The Temptations of Peace

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Just as the experiences of living through the riots of 2008 vary considerably from person to person, so do their expectations to the efforts for memory and justice.

This article appears in Tehelka Magazine on the 13th of September, 2014

Six years ago, Jagannath Pradhan, a self-identified Adivasi Hindu from the village of Budedipada in Tiangia Panchayat had stood before the mob saying that if they were going to destroy the homes of the Christians, they should start with his. At another part of his village, Dasarath Pradhan also stood up against the diktat of the mob, but would be murdered.

Six people were collectively killed in both parts of the village: Dasarath Pradhan, Tirinath Digal, Parikith Nayak, Dibyo Paricha, Bikram Nayak and Father Bernard. Standing next to Jagannath, Mohest Nayak remembers hiding in the forests as the mob of around 40-50 people had formed, and would kill his brother Bikram in the fields. Manoj Pradhan would later be convicted of the murder, then elected to the G.Udaygiri Legislative Assembly in prison on a BJP ticket. He would eventually be released on bail and would lose the next elections.

At Sulesaru village, Deomali Pradhan is the only member of his Christian family who returns home, for one purpose only, to go to the Sessions Court at Phulbani and fight for the justice of his family and neighbours. He only renovated a small part of his home, the rest still lays testament to the violence that tore his community apart. He recalls how Siddeshwar Pradhan, a man often associated as a member of the RSS was killed by the mob, again for the same reason, to protest against the senseless violence. Siddeshwar’s son, Niranjan Pradhan confirms his father’s involvement with the Sangh Parivar and that the accused, who led the mob into the village was a member of the RSS. All the accused were arrested but released by the High Court on bail.

Deomali Pradhan recalls how all 27 families left when the mob of 60-70 people had come to the village on the 25th night, two days after the killing of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and four of his supporters allegedly by the CPI Maoists, on the order of the recently arrested Sabyasachi Panda. Local and national Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders often exerted then that the murders were committed by the Christians and Christian missionaries and after press statements by the Maoists taking responsibility for the killings, they started to publicly announce that the Maoists were paid by the Christians to commit the killings.

The killings started almost immediately after the incident, as agitated mobs would take Lakshmananda’s body across villages, as the police and district administration merely looked on. The official death toll would rise to 38, while unofficial estimates the dead and missing to 93. There would be the widespread destruction of churches and homes, with an estimated 50,000 people displaced, to the jungles, to the relief camps, to other cities and villages.

Deomali Pradhan from Sulesaru recalls how his neighbour 65 year old Potishti Nayak, refused to leave along with her fleeing family and nieghbours, and would perish with the flames that engulfed her home. And his neighbour Akbar Diggal was murdered at Totoma Church, his house and his brother’s house still left as derelict ruins.

Six years later, Deomali Pradhan would attend the rally at Phulbani on the 27th of August 2014 for communal harmony and for justice. A rally of around 4000 people, led to a public meeting under a large ornate tent and in the shade across the wall and outside, organized by a non-religious front, the Kandhamal Nyaya Santi O Sadbhabana Samaj. It started at 10 in the morning, a large group of villagers stood quietly in two lines in front of a temple, waiting for the organizers to give the signal to march. The Indian Reserve Battallion would show up and position themselves around the protestors a few moments before the rally moved on quietly, apart from the sloganeering by a dissonant loudspeaker and a handful of people. The residents of Phulbani took a curious interest, looking out of their windows or coming to their porches to watch the marchers pass by. It took around ten minutes for all the protestors to enter the football stadium and settle down. The speakers were introduced in Odia by the organizers, starting with Subhashini Ali of CPM, whose line about the Niyamgiri villagers rejecting Vedanta and choosing their right to live on their own terms, drew the loudest applause from the mostly Kondh crowds. The next strongest response had come when CPI’s Annie Raja exhorted the police cordon at the rally, that if even ‘four or five of these uniforms’ were in the villages in 2008, then this rally would not have to take place today. Saumya Uma, a researcher and lawyer would release her report ‘Breaking the Shackles: The Unheard voices of the women of Kandhamal.’ The report details testimonies of women who lost family members, who were sexually assaulted, who faced conversions, threats, anxieties and who had to deal with the legal system amongst other things. She spoke in Hindi and was translated into Odia for the mostly Kondh and Panos crowd.

‘We wish the rally was also in Kui and had more Odia,’ Said Mohesh Nayak, who had also attended the rally. ‘What about justice though?’ He continues, ‘They (the attackers) only go to jail for three years and come out. It doesn’t matter going to the courts.’ He was referring to Manoj Pradhan, rioter and Ex-MLA, and now a man free in the open, who had murdered his brother.

Unlike Mohesh Nayak, Deomali was more positive.

‘But if we don’t speak up now, this will happen again,’ he would say. He diligently expressed how he agreed with the statement attacking the absent police, and the promise made by Medha Patkar that the memorandum for justice, for protection of religious freedom, sustainable development, compensation and stern action against implicated politicians and organizations, be delivered to Pranab Mukherjee.

Meanwhile, other affected communities never even made it to the rally.

For instance, the entire resettled village of Nonadigiri, about 50 families who were evicted from Beticola would say that it would’ve taken each person Rs.100 to come and return and they merely couldn’t afford it. In the last few years, vehicles were organized for them, but not this time. The right to return for them motivated their desire to attend the rally: they are mostly adivasi Christians who had large land holdings in the village yet both their homes and fields at Beticola lie empty. They recall communal violence and a fractured community from 1985, and the beating of a Pastor Lameshwar Kahar in 1999 by the Bajrang Dal after the Church had proposed a medical center in the village. ‘They were afraid that the medical centre would influence conversions to Christianity,’ Said Kirtichandra Mallick, who had just returned from a funeral from Beticola to his rehabilitated village of Nonadagiri, on the day of this interview. He had met the chief rioter, cordially, a man named Gobardan Pradhan how seemed to preoccupied with cases and had to sell his land to pay the legal fees.

Another rehabilitated village, Beriaguda self-funded their travel expenses to the rally in Phulbani. Their homes were entirely destroyed in 2008 and they lived for six months under tarpaulin tents before they petitioned the collector and met other local villagers and returned home. Shashibhusan Pradhan, a local Kui leader from nearby Uperadandakiya village, a self-identified Hindu Adivasi, was instrumental to establish peace in the community. The villagers of Beriaguda, whose two broken churches dot the landscape, claimed that he was a leader of the mob in 2008, and it is known that he was a member of the administration’s peace committee.

‘I told them (the rioters),’ Said Sashibhushan, also called English Bhushan, due to his propensity to start speaking in English in the middle of his Odia-Kui sentences, ‘That we shouldn’t destroy any homes now, we should do it later.’

‘I said it because i knew tempers were high and maybe later they would calm down and nothing would happen. But they attacked me.’

Shashibhushan is in a mixed marriage – his wife was a Christian, and today he claims proudly how in his Panchayat there is an arrange marriage between a Christian family and a Hindu Family. ‘Years ago, it was the Church who said Christians should not marry Hindus,’ He said, ‘But not today.’

‘Saraswati was a bad man,’ Continues Sashibhushan, ‘Isko kaato, Christian ko kaato, inko Kaato, isiliye bhagwaan ne usko maar diya.’

Shashibhushan did not attend the rally at Phulbani, but would next year if he would be allowed to talk on the podium himself.

Others like Asith Kumar Singh who lived in the smaller towns were not even aware of the rally. He is a 29 year old engineer who worked for five years at Vedanta’s Lanjigarh plant, ‘the adivasis shut down the plant often but never bothered us workers;’ and now works with another mining company. He remembers the days of violence but believes in keeping quiet. He lived in Phulbani and remembers the 24th of August, a day after the killing of Saraswati, when the mobs were patrolling the streets.

‘My friends were there in the mob,’ He says, ‘Hundred metres away.’

He recalls how they argued amongst themselves that they can’t destroy his home since for years they have been greeting his mother in the morning, or whenever they met her. So they decided amongst themselves for a compromise.

‘They called me repeatedly and said that we will spare your house, but Asith has to come to us so we can break his arms and legs.’

Fortunately, rioting is a fickle business, and the threat was forgotten. But Asith’s family left Phulbani and have never returned.

Similarly, Namrata, whose badly burnt face was one of the faces of the Kandhamal riots, published in the media and human rights reports both national and international, is now living in a small town with her family. She still feels afraid of loud noises and ‘woh log’. She was 10 years old in 2008 and was badly burnt in an explosion as she was passing the nearby building. Her elder sister quickly had come to her aid and taken her to the relief camp in the jungle where ther family administered first aid. Her family did not attend the rally, and she feels safe in her school, hoping to finish her arts course.

‘If people didn’t listen to the Bajrang Dal, none of this would’ve happened.’ Said Jagannath Pradhan, who also did not attend the rally.

Jagannath Pradhan says he knows the ‘parishanis’, of people, being orphaned at the young age, tending to his family as a youth. His father was an animist, and as he refers to himself as a Hindu, he overtly condemns casteism.

‘The water in the pond is all the same, why is it different when you put it in different pots?’

Photography Postscript

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A protest march against the riots was organized on the 27th of August, 2014 in the district headquarters of Phulbani.

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Namrata, whose badly injured face was the face of the Kandhamal riots in 2008, is today studying as an Arts student.

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Bulgan Diggal has still not returned home, after the murder of his brother.20140828-(52 of 64)

Villagers from Beticola village are still settled in a rehabilitation colony at Nondagiri.

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Six people were killed by VHP and Bajrang Dal activists in the Tiangia Panchayat, including Dasarath Pradhan, who tried to protect Christian lives.20140828-(14 of 64)   (29 of 64)

Purendar Mallick was killed when he left the relief camp of G.Udaygiri, and returned to check the damage to his home at Nilungia.

Deomali Pradhan recalls how he and his co-villagers laughed in jest about him wearing new clothes before he left for his village. They never saw him alive again.

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Akbar Diggal’s home at Sulesaru village. Akbar was murdered by Bajrang Dal and VHP activists in August 2008.

20140829-(38 of 77)Mass at Beriaguda village at the Baptist Church.

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Two homes away from the Church was Ganesh puja at a government school.

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