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The Missing Orissa Police

by Maxwell Pereira, 25 October 2008

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The Times of India, 21 Oct 2008

Missing In Action

Kandhamal is a failure on many fronts. But from the policing point of view, the performance of Orissa police is reminiscent of the wanton
inaction as happened during the 1984 Sikh riots and tacit collusion in the 1993 Mumbai riots and the Gujarat riots of 2002. Despite worldwide condemnation of the police handling of these incidents and repeated indictments at the hands of various state-appointed commissions, the Indian police, it appears, have not learnt their lesson.

Talking of basics, at the outset the focus should have been on strict action against those indulging in and spreading violence instead of waiting for political direction. There should have been adequate mobilisation of force, visits by senior officers to the affected areas and their continued presence in the theatre of violence till normalcy was restored.

Instead, what was the immediate response of the Orissa police, and how did the police leadership react? They suspended the SP of Kandhamal, the one man who was known to have controlled the area for the past seven months with an iron hand. While the SP was suspended, the DM who with the SP had constituted an effective team was transferred. The sinister designs behind this move are now surfacing, but for reasons not known are being suppressed from public knowledge.

On Christmas Day in 2007, gangs of fanatics in Kandhamal district had attacked churches and Christian institutions, desecrating statues and Bibles and burning houses in Christian bastis in a series of premeditated and well- organised assaults. In the atrocities that continued for a month, 107 churches were destroyed in arson, at least six people died and thousands were rendered homeless.

The victims were mostly tribal or Dalit, poor Christians. The declared perpetrators were none other than local Bajrang Dal activists who were responding to local preacher Swami Laxmananand’s declared agenda of wiping out Christians off the face of Orissa.

Following widespread outrage at this carnage, the state government — whose protective hand over the rabid communal forces was evidently and eminently seen — reacted by suspending the Kandhamal SP and replacing him with young Nikhil Kanodia, a 2003 entrant into the IPS. Kanodia had already made a name for himself for controlling with an iron hand another district plagued by Hindu-Muslim communal tension.

Kanodia was overnight summoned to the state headquarters to be told he has been specially selected and sent to Kandhamal to restructure and rejuvenate effective policing in the riot-ridden district. The state government simultaneously ordered a judicial commission to look into the causes and effects of the Kandhamal riots.

The activities of Laxmananand in the area, including inciting communal violence in Kandhamal over the past many years, had led the Orissa police to maintain a police file on him which had grown fat over the years with accounts of riots caused or triggered by him. Strangely, the police did not check his activities even after the December carnage. Instead, he was provided police protection ostensibly after receiving written threats on his life from local Maoists whose displeasure he had also incurred.

Laxmananand and other adult members of his ashram were murdered on August 23. The attackers identified themselves as Naxalites and left a letter at the scene of murder claiming responsibility and stating why they murdered the swami. On the basis of evidence of the AK-47 used in the attack and the letter left behind, Kanodia briefed the media next day that Maoists were involved in the swami’s murder. This was soon after endorsed and reiterated by the police headquarters too.

This did not, it appears, suit the sangh parivar in their designs and ultimate objective of targeting Christians. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia visited Orissa the next day and declared it was Christians and not Maoists who killed the swami. As if in support of this line, the Biju Janata Dal government decided to suspend the Kandhamal SP and asked him to report to the police headquarters at Bhubaneswar. What’s more, no replacement was sent to Kandhamal over the next four days, allowing the perpetrators of violence to act with impunity.

So not only was the one man who had kept the communal forces under check over the past seven months ignominiously suspended, he was also conveniently removed from the scene to ensure a clear ground for Bajrang Dal goons to unleash violence at will.

If this is not criminal connivance, what else is? And yet Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik denied inaction and blatantly claimed, "Every bone in my body is secular..." This even while his government was openly attempting to deflect blame from the Bajrang Dal and resting it solely on Laxmananand’s students.

The Orissa administration, particularly the state police, has failed miserably by succumbing to political dictates and not enforcing the rule of law. If India’s secular fabric is to be preserved and protected, communal violence needs to be tackled by the strong arm of the law, which only an unbiased and independent police establishment can ensure. We urgently need police reforms that continue to elude the country.

The writer is a former IPS officer.