NEW DELHI (Compass Direct News) – A Hindu nationalist legislator was arrested yesterday after a court pronounced him guilty of playing a major role in the murder of a Christian during anti-Christian carnage in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district in August 2008.
The Fast Track Court II in Kandhamal convicted Manoj Pradhan of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the murder of a 30-year-old Christian, Bikram Nayak, who succumbed to head injuries two days after an attack by a mob in the Raikia area of Budedi village on Aug. 25, 2008.
Judge Chitta Ranjan Das sentenced Pradhan to six years of rigorous imprisonment for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code and imposed a fine of 15,500 rupees (US$335) for setting houses ablaze.
Pradhan, who contested and won the April 2009 state assembly election from jail representing Kandhamal’s G. Udayagiri constituency, was not initially accused in the police complaint in Nayak’s murder, but his role emerged during the investigation, according to The Hindu.
One of the primary suspects in violence that followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, Pradhan was initially arrested in Berhampur city in neighboring Ganjam district in December 2008. The violence began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) claimed responsibility for it.
In spite of this week’s conviction, the Orissa state unit of the BJP said the case against Pradhan was weak.
“The case is not strong,” Orissa BJP President Jual Oram told Compass by telephone. “Pradhan was merely present at the scene of crime.”
Pradhan was named in at least 12 police complaints concerning murder and arson. But after he won the election, he was released on bail.
This is the 36-year-old Pradhan’s second conviction. On June 29, Kandhamal’s Fast Track Court I sentenced him to seven years in jail in a case concerning the murder of another Christian, Parikhita Nayak, also from Budedi village, who was killed on Aug. 27, 2008. Though not convicted of murder, Pradhan was found guilty of rioting and causing grievous hurt in the Parikhita Nayak case.
The June 29 judgment led to his arrest, but the Orissa High Court granted him bail eight days later.
The BJP will challenge the convictions in a higher court, Oram said.
Last month Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of Parikhita Nayak, complained that despite the conviction of Pradhan and an accomplice, they were immediately given bail and continued to roam the area, often intimidating her.
Rekha Nayak was among 43 survivors who on Aug. 22-24 testified in Delhi before the National People’s Tribunal (NPT), a private hearing of victims of the Kandhamal violence organized by the National Solidarity Forum, a confederation of 60 non-profit groups and people’s movements.
Nayak said local politicians, including Pradhan, hit her husband with an axe. Her husband’s body was later chopped into pieces, she recalled as she sobbed during testimony at the tribunal, headed by Justice A.P. Shah, former chief justice of Delhi High Court.
The fast track courts set up especially to hear cases related to the anti-Christian violence have acquitted Pradhan in seven cases for lack of evidence. Three more cases are pending against him.
The state BJP’s Oram said Christians had created “hype” about the cases against Pradhan to “trouble us.” He added, “The state government is not doing anything to arrest and try the killers of the Swami.”
The NPT tribunal asserted that between August and December 2008, about 2,000 people were “forced to repudiate their Christian faith.”
The tribunal cited government figures asserting that during the violence from August to December 2008, more than 600 villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses were looted and burned, 54,000 people were left homeless, and 38 people were murdered in Kandhamal alone. It also noted that human rights groups estimated that over 100 people were killed, including women, disabled and aged persons and children, and “an un-estimated number suffered severe physical injuries and mental trauma.”
While there were reports of four women being gang-raped, many more victims of sexual assault were believed to have been intimidated into silence, the tribunal concluded.
As many as 295 church buildings and other places of worship, big and small, were destroyed, and 13 schools, colleges, and offices of five non-profit organizations damaged, it said, adding that about 30,000 people were uprooted and living in relief camps, with many of them still displaced.
“More than 10,000 children had their education severely disrupted due to displacement and fear,” it reported. “Today, after two years, the situation has not improved, although the administration time and again claims it is peaceful and has returned to normalcy.”
The Christian community was deliberately targeted by Hindu nationalist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), the Bajrang Dal and the active members of Bharatiya Janata Party,” the tribunal concluded.
The jury also observed that cries against religious conversions were used as for political mobilization and “to incite horrific forms of violence and discrimination against the Christians” of Dalit (formerly “untouchables” according the caste hierarchy in Hinduism) origin.
“The object is to dominate them and ensure that they never rise above their low caste status and remain subservient to the upper castes,” it added.
The jury accused police of complicity, which “was not an aberration of a few individual police men, but evidence of an institutional bias against the targeted Christian community.”
“The jury is constrained to observe that public officials have colluded in the destruction of evidence, and there is testimony directly implicating the District Collector [the administrative head of a district] in this misdemeanor.”
The jury expressed concern over the lack of mechanisms to protect victims “who have dared to lodge complaints and witnesses who have courageously given evidence in court,” as they “are unable to return to their homes.”
“There is no guarantee of safe passage to and from the courts. They are living in other cities and villages, many of them in hiding, as they apprehend danger to their lives.”
It also noted mental trauma in children.
“There has been no trauma counseling for the affected children and adolescents in Kandhamal. Even today they have nightmares of running in the jungle, with the killers in pursuit, are scared of any loud sound and are afraid of people walking in groups or talking loudly.”
Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar, who was part of the tribunal, said that incidents such as the Kandhamal carnage against religious minorities continued to happen with “alarming frequency” in India.
“As citizens of this democracy, we should hang our heads in shame,” he said.