Kandhamal : In 2008, a mob led by Manoj Pradhan, the current BJP MLA from Kandhamal, chased down the family of Parikhita Digal, a Dalit Christian who was then 31, and butchered and burned him in front of his wife and two daughters.
A fast-track court in Kandhamal sentenced Pradhan to seven years in jail last year but he got bail from the Orissa High Court, before the Supreme Court last week cancelled the bail, questioning the “favourable treatment” given to the MLA.
For Digal’s wife Kanakrekha Nayak, 28, justice has come in under three years, a record of sorts considering the pace at which cases normally move in the country. “I am satisfied that my husband’s killers have been convicted. I wish others who were part of the mob too had been convicted,” she said.
For many other Dalit Christians scarred by the Kandhamal communal riots, justice has been as fast, with two special courts convicting 279 people, mostly Hindu tribals and non-tribals, in the last two-and-a-half years. Even the National Human Rights Commission has noted how the Kandhamal convictions have outnumbered decisions in all other riot cases in the last 10 years.
The riots had raised so many questions about Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s secular credentials that he severed ties in 2009 with the BJP, till then the Biju Janata Dal’s ally. But what may have gone a longer way in restoring those credentials is his decision, taken the previous year, to start the two fast-track courts for the 800-odd riot cases.
Of 828 FIRs lodged, 790 cases were found to be genuine; of these, 475 cases have had chargesheets filed, with 157 decided and the 279 convictions coming in 58 of these. There is time left to file the chargesheets in the other cases.
“The fast track courts have sped up justice in Kandhamal. Before the end of this year, chargesheets will be filed in the remaining cases,” says V Jayashree, director of public prosecution.
A comparison with the progress in cases elsewhere gives a measure of the pace in Kandmahal. In the Gujarat riots of 2002, the police filed 691 cases, of which 414 were “without merit”. There was just one conviction till 2009, before the trial finally started gathering momentum after the Supreme Court ordered that fast-track courts be set up for retrials in 14 significant cases.
In the November 1989 riots of Bhagalpur, where over 1,000 people were killed and 68 mosques destroyed, trial began only in 2001. Over 300 people have been convicted but 31 cases remain pending.
Police officials and prosecutors said that after the riots, a 50-member police team from the state CID with the help of local police took up the cases, most of them of arson.
“What stood out was the determination of the victims and the support of people who helped in collecting evidence. We were just facilitators,” said state CID chief Abhay. “Though initially people were unwilling to appear as witnesses, they gradually started coming.”
Two additional sessions judges started working from April 2009 and the first conviction came on July 1 that year. Chakradhara Kanhar Mallik, 58, was sentenced to jail for setting fire to the house of Loknath Digal. The convictions that followed included that of BJP MLA Pradhan in two murder cases. Of the 14 cases he was being tried for, four are now pending.
Several others who followed Pradhan’s orders, killing people and burning houses, are in jail. “With the convictions, fear has set in among the rioters,” says Hemant Nayak, a Dalit Christian leader of Raikia.
Some, however, feel the judgments have been coming too fast. Manguli Patra, an RSS leader and state coordinator of the Dharma Jagaran Sammukhya, alleged the same people have been accused in different FIRs at different places at the same time. “How can the same person be present at the same time at two different places which are 45 km apart? The judgments have been a little too fast and intentional,” said Patra, referring to the case of Narayan Mohanty, who has been accused in a nun’s rape as well as the murder of a Dalit Christian the same day.
Home department officials agree that in some cases, people have gone overboard and filed FIRs against people whose names they picked randomly from the voters’ list. Some of these FIRs have been quashed; others accused have been acquitted for lack of evidence.
Even Christian organisations say the real culprits have gone scot-free in some cases and some innocent people been convicted.