This is an important event to mark one of the most horrific incidents of communal violence that has taken place in India in the recent past. They say that those who do not remember the past, are bound to repeat it. This is precisely why we must remember what happened in Kandhamal so that such incidents are never repeated.
Kandhamal, in Odisha, among the poorest districts in India, was home to one of 21st century India’s most gruesome riots in December 2007 and August 2008. The trigger for the violence was ostensibly the killing of a Hindu religious leader, which, after hate propaganda by Hindu right-wing forces quickly descended into a spiral of attacks against Dalit and Adivasi Christians in the district.
My association with Kandhamal lay primarily in heading the National People’s Tribunal. We brought out a report which unequivocally concluded that “the carnage in Kandhamal is an act of communalism directed mainly against the Christian community, a vast majority of whom are Dalit Christians and Adivasis; and against those who supported or worked with the community.”
What exactly happened in Kandhamal? After Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, a Hindu priest, was killed, a sense of “collective guilt” was imposed on Christians in the district, inhabited by tribals and Dalits. The two main communities are the “Kandhas” and the “Panas”, and neither community was left untouched. Scores of people were killed, hundreds of villages were ransacked, thousands of houses were looted and burnt. Overnight, over 75,000 people became homeless. Mainly one community bore the brunt of all this violence, as those who lost their homes, villages and belongings were predominantly Christian.
Churches, schools, colleges, philanthropic institutions, even leprosy homes and TB sanatoriums were destroyed and looted. Schooling and education came to a standstill, dozens of women were raped and molested. And many were also forced to renounce Christianity, and/or reconvert to Hinduism.
The state government of Odisha completely failed to act to prevent the horrific crimes. They tried to portray this as an inter-tribal dispute, instead of acknowledging the gravity of the violence as a communal issue. The government appointed two commissions, as is usually the case in such matters, but both were ineffective. Neither commission issued any report, not even an interim report. Nearly 15 years on, there are no signs of any reports either. Such commissions, especially those set up after incidents of communal violence, tend to be nothing more than mere eyewash, intended to temporarily placate, but mostly never materialise into anything meaningful.
The way the Kandhamal incident was handled is a textbook example of the failure of India’s criminal justice system. Almost all trials involving such incidents, such as 1984 Punjab and 2002 Gujarat, are victims of this failed system. Supreme Court Advocate Vrinda Grover and Law Prof Saumya Uma prepared a detailed report on the Kandhamal incident, demonstrating with hard facts the stark problems of the criminal justice system. Communal riots cases tend to be treated as cases of routine violence, falling into the quagmire of the Indian court system like any other criminal case. Lackadaisical investigation and prolonged trials invariably end up in acquittals. Add to this the colossal waste of resources spent on trials over years.
In Kandhamal, for example, out of 3300 complaints, only 800-odd FIRs (First Information Reports) were lodged, of which only 500-odd were charge-sheeted. Fast track courts were then appointed to deal with these cases. But, as is the norm in such cases, the justice dispensed by these courts was in fact “speedy injustice”. Actual murder conviction happened only in two cases! There were a few other cases where conviction happened, but for lesser offenses…
Unfortunately, Modi’s rhetoric around marking the horrors of partition appears to be precisely all that it ought not to be. Partition was not merely a one-sided sacrifice, people of many faiths lost their lives, in many parts of undivided India, and almost all of those deaths were meaningless. This holds for any and every act of communal violence that this country has seen since. Any act of commemoration should acknowledge the meaninglessness and futility of such violence, and proactively attempt to repair past wrongs and prevent future violence. This is what was done about the holocaust in Europe, and the nuclear attacks in Japan. We need to do something similar here.
We will do well to recall that the Constituent Assembly, despite being dominated by Hindus (at 85%), also embedded the sentiment of communal peace and harmony in India in its project of building a new nation. The Constitution drafters took pains to protect the interests of the minority, the oppressed, and the dissenters. The post-partition project of making India a secular and peace-loving nation is slowly and deliberately being made to come undone. Partition and all communal incidents that followed in independent India should be remembered for the right reasons. I hope that Kandhamal Day going forward will pursue this mission, of ensuring that we do not forget, and we do not repeat our transgressions. Harmony and kindness are as essential to development as economic prosperity. If India aspires to greatness, these are all fundamental building blocks that cannot be ignored.
By A.P. Shah, Matters India
(The writer is the former Chief Justice of Delhi and Madras. This was part of the inaugural address on August 25, 2021, at the 13th Kandhamal Day remembering the anti-Christian pogrom in Odisha in 2008)