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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

10 years after Kandhamal riots, both sides say they await justice

The riots, which left 39 Christians dead and 395 churches vandalised, had broken out after a well-known ascetic in Kandhamal, Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, was shot dead on August 23, 2008, and his body mutiliated.

Written by Sampad Patnaik | Bhubaneswar | Updated: August 24, 2018 2:00:44 am
kandhamal violence, kandhamal riots, kandhamal district, anti christian violence, kandhamal christian violence, odisha christian violence, VHP, indian express Lawyers for the riot-affected Pana Catholics say they still await legal closure on cases related to the riots.

Surendra Nayak, a survivor of riots in Odisha’s Kandhamal, says he tries to forget the horrors of 2008, but the throbbing pain in his foot pierced by a spear keeps the fear fresh in his mind.

“For years, I wet my bed because of nightmares,” says the 48-year-old. “Like an animal, I was chased through the streets of Tiangia Budedipada village (of Raikia block) by men with swords, spears and tridents hooting, hollering and hurling insults at my faith.”

Surendra says he survived because he ran into the jungle.

The riots, which left 39 Christians dead and 395 churches vandalised, had broken out after a well-known ascetic in Kandhamal, Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, was shot dead on August 23, 2008, and his body mutiliated.

Lawyers for the riot-affected Pana Catholics say they still await legal closure on cases related to the riots.

“Due to poor police investigation, 4,000 people were acquitted,” says the community’s lawyer Father Dibakar Parichcha. “Some of the ring leaders, who were convicted because of overwhelming evidence, are out on bail.”

In 2016, the Supreme Court had asked the Odisha government to re-investigate 315 out of the total 827 cases, which were closed by police claiming the offenders could not be traced or no offence was made out. “Out of 362 trials which stand completed, only 78 have resulted in conviction, which again is a matter of concern,” observed Justice Uday Lalit from a division bench of the apex court, which included then CJI T S Thakur.

“We met the CM (Naveen Patnaik) three times after the SC’s 2016 orders and filed an RTI on the status of the 315 cases, but did not get satisfactory information,” says Parichcha. “The SC order neither specified a monitoring mechanism for the review nor a deadline by which it is to be completed, which means this exercise can go on forever,” he said.

While Additional Chief Secretary Asit Tripathy, heading Odisha’s Home Department, was unavailable to comment on the status of cases under re-investigation, Kandhamal SP Prateek Singh declined to share details of “this very sensitive issue”.

“I know all the men who tried to kill me,” says Surendra. “They are roaming the streets like kings, but I have no idea what happened to the complaints I filed against them.”

The SC also ordered additional compensation for victims, but the entire amount has still not been distributed among all those affected. “Out of Rs 21.59 crore set aside for this purpose, just Rs 15 crore have been disbursed”, says Parichcha.

On Thursday, amid tight police security in Kandhamal, thousands paid tribute to Swami Lakshmanananda on the tenth anniversary of his death.

Ajit Patnaik, lawyer for the majority community, also alleges bias in the cases registered. “Swamiji was killed by local Christians, under the banner of Mula Nibasi Mancha (original inhabitants group). Out of nine people prosecuted for the killing of Swami Lakshmanananda, seven received life imprisonment. But this claim that Maoists killed him was deliberate misdirection that needs to be examined,” he said.

Patnaik demanded that arrested Maoist leaders Sabyasachi Panda and Azad, who took the blame on themselves at the time, be made to undergo lie-detector tests.

Odisha VHP President Badri Pattanayak has written to the Centre for a CBI inquiry into the entire episode.

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