There was pin-drop silence in the room as Kanak Rekha Nayak, 28, stopped speaking. She had just narrated her story before a public tribunal presided over by a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice A.P. Shah. As she spoke, Delhi seemed very far removed from Orissa's Kandhamal district, which had seen a wave of communal riots in the period between 2007 and 2009.
Kanak had come all the way to the Capital to testify the enormous mental and physical trauma she had suffered at the hands of certain members of the Sangh Parivar. A resident of village Budedipada-Madinaju, Kanak belongs to the Pano caste Christian community. Both her husband and she were labourers. On August 23, 2008, senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed in Kandhamal. After his death, narrated Kanak, people identified as belonging to groups like the Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, among others, began to attack the homes of Christians in the village.
Kanak's family decided to flee to the nearby forests and wait out the violence. On August 27, the decision was taken to move to the nearby town of Bhanjanagar. However, the family was stopped by rioters at Barepang, a few kilometres away. The few things the family had with them were snatched away, and the crowd set upon Kanak's husband. The terrified woman herded her two daughters together and ran into the jungle from where, horrified, they watched what happened from a distance. The rioters gathered around her husband, one hit him on the neck with an axe another stabbed him in the belly. Then his body was chopped into three pieces. The men dragged the dismembered body with a rope for a distance and burnt it. Kanak spent the night in the jungle. In the morning she made her way to the police, where she gave her testimony. Later, when the case came up for hearing, her elder daughter testified in the court at Phulbani. It was on the basis of their testimony that Manoj Pradhan, an MLA from Bharatiya Janata Party, was convicted. Pradhan appealed against the verdict. The case is now pending in the High Court.
Kanak's story had left many at the tribunal stunned. I later asked her what she had hoped to achieve by speaking out. Kanak, who was accompanied by her younger daughter, who is four, replied that she expected nothing. She came because she wanted others, as many people as possible, to know what had taken place in Kandhamal. She also wanted to tell them that justice has still not been done.
Today Kanak cannot muster up the strength to return to her village. For reasons of security she lives in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, with her family - or at least those who could escape the violence. She often gets threatening calls asking her to withdraw the case. The government paid her Rs 2,00,000 (US$1=Rs 46.6) as compensation and she rents out a house in the city with it. She is trying to make the money last for as long as possible, with occasional help from the church, but she knows that sooner or later she will have to survive on her own resources.
Unbelievable as Kanak's testimony may sound, it was not a lone narrative. Priyatama Nayak, 40, too, described how her home and family - she lived with her husband and four children - was attacked on August 27, 2008, in the village of Barapally. Armed with swords, axes, crowbars and country-made guns, miscreants broke in and looted her home and then tied her husband Abhimanyu to a nearby tree and burnt him alive before her eyes. When her son approached the local police station to report the incident, no official turned up to even inquire about the matter. Priyatama recalled that "my husband's corpse lay there for five days". She had a harrowing time trying to fend off the dogs and jackals around. Finally, with some parts of the body already having been devoured by animals, she gave up her fruitless wait for the authorities and buried her husband in a makeshift grave. When the police showed up ten days later, they had to exhume the body for the postmortem.
A First Information Report (FIR) was registered by Priyatama, specifically naming the criminals involved. But no one was arrested. The police did not bother to investigate the matter or even attempt to recover the property that was looted from her house. When the case reached the trial stage, Priyatama was repeatedly threatened and pressurised to withdraw it. So great was the intimidation she faced that she was not even allowed her to reconstruct her damaged house. She has since approached the Chief Minister and Governor of Orissa through the Kudina Forum for Peace and Justice and the Orissa Human Rights Commission. Although they have ordered a joint inquiry into her specific complaints, no action has been taken and Priyatama continues to live in a temporary shelter at G. Udayagiri.
The case of Runima Digal, 25, is similar. She, too, has not gone home to her village of Mallikapada since 2008. Each one of the 25 Christian families in that village had found themselves under attack. Everyone fled to the jungles for safety but, on September 20, young Runima - having witnessed at first hand the brutal murder of her husband - somehow managed to reach the camp at G. Udayagiri and file an FIR with the police, naming her husband's killers. When the case reached for the trial at Phulbani Fast Track Court, the accused was convicted for the relatively minor offence of kidnapping because the prosecution was unable to prove that the crime of murder was committed.
Today, Runima, like Kanak, lives in Bhubaneshwar. And like Kanak, she continues to receive anonymous calls threatening her. As for compensation, she got practically nothing: Just a paltry Rs 20,000 to repair her house.
Kanak, Priyatama and Runima - these are some of the faces of the tragedy that befell Kandhamal in 2008. Analysts have since come up with involved analyses of the root causes of the violence. They point to inter-tribal rivalry; the race for resources; changes in demographic composition because of mass conversions and the resultant inter-community strife. These are complex issues and need to be looked into if Kandhamal is to have sustained peace. Yet, nothing can explain or justify the violence that overtook this impoverished tribal region.
As Justice A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court - who headed the jury at the tribunal - reminded everyone, there can always be a separate debate on conversions but nothing can justify the inhuman acts that Kandhamal witnessed.
What makes the tragedy even worse is the fact that justice continues to elude these victim-survivors. Today, some 15,000 people continue to remain displaced, unable to go back to their homes. Many more are being coerced into re-converting to Hinduism. Out of 3,300 complaints filed by the victims in the local police station, only 831 have been registered. Several of the cases are yet to be investigated.
It is this lack of justice that motivated the National Solidarity Forum, a coalition of 55 organisations from across India, to institute the tribunal. By organising it in Delhi, the seat of political power, the Forum hoped that some justice would at last come to women like Kanak, Priyatama and Runima.
As Ruth Manoroma, one of the jury members, observed: "The victims have come all the way to testify because in spite of all their trials and tribulations, they still have faith in the Constitution and people of India."
India must not let them down.
By arrangement with WFS