(New York) - The Indian government should act immediately to end communal violence in Orissa state, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called for an independent inquiry to identify those instigating the Orissa violence and the prosecution of those responsible.
Violence first broke out on December 24 during an altercation between Hindus and Christians over Christmas celebrations in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. A group of Christians then attacked the vehicle of a local leader of a right-wing Hindu organization. In retaliation, Hindu mobs burned down at least 19 churches, and attacked church officials. Christians then began to attack Hindu properties. A number of villagers have fled their homes to escape the violence. The state government failed to act quickly, leaving vulnerable groups at risk, which enabled the violence to escalate over the last four days. The exact death toll in these clashes is still unknown, though the media have reported the deaths of at least eight people.
For several years, extremist Hindu groups in Orissa have been conducting an anti-Christian campaign that has grown violent at times, while government officials have looked the other way.
“The Orissa government should have addressed this problem before it became violent,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are still failing to react quickly enough, and now ordinary people are being attacked.” Right-wing Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have been promoting anti-Christian propaganda in Orissa because they want the state’s Christians, most of them members of tribal groups, to convert to Hinduism. These groups accuse Christian missionaries of forcing tribal people and low-caste Hindus to convert to Christianity. In January 1999, Hindu militants in Orissa trapped Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in their car and burned them alive.
Human Rights Watch condemned the mob violence and urged both Hindu and Christian leaders to work toward peaceful reconciliation. Human Rights Watch also called on the Indian government to meet its constitutional and international obligations to ensure that all people may equally enjoy the right to freely profess, practice, propagate and adopt a religion. In particular, Indian officials should take steps to prevent further violence and end impunity for campaigns of violence and prosecute those responsible for the attacks.
“The Orissa government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the recent violence, but that is not enough,” said Ganguly. “Unless there is a vigorous attempt by the national government to investigate such activities promoting religious hate, India’s secular identity will be seriously jeopardized.”