the people/ There are no government schools running in the area, and some schools run by other agencies seem to be for their own ulterior motives. The government instead of protecting the traditions and culture of the people has allowed other agencies such as the RSS and the Bajrang Dal to be active. The government machinery is not taking an interest in the progress of the area. The police have neither recorded the complaints of the people nor given them protection, and there this is the best example of why there is no law and order in the district.

But prima facie, it is important that the people get aid immediately so that by June their life is somewhat conformable and they are in a position to have shelter.

Ms Teesta Setalvad: We have just concluded our visit and this is a preliminary feedback for the media.

It is virtually five months after the break of the violence. The violence which we know was deliberately engineered around Christmas day 2007 had been festering for other reasons since about July or august 2007. The festering conflict since that period has been twisted and manipulated and engineered around Christmas eve, which is a very major event for the minority community.  And the violence unleashed. Even the government – we met relief official the sub collectors, have spoken to the superintendent of police. Even the government records show where the damage has taken place.

What is really of concern is that even five months after the violence, when we visited the remnants of the camp at Barakhama, the communication levels that ought to be there between the victims and the government officials were not there. While we were there, we actually encountered a young woman who suffered an abortion, needed to be taken to hospital because she was festering with a stomach infection which could have led to septicemia. Only after our intervention, she was privately taken to the Balliguda hospital for treatment. This small incident, but which could have affected her life, showed that there has not been required and requisite coordination between the victim groups and the government. Even five month after the outbreak of violence, in the heat of this month and the threat of monsoon by the next fifteen or twenty days, government officials admit that about 220 houses need to be built in Barakhama alone,  and now private agencies are being asked to chip in  to buy asbestos sheets for the roofs. We do not understand how government could not recognise the urgency of doing something about it.

Out first appeal to the government is that they should put aside technicalities and on a war footing ensure that every single house is built. It is not that which agency gives the money, but the issue should be that the people  who are dis-housed  and displaced by the violence it is the responsibility of the government under the Constitution to ensure that the houses are built.

Number two: We also believe that in a particular village which is quite inaccessible  — even we had to walk to it  because the road is very bad – called Borikia, there are 48 [forty-eight] families who are displaced from there and are now staying at G Udaygiri. This is an immediate problem.  We are therefore appealing to the authorities that under police protection, if required, they are allowed to go back to their village because they are still living in a leprosy camp and they are not able to go back.

I would not go to the nitty gritty of testimonies, but our visit was very illuminating. Out of my experience of travelling across the country – unfortunately dealing with communal situations –m what was very apparent and heartening in the Kandhamal area is the inherent communication and empathy that even the different affected groups have with each other. We believe there is a tremendous potential for peace-building in this area. There is a history of peace-building like in 1994 when women from different tribes and groups were given the leadership. The governments unfortunately not entrusting them with this peace-building. Unfortunately, many of the peace committees set up by the government have people on them who are themselves accused in the violence. So they fail to attract the faith of the affected population. Something heartening we found was that the local populations do not have animosity, apathy towards their fellow people. The local population does not have grudges, or any festering communalism.

There are some issues that led to the violence, but there is a tremendous potential to overcome it. So instead of making cynical exploitation of the potential for violence in this pre-election year – there is one more Christmas this year – the government should concentrate on genuine peace building and hand very this process to people who can handle this work. This is also our appeal.

Our preliminary view also is that in terms of what happened 24 to 27th December 2007, there were definite indicators of various kinds that such violence may break out. So there seems to have been a failure of the state to take preventive measures. The timing of a bandh on a date which is an important feast of the minorities – all this points to the fact that the government did not take as seriously as it should the events of 24th and 25th December. These mistakes we cannot afford to repeat. This is a very inaccessible region. If anything of this kind is allowed to fester, it will be even more problematic. We feel the government should learn the lessons, admit its failure and NOT allow them to happen once again As citizens of this country, poor victims of inaccessible areas should NOT become victims once more of something that can be avoided.

We also have reports of communal speeches being made, a certain communalization of populations. This will come out in the final report. But we believe that stringent action against communal elements is a step the government should be taking.

Mr. R B Sreekumar, IPS Retired: We have to think what we can do hereafter. We should build upon the present situation. Unlike in other places, particularly in Gujarat for instance, there is a lot of amity prevailing here between people.  There is a Standard laid out drill that the government of India regulations stipule – there are Three “R” to be followed. These are first Reconciliation, second Rehabilitation and the third is Resettlement. For this there should be schemes. One is the civilian one. And the other is the police side. No society can be held together on police terror and police suzerainty or police plan. Those were the easy of the British. action. That is why the British gave all powers to the policeman. A head constable apparently ahs power than the President of India – he can arrest a citizen under fifty-two different laws. That is the British system which we are continuing.

What is required the civilian action. Development problem and social problems will degenerate into communal clashes unless action is taken, or caste or class violence.  Institutions and NGOs fail, government departments fail. Civil departments in Kandhamal should come out with detailed scheme regarding social welfare, social mobility, economic issues, and even religious reconciliation. We are not lacking any code of conduct or systems. We have not implemented them. There are certain agent’s provocateurs, instigated by evil minded people probably deputed by some political parties, communalists, who have some grand design to break India, they are behind it. These people should be brought on record by the police. These are all laid down procedures and should be followed as listed in the Orissa Police Rules.  This is a specified laid down drill down to the police station. But apparently it is seldom or rarely implanted. It must be impended otherwise another conflagration will take place.

It seems there is some problem in arresting a top-most communalist who is engaged in rabid vituperative attack against a minority community, denigrating holy personalities such a Jesus Christ. If the police say it is not easy to arrest him, a beginning can be made by arresting his henchmen. Without these henchmen, these tools, he cannot operate.

There should be a special riots scheme to handle future situations in this area otherwise the police will collapse. There should be standard operating procedures in which dos and Don’ts for every rank of officer should be laid down.IPS officers should be trained.

There seems the skill is lacking. But also the will is lacking.  If the police are again caught unawares, unlike in Delhi, Ahmadabad or Chennai, here in far flung areas, you may have to drop policemen by helicopters and even then by the time the police come, the whole thing may be over. I think because of the amity, fraternity and harmony between people, there was no targeted attack on human beings. Had they attacked human beings, nothing would have been left. The riots died down of their own, without any government intervention. It is as if the government was following some system of `naturopathy’. This cannot do.

Response to some questions from the Media:

Teesta Setalvad: The tribunal invited leadership of all different sections of public and political parties to depose. The public came from all communities and religions, but the political leaders did not, either from the ruling alliance or from the opposition. We have this experience in other tribunals. The person [Swami laxmananda] you mention did not appear before us. But there is not a single section of people that did not depose before us.  Unfortunately the political class looks askance at Tribunals and the administration.

Justice Patil:  We named people because there was evidence on record – the slogans, and the names related by witnesses.

Ms Teesta Setalvad: we have on record testimonies of people who have studied in the ashram of Swami Lakshmanand Saraswati – how this ashram functions, what it does, what activities gonon there. Al this is now on record of the tribunal. We have concluded that certain types of speeches that have been made and telecast have made the communal pointing.

KANDThe government has been apathetic. Monsoons are approaching, Aid has not yet reached. It is the primary Constitutional responsibility of the government to ensure that people have a shelter over their heads and do not survive in subhuman conditions.  Even now people have not gone home, or not been able to return home. Surely there is a degree of insecurity. Miscreants who have been identified in every village – the whole village is not communal, but some elements are – create situations in which people cannot come back. At that stage the administration should step in, to ensure that the citizen should be able to return. This indicates complicity. State complicity is in not having adequate force to prevent violence despite warning, and not taking immediate and concrete steps since the violence broke out. Even today, police are not registering FIRs and punishing the guilty. These are the ingredients on which we say that there has been a high level of carelessness and apathy on the part of the government — When crimes are committed across time and across villages, who the villagers are naming as accused.

There were many ingredients that form the backdrop of the violence, but the violence took a distinctive communal color. It is unfortunate fact of our history as an independent country that communal violence and other violence between different section of society is used by the party in power , whichever the party it is, but for some party, hatred itself is the agenda.  Using violence for political ends has unfortunately become a part of democratic electoral practice in India.

Some parties have hatred as an agenda and some don’t.

It is obvious there were a lot of preparations for the violence. Violence can be used to polarize people in a pre election year. The fact that this happened in December 2007 and what we have seen of the political response — by the ruling party and the opposition – it seems there has been some complicity across parties. If adequate lessons are not learnt, there are fears that once violence has been used, it will be used again. Here or in neighboring districts or in neighboring states which will go to elections sooner or later.

It is the local people who can provide answers and solutions. They are working day and night. I was really humbled by the testimonies of the Kui women.

In Kandhamal, people filed FIRs, even sent it by registered post. But these were returned. This is against the law. Under section 154, FIRs have to be registered, as the law of the land insists. The attitude of the police and administration does not seem to be to record the FIRs and punish the guilty. This is unfortunate. There was ample evidence through government sources. The reasons why the government did not take adequate measures speaks for itself. It is the amity between the people that prevent more lives lost. Otherwise there was nothing that the government did which could have prevented this. Violence festered with no affective government intervention.

Our report will say all this in a considered manner. We will come before you once again.

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