Binu Mathew (Matters India) Acclaimed film maker K.P Sasi and I were standing in a corner of the courtyard of Phulbani Government Guest House having a coffee. It was about in the morning of August 31. A vehicle stopped nearby and Brinda Karat came rushing toward us. She was visibly upset. She had gone to visit the seven men convicted in the Swami Laxmananda murder case.
She started to narrate to us the travails she had to go through to get permission to visit them. We had come to Phulbani around 8 the previous night to participate in the Kandhamal communal violence memorial day organized by “Kandhamal Committee for Peace and Justice” of Odisha state, India.
Brinda Karat said, “I contacted the prison authorities yesterday for permission to visit the innocents lodged in jail. They refused to give permission. Nevertheless, I went to the jail early morning. I stood in front of the jail gate and pleaded with the jail authorities. I promised them I will not break any jail rules. Just give me 10 minutes to meet them and I’ll go. Jail warden must have felt pity for me and gave me permission to meet them.”
“Their situation is terrible,” Brinda added. “They even don’t know why they are in jail. They are poor illiterate farmers. No one has visited them in jail. They are lodged in jail for seven years without bail. It is pathetic. Even people close to ‘Baba’ sent message to them that they are innocents”. While saying this a tear drop rolled down her cheek. She wiped it off and continued to say how we can support these innocents to get out of jail.
Brinda Karat is not an ordinary woman. She was a member of the Indian Parliament, the first woman member of the Politburo of Communist Party of India (Marxist) -CPI(M) and president of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) from 1993 to 2004, and thereafter its Vice-President. She must have seen a lot in her political life spanning several decades.
Why did such a strong woman become so emotional in Kandhamal? It is a story that needs to be told and it will tell the state of Criminal Justice System in Kandhamal.
Kandhamal is the location of the worst organized communal violence against Christian community in India in over 300 years. It all started on August 25, 2008. Hindutva fascists unleashed massive attack on minority Christians in Kandhamal on that day.
For four days, Hindutva forces went on rampage and killed more than 90 Christians. Dozens of people went missing and never to be located again. The violence lasted for four months.
Over 350 churches and worship places which belonged to the Adivasi Christians and Dalit Christians were destroyed, around 6,500 houses were burnt or demolished, over 40 women were subjected to rape, molestation and humiliation and several educational, social service and health institutions were destroyed and looted. More than 56,000 people were displaced.
Several cases of forced conversion to Hinduism by the Sangh Parivar took place during the violence. One nun was gang raped in front of a crowd of over 300 people, while 8 police men looked on. This nun ran toward the policemen asking for help but they did nothing and stood there simply watching the spectacle. It all happened just a stone’s throw away from Nuagaon police station.
It all began with the murder of Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on the night of August 23, 2008. He came to Kandhamal in 1967 and spat venom against Christians in all his speeches and threatened to exterminate Christianity from the region.
The Hindutva forces spread the rumor that the swami’s killing was done by Christians, although the Maoists had announced that Swami Laxmanananda would be killed on the exact day. The blame was put on Christians both by the Hindutva forces as well as the state administration. Later Maoists publicly admitted that they had killed Swami Laxmanananda.
Four Adivasi Christians and three dalit Christians were picked up by the police alleging that they had killed Swami Laxmanananda.
In the meeting held at Raikia attended by over 5,000 people to commemorate the victims and survivors of Kandhamal communal violence, demanding peace, justice and harmony, Brinda Karat publicly announced the names of the seven innocent men lodged in jail, saying that their names should remain in the public consciousness of the people.
They are Duryodhan Sanamajhi, Munda Badamajhi, Sanatan Badmajhi, .Garnath Chalanseth, Bijay Kumar Sanseth, Bhaskar Sunamajhi and Buddhadev Nayak. “These innocents are not even given bail, while bails are easily given to those who are responsible for communal violence in many parts of this country “ She said.
In Baliguda I met the wives and children of the seven persons convicted in the Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati murder case. Pabitra Sanseth whose husband Bijaya Kumar Sanseth is in jail was weeping while speaking to us. She said that the case against her husband and the others are false and fabricated. “Over 90 Christians were killed in the 2008 violence. Not a single person was adequately punished. Our husbands are punished on false charges,” – she said in tears.
Bijaya Kumar Sanseth was arrested on December 13, 2008. As per statement of his village people and his family member Sanseth has no direct or indirect involvement with the Swami Laxmanada Murder case.
It also found from police source that in Laxmanda Murder case trained and experienced criminals armed with weapons like AK 47/57 were involved. In the case of Sanseth it is not possible to use such weapons without training because he is totally ignorant about these weapons since he is a uneducated, illiterate farmer. He had no antecedents of involvement in such activities earlier.
It is also said by the villagers that he has no way connected with Maoist, on other hand police official responses toward this investigation also raise a few basic question about the unfair and undemocratic way of arrest because Crime Branch DSP S .K Pattnaik accompanied by CRPF personnel forcefully entered to his house and arrested him without showing any arrest warrant order under the pressure of their Political bosses . The same is the case with all the other six.
The judgment delivered by R.K Tosh, Additional Sessions Judge, Phulbani is an example of the ludicrous state of the criminal justice system in India.
Delivering the judgment the learned judge states that “As noted earlier the offence has been committed in a highly professional manner. Therefore it is not normally expected that there will be direct evidence to connect all the perpetrators with the crime.” Then why in the hell are they in jail?
One of the evidences cited in the judgment is that On “25.05.2008 a meeting was held at Betikola Parish Counsel Church, in which a resolution was passed to punish the perpetrators responsible to prevent missionary work. The resolution further indicates to observe a Christian celebration day in case of success of the mission in punishing the persons responsible.”
The interesting point is that the Betikola church belongs to the Catholic denomination and none of the arrested belongs to Catholic denomination. It is beyond belief that a resolution passed by Catholic Church Parish Council will be carried out by people belonging to other denominations.
Another farcical evidence cited in the judgment is that the accused persons distributed chocolates on hearing Swami Laxmananda’s death.
The identification of the killers is not clearly established in the trial. This fact is clearly visible in the judgment. Neither was a proper identification parade was conducted to identify the killers. Two primary witnesses clearly statef that the killers were wearing masks.
Para 8 of the judgment while discussing the factual aspect of the case states that (P.W 22 and P.W 23 did not see the face of the assailants. Here is the relevant part:
“As per the evidence of the informant P.W 22 on the relevant day at 7.55 p.m while they were preparing for Janmashtami Puja at Jaleshpeta Ashram and Swamiji and his disciples were in their room, heard the sound of gun fire. Immediately he came down from the Mandap and heard the voice of Mata Bhaktimayee saying “BANDHUKARE MARIDELE MARIDELE.” He also noticed Malati, a student of class VIII of the Asharam, running towards Mandap and disclosed that some black persons have killed everybody inside the room. This witness has stated to have marked the incident behind the mango tree and found 8 to 10 persons breaking the door of room of Swamiji by means of a long kati and also heard the sound of gun fire. He also heard the sound from inside the room of Swamiji besides sound of gun fire from the guest room. Thereafter he noticed about 20 to 25 persons moving away through the southern gate of the Ashram. It is specifically stated at paragraph -5 the persons breaking the door have tied black cloth and put mask and monkey cap on their face, those persons were armed with gun and kati. Apprehending danger to life he did not proceed to the room of Swamiji and came back to the Mandap with students. About half an hour thereafter the police came to the spot and after ensuring the identity of the police officials they came out. “
“The other inmate of the Ashram P.W 25 (Brahmachari Shankar Chaitanya) supporting the case of the prosecution has stated on the relevant day while he was inside the room of Mata Bhaktimayee noticed four person coming towards them and started firing from the gun. …. This witness at paragraph 8 of his evidence has stated since four gunmen were wearing mask on their face could not identify them.”
Para 10 of the judgment says that “In order to establish the identity of the culprits the prosecution has heavily relied upon the evidence of the P.W 32 (Kumidini Pradhan) and 33 (Malati Pradhan) those are the students of the Kanyashram.
The court has marked the demeanor of this witness and mentioned that the witness feels apprehensive to particularly identify the culprits, but gave description of the as assailants as a black tall person and later the said person was identified as Durjyodhan Sanamajhi. The court admits that in cross examination the said witness admitted that she did not disclose about the occurrence to the police since she was in shock and seriously scared.
P.W 33 Malati Pradhan giving details of the identity of the assailants have stated that during incident two assailants entered inside the room were masked whereas two others standing outside the room were never masked. This witness has identified accused Durjyadhan Sanmajhi and Bijaya Kumar Sanaseth as the persons who were standing outside the room with normal gun.
Para 11 of the judgment says that prosecution has also relied heavily on the statements of P.W 17 and P.W 18. The judgement also says that during the initial examination both the witnesses failed to support the prosecution. During later stage of the trial they were examined on recall as per the directon of the Hight Court and gave details of the incident before the court. The judgment says that as per para 7 of the testimony he overheard a conversation between Bijaya Chalanseth, Garinath Chalanseth, Budha Nayak, Duryodhan Sanamajhi, Bhaskar Sanamajhi to kill Swamiji.
P.W 18 during re-examination said that overheard a conversation in the jungle to kill Swamiji. The persons engaged the discussion were Garanath, Bijay, Duryodhan, Budha, Santan, Bhaskar and Munda. He also stated that beside the above persons 10 to 15 other persons including some female and some persons in khaki dress were also present there. Upon cross examination this witness clarified that the persons present were discussing to murder but he cannot specifically say about the utterances of each person present in the group.
Para 22 of the judgment says that the investigation officer seized muzzle loading guns from the house of Duryodhan Sanamajhi, Munda Badamajhi and gun from the house of Sanatan Badamajhi. It further says that ” The report of the ballistic expert P.W 26 and 35 those seized cartridges and the guns have also opined that the injuries on Mata Bhaktimayee can be possible by a muzzle loading gun(Ext.30). The guns were in working condition. It is important to note that the I.O during investigation has also obtained a query of the ballistic expert who vide his report dtd 12.02.2009, Ext. 35, has informed the muzzle Loading guns seized in this case have been used four to five months back.”
It is travesty of investigation that proper scientific ballistic tests were not conducted to determine whether the bullets found on the dead bodies of the deceased persons were actually fired from the guns seized from the accused persons.
Brinda Karat in two Op-Ed articles she wrote since then called them the “Kandhamal Seven,” echoing the Angola 3 of USA. She also has raised the slogan “Free the Kandhamal Seven”.
On the other hand, there have been only three convictions for the murder of Christians. These were in the murder of Akbar Digal and Parikito Digal. Ten of the accused were given life imprisonment in the Akbar Digal murder case. Now, all of them are out on bail.
Manoj Pradhan, one of the masterminds of the Kandhamal communal violence was sentenced to seven years rigorous imprisonment for the murder of Parikhita Digal and six years imprisonment in the murder of Bikram Nayak. There are 12 cases relating to the Kandhamal riots in which Manoj Pradhan has been charged.
Soon after the communal violence, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) awarded him a party ticket and he won from G. Udayagiri constituency. He contested the election while still lodged in jail. Soon after he won the election he got bail. Today, only one person is in jail convicted in the rape of the nun.
While on our way to Raikia with the chief guests of the meeting, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Brinda Karat and Kavita Krishnan we visited the village Saleswaru. Here an old woman was burnt alive in 2008. This was also the village where a Hindu man was killed by Hindutva mobs for protecting Christians. It is in the heroism of the people like him that secularism reaffirms itself in India. It is in the sacrifice of people like him that the idea of India finds hope.
(This article first appeared in countercurrents.org on September 4, 2015. Binu Mathew is the editor of www.countercurrents.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)