Indian government pressed for action on horrific Orissa violence

By staff writers
4 Sep 2008

Following a series of horrific attacks in Orissa, Indian church and human rights organisations have been keeping up pressure on the government for decisive action against militants, and they are asking for world attention to the crisis.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said earlier this week that the authorities would move against the culprits in the communal conflict between Hindus and Christians in the State.

The All India Christian Council, an organisation established in 1998 to campaign for minorities, is monitoring the situation closely and has published a horrific list of incidents involving violence and murder that too place in August.

A 'citizens' delegation' went to see Indian President Pratibha Patil on Monday 1 September 2008, calling on her to enforce Article 355 of the Constitution on Orissa. They want to see Chief Minister Naveen Pattnaik administration takes adequate measures to protect Christians in the state from Hindutva violence.

Human rights campaigners stress that moderates of all religious persuasions and communities are sickened and horrified by the attacks.

The best legal option available, according to the citizens' delegation, was Article 355 which calls for imposition of President’s rule. It reminds both the authorities in New Delhi and the state governments of their duties to protect States and their inhabitants against internal violence.

The delegation reminded the President that the violence that violence against Christians in Orissa has taken place continually since 23 August, far exceeding that of late 2007, when Human Rights Watch intervened.

Back then, violence broke out on 24 December during an altercation between Hindus and Christians over Christmas celebrations in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. A group of Christians then attacked the vehicle of a local leader of a right-wing Hindu organization. In retaliation, Hindu mobs burned down at least 19 churches, and attacked church officials.

Christians then began to attack Hindu properties. A number of villagers have fled their homes to escape the violence. The state government failed to act quickly, leaving vulnerable groups at risk, which enabled the violence to escalate over the last four days. The exact death toll in these clashes is still unknown, though the media have reported the deaths of at least eight people.

For several years, extremist Hindu groups in Orissa have been conducting an anti-Christian campaign that has grown violent at times, while government officials have looked the other way, says Human Rights Watch.

This time the flare-up was over the killing of a Hindu activists blamed on Christians but actually carried out by leftist guerrillas. Violence has also spilled out of Orissa into neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. In Orissa, it is not confined to Kandhamal but has affected other districts. In Kandhamal, fifty thousand people are hiding in forests or are in a few refugee camps, hiding from murderous gangs seeking to kill or convert them.

Over 4,000 houses have been completely destroyed apart from close to a hundred small and big churches which have been torched.

To a further delegation led by the State of Kerala's leader of the opposition, Oomen Chandy, PM Manmohan Singh said the central government had taken serious note of the violence and that he had personally spoken to Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to ensure the return of communal harmony.

Orissa has been a cauldron since the killing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Laxmananda Saraswati and four others on 23 August 2008 by suspected Maoist guerrillas sparked off a wave of anti-Christian violence.

Radical Hindu groups in the State have alleged that Christians killed Saraswati because he opposed religious conversion. Christian groups have vigorously denied the charge.

Chandy, while condemning the VHP for its alleged role in leading atrocities against Christian minorities in the state, praised the majority of Hindus in the riot hit districts for giving shelter to the affected people. "A small minority section is trying to spoil the great tradition and culture of the country," Chandy declared.

Noting the large scale destruction, both of life and property, Prime Minister Singh further said the government would provide assistance to family members of those who had lost their lives or displaced. Those rendered homeless would also get assistance to repair their houses from the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund, he added.

"Secularism is the strength of India and the government must take strong steps to protect it," a delegation of senior Congress leaders including Thennala Balakrishna Pillai, G Karthikeyan, KV Thomas, PJ Kurien and Pandalam Sudhakaran declared this week.

They added: "The Orissa incidents not only hurt the sentiments of the Christians, but all the peace loving people of the country."

In Britain, the Hindu Council UK has condemned the violence and called "those on both sides of the conflict to return to the peaceable relationship both communities in the area have enjoyed in the past, relationships which continue to be enjoyed throughout most of India."

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