A Catholic priest, who bore the brunt of the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Odisha’s Kandhamal, has been awarded the Minority Rights Day Award by national minorities commission.
Rightwing Hindu organisations in Odisha had protested the decision, alleging that Father Ajay Singh had criminal cases pending against him, which turned out to be propaganda. The minority commission defended its decision to award Singh after the Odisha government informed it that there was no case against Singh. “He was given the award for his contribution towards upholding minority rights,” NCM chief Wajahat Habibullah said.
In December 2007 and August 2008, following the killing of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati by Maoists, the Christian community in Kandhamal and elsewhere were targeted. Over 100 people were killed and nearly 170 Christian institutions were completely or partially destroyed.
The violence was unleashed by the Sangh Parivar after they accused the missionaries of killing the Swami.
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Minorities commission to award Kandhamal priest, Orissa govt warns of 'adverse impact'
In a controversial move, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) has decided to confer the Minority Rights Day Award on Father Ajay Kumar Singh, a Catholic priest based in Kandhamal, on July 5, despite the Orissa government's warning that the move may have an "adverse impact" on the "communal harmony" in the district.
Following the NCM's request for a background check on Singh, Kandhamal District Collector B S Poonia, in a report sent last month, said: "A confidential inquiry was conducted by the DSP, DIB, Kandhamal, and forwarded by SP, Kandhamal. The report indicates that it is not advisable to consider the case of Ajay Kumar Singh...for the Minority Rights Day Award as it may have an adverse impact on the peace and communal harmony in the ethno-communal hyper-sensitive district of Kandhamal."
He added that during the 2008 Kandhamal riots, Jan Vikas, the organisation with which Singh was associated, was the only NGO that was targeted by tribals.
The DIB deputy superintendent's report said, "There is a strong perception in a section of society, including the tribals, that this organisation is promoting conversion indirectly by giving benefits either to the Christian community or people vulnerable to conversion."
Singh is no longer associated with Jan Vikas.
The Kandhamal SP, in his report, reiterated that "recommendation of Ajay Kumar Singh for Minority Rights Day Award is not advisable, particularly in this ethno-communal hyper-sensitive district".
When contacted, Poonia said: "The locals have an unfavourable perception about him. We forwarded our report and it is for them to act on it."
NCM chairperson Wajahat Habibullah said: "We sought a report from the district administration, but they have not identified any wrong action committed by Singh. They have mentioned the opinion of the people. The facts were placed before the award selection committee and we decided to go ahead with his name."
The other contender for the award was Gujarat-based activist Teesta Setalvad. At least two members who were part of the selection committee said there was general consensus on Singh's name.
"It has been confirmed that there is no criminal case pending against Singh. Anyone working for tribals is bound to be critical with regard to the government. The Orissa government became over-sensitive to his criticism. Even if there was a case pending against him, there is a presumption of innocence. He is working for the advancement of the tribals, it's not a disqualification in a democracy," said senior lawyer K T S Tulsi, who was part of the selection committee.
"The committee talked to the District Collector and found there was no case against Singh. The chairman decided to go ahead with the award. There was general consensus on his name and the decision was taken collectively," said eminent sociologist Prof Ashish Nandy, also part of the panel.
Singh's name was proposed by a member of the selection committee — John Dayal. "People in the selection committee can also recommend names, there is no conflict of interest. It doesn't disqualify the candidate," said Habibullah.
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