Orissa: What’s the point of Commissions of Inquiries headed by pliant persons

9 Feb
by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath S.V.D.

Press Release from the Archbishop of Cuttack

1. With respect to the communal violence that began in Kandhamal district of the state of Orissa in December, 2007 the state government has appointed the Justice Basudev Panigrahi Commission of Inquiry. Similarly, with respect to the communal violence that flared up in August 2008 in different parts of Orissa, which continues unabated, the state government has appointed the Justice S.C. Mohapatra Commission of Inquiry.

2. I am profoundly distressed by the fact that the Chief Minister did not consult the victim community before deciding on the persons to head these Commissions. The very least that is expected from the state government is that it take the victim community into confidence so that the Commissions of Inquiries are headed by persons who are, in the perception of the victim community, both independent and strong willed enough to hold the officers of the state responsible. The present appointments have been made in haste disregarding the point of view of the victim communities.

3. Our experiences before the Justice Basudev Panigrahi Commission have been demoralizing to say the least. Advocates for the victim communities appeared before Justice Panigrahi and filed statements on behalf of approximately 275 victims and others. They began full-hearted participation in the inquiry despite their reservations as to the independence of the Commission. Their confidence was shaken when the second round of attacks began and they informed Justice Panigrahi that not only the Christian community but also some of the advocates representing the victims had come under the threat of assault and they therefore requested Justice Panigrahi to adjourn the hearing for two months. Justice Panigrahi refused. It became impossible for the victim community and their advocates to participate freely in the Commission. Victims were without food, houses were being burnt, people were being killed; all this was pointed out to Justice Panigrahi and a most reasonable request was made to keep the Commission in abeyance until matters settled down.

4. Not only was the request refused but the Commission is proceeding in undue haste. Some members of the victim community undoubtedly manage to attend but the leading team of lawyers and the main victims cannot attend. It is also very difficult to travel within Kandhamal to meet the victims and prepare them for the proceedings. They have been traumatized and are scared and need to be given confidence to speak out. This is especially so because the assailants are still roaming free in the villages and may, in all likelihood, attack the witnesses for deposing before the Commission. It was expected of the Commission that it would have some sensitivity in respect of witness protection to maintain the sanctity of the Commission proceedings; but this is not so. A formal order has been made but no protection on the ground is available.

5. This leads me to the conclusion that the Justice Panigrahi Commission is more interested in covering up the misdeeds of the state government and its police force whose actions have been truly shameful, rather than to identify the organisations and prominent individuals behind the fascistic attacks. The Commission wishes to produce its report in undue haste with a view to giving the Chief Minister and his officers a clean chit. In the circumstances I have no hesitation in stating that I have no faith whatsoever in the Justice Panigrahi Commission.

6. This view also holds good for the Justice S.C. Mohapatra Commission. I have nothing against Justice Panigrahi or Justice Mohapatra personally. But I do protest the appointment being made unilaterally without consultation with the victim community. He to has issued notice to the victim community in the middle of all this violence to file affidavits by the 15th of November, 2008. Such a formal approach displays an insensitivity to the suffering of the victims. Victims who do not know where their next meal is coming from or those who are hiding in the forests are hardly likely to be able to identify an advocate and meet the prescribed deadline. What these Commissions need is a person of dynamism like Justice Krishna Iyer with a compassionate heart and a deep social understanding of the nature of communal riots. Perhaps the state government ought to have approached Mr. Justice B.N. Srikrishna who headed the Commission of Inquiry in respect of the Bombay massacres. Such judges would indeed have inspired confidence. Sadly this is not the case. I do not have confidence that the Justice Mohapatra Commission will indeed do justice to the victims in Orissa.

7. I am constrained to release this statement because there is, particularly of late, a distressing tendency to avoid naming and catching the culprits immediately and to waste time by appointing Commissions with pliant persons heading them in order to protract the conflict and to get political benefits by stigmatizing minority communities. This strategy will not work. The people of Orissa as indeed the people of the world know who the assailants are. This is no secret. What it needs is not an Inquiry for the truth is well known. It needs the political will to do what is right in accordance with the Constitution of India and the laws of this land.

8. In this, I do believe that I have the support of all religious communities in India. I do believe I have the support of those professing the Hindu religion in India as well. Hinduism is a religion of peace, nonviolence and tolerance. I am a profound admirer of the philosophical and religious tenets of Hinduism. I can therefore say with absolute certainty that those who attacked Christians in the name of religion are profoundly anti-hindu and also anti-national. They seek to divide and thus weaken our wonderful nation of kind hearted and generous people.

9. This is why I am so utterly distressed that our national leadership does not appear to be capable of acting bravely and decisively with compassion and clarity to challenge these fascist forces that have divided the nation and committed so many horrendous crimes again and again. What is at stake in the communal attacks in Orissa is not just the future of the Christian community and its security and safety, but the future of our democratic nation itself.

10. May God help us all.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath S.V.D.
Archbishop of Cuttack – Bhubaneswar
22.10.08

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