Reflections From Kandhamal

Ajaya Kumar Singh

Ajaya Kumar Singh is one of the main strengths of the struggle for justice in Kandhamal. A well known human rights activist, Ajaya Kumar is a recipient of the Minority Rights Day Award from the National  Commission for Minorities (NCM). Through this interview, Rashida Nazria is documenting some of his reflections.

Rashida: I have heard that your grandparents were Adivasis and later became Dalits after the de-notification of various tribes in India. Could you talk about it?

Ajaya Kumar Singh: Till 1948, my grandparents were classified as Hill Tribes. After 1948, there were listed as scheduled caste by the Government of India. Since they became Christians, they were out of the Scheduled Cast list.

Rashida: How was Kandhamal during your childhood?

Ajaya Kumar Singh: My childhood was peaceful and we had a harmonious co-existence. Whenever my parents went out they used to experience caste discrimination. But in terms of religious harmony, there was much more harmonious existence.

Rashida: How did you get into social action?

Ajaya Kumar Singh: My elders in the village were into social action.  Naturally, I was inclined to social action. Even though I joined the seminary and became a priest, I was looking forward to work for the  society irrespective of  caste , creed or any social division. As a child I saw lot of poverty around. So, I thought I should work for these marginalized sections of the society. I could also see the caste discrimination also. But after Khandhamal violence (anti-Christian violence), I could see the religious discriminations too in the society. I always wanted to work for the poor people. I presumed the catholic priesthood is the best way of serving the society. With that in mind, I became a priest in 1995. Yet, I decided to be a professional social worker. I got enrolled myself in MBA from a Jesuit run management institute in 1999. Thereafter, I started working on economic empowerment of the marginalized sections; mostly Adivasi and Dalits. It is only after anti-Christian violence, I started focusing on communal harmony.

Rashida: Odisha was the first state in which the Anti-Conversion Law was introduced. How the bill is used for human rights violations?

Ajaya Kumar Singh: Yes, Odisha is the first state to introduce the Anti Conversional Law. The law is known as the Freedom of Religion Act. But it is just the opposite. It is against Freedom of Faith and Religion. Basically, it violates the human rights and human dignity. The Act presumes that the Dalits and Adivasis do not have a proper or informed opinion or consciousness to know what is good or bad.. It presumes that they do not have conscience of their own.  The Act violates the basic Fundamental Right enshrined in the Article 25 of Indian Constitution. It also violates many more fundamental rights, the right to equality, rights to life and liberty, freedom of expression and freedom which is enshrined from article 14 to till 25, 28.

Rashida: It was in 1967 Swami Lakshmanandha came to Oddisha. Is there any connection with this?

Ajaya Kumar Singh: In fact, late swami led a hate campaign. He said that Christian missionaries are involved in conversion activities that divide the communities and by saying so, he initiated hate-campaigns against the Christian communities. Swami Lakshmananda also came to Odisha in 1967 1960s.

Rashida: As a Lawyer, what are your reflections on Anti Conversional Law in India and their legal, social implication on Dalits, Muslims, Adivasi and Women?

Ajaya Kumar Singh: As a lawyer, I could see that the Anti Conversion Law he fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution. It also violated violates the basic Universal Declaration of Human Rights. India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human rights, where everyone is entitled to freedom of religion and beliefs and expression. All these symbolize the rights and dignity of a person. If the dignity and rights are violated, there is nothing left.  According to the Anti Conversion Law, you are not allowed to choose the religion or belief that you love to be in. It is the pastor or priest of the person interested to change the religion, applies to the district administration; not the one who wants to convert even though the one is adult. It reduces human being to subhuman. Apart from this, there is an ordinance called Presidential Order. The Ordinance allows for reservation for initially to Hindu, later extended to Buddhist and Sikhs. This Ordinance denies reservation for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. Basically the Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians are not getting protection also. They are losing their rights as equal citizens of the country. So these two laws are really discriminatory and divisive in nature.

Rashida: How do you reflect about the Kandhamal Violence? What are the unique characteristics of  Khandaman Genocide from other episodes of violence in Indian history ?

Ajaya Kumar Singh: Basically there are many areas which distinguish Kandhamal violence from other violence. First of all it has taken place in the remotest area. The violence was largest, longest and biggest attack on Christians in 300 years of Indian history. Secondly, the violence lasted for 6 months. The violence was the culmination of several violences against the Christian community. The violence was specifically targeting the Dalit and the Adivasi community. As the violence took place in a remote and hilly area, the people were able to hide themselves. If it had happened in open spaces there would have been much more bloodshed and massacres. In the aftermath of violence also, we could see that nearly 3300 complaints were lodged. Out of the complaints, only 827 complaints only were accepted. Out of that Only 550 were charge sheeted.  Of which only 200 cases in the charge sheet were disposed off saying that there were no witnesses.

Rashida: What have the activist movements like Kandhamal Survivors’ Association or the National Solidarity Forum achieved so for?

Ajaya Kumar Singh: Our attempts have been to restore some confidence among the survivors that they are the equal citizens of the country. They have their rights as citizens of this country. They need to work forward to protect their own rights. To that extent the survivors’ association has been working..  Those who lost their lives must be remembered and those who are still struggling for justice must be supported. These movements facilitate to observe Kandhamal Day from 23rd to 30th August every year since 2012.

Rashida: Why is it that the church leadership is not taking up the issue of Dalit Christians and Adivasi Chrisians?

Ajaya Kumar Singh:  Christians who are affected in the violence are from the Dalit and Adivasi communities. They are marginalized in the society. They live in remote areas. The leadership among these communities is not recognized by the church leaders nationally and internationally. Their voices and representations hardly matters.  Of course, there is a solidarity from the mainstream leadership; but their support is meager to the loss & damages that the Christians have suffered. We look forward to solidarity from every quarters besides the church groups..

Rashida: The RSS is trying to persecute Christians and Muslims. Both are victims of Hindutva communalism. Do you find a possibility of unity of the persecuted sections in India?

Ajaya Kumar Singh:.  There is no alternative to the unity among the marginalized sections and religious minorities. They face the brunt of attacks as per the agenda of hindu rastra, where Christian, Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi and women have no space.  So the marginalized sections need to come together and try to secure their rights. Collaborative and joint efforts are needed. Ifthey remain isolated, their future would be worst.

Rashida Nasriya is a Freelance Writer.


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