Invoking a 40-year-old ruling which said “minorities are as much children of the soil as the majority”, the Supreme Court has asked the Odisha government to re-investigate the closure of 315 cases related to anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal district in 2008, and “see that the offenders are brought to book”.
A bench of Chief Justice T S Thakur and Justice Uday U Lalit said it was “disturbing” that of the 362 trials that were completed, only 78 had resulted in conviction. “The concerned authorities must see to it that the matters are taken up wherever acquittals were not justified on facts,” it held.
At least 39 Christians were killed and 232 churches destroyed in the August 2008 violence that followed the killing of VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. According to an affidavit filed by the Odisha government, of the 827 cases registered, chargesheets were filed in 512 cases while final (closure) reports were submitted in 315 cases.
The court expressed concern over the fact that almost one-third of the cases registered were closed by the state police on the ground that either the offenders could not be traced or no offence was made out. “Such a large proportion is quite disturbing. The state could do well in looking into all these 315 cases and see that the offenders are brought to book,” it said.
In 2008, Archbishop Raphael Cheenath had moved a PIL in the apex court, seeking directives to the Centre and state government for protection, compensation and rehabilitation of the victims.
Relying on a report submitted by the National Human Rights Commission, the bench said: “The state government shall do well to inquire into and find the causes for such communal unrest and strengthen the fabric of society”.
It said the Odisha government should undertake peace building measures, apart from strengthening police infrastructure in Kandhamal district. The court also directed the state to pay additional compensation to the victims of the riots — Rs 3 lakh for the families of those killed in the violence.
Authoring the judgment, Justice Lalit said it was “quite apt” to reproduce a paragraph from a 1974 ruling of the Supreme Court, although it was in the context of rights of minorities to set up and administer institutions for imparting education.
“The minorities are as much children of the soil as the majority and the approach has been to ensure that nothing should be done, as might deprive the minorities of a sense of belonging, of a feeling of security, of a consciousness of equality and of the awareness that the conservation of their religion, culture, language and script as also the protection of their educational institutions is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution… it can, indeed, be said to be an index of the level of civilisation and catholicity of a nation as to how far their minorities feel secure and are not subject to any discrimination or suppression,” read that ruling.