20, Jul 2020 | John Dayal
I met justice Hosbet Suresh personally for the first time maybe two and a half decades ago in his chambers with Advocate Muchhala, who I had known for some time because of my long and close association with the intellectual, professional, social and political leadership of the Muslim community, as a journalist and writer, and later as an activist. I had never seen him on the bench in court, so do not know if he looked grim and formal sitting in a high chair clad in black robes. But sitting in his chamber, bathed in the bright light streaming in, his warm kind smile firmly in place, he was a person one came to like at first sight.
Time made that contact into a friendship across two distant cities. His close association with Teesta Setalvad, the Citizens for Justice, and with other stalwarts of the Human Rights and civil liberties movement, especially those active in the rights of Dalits and religious minorities, ensured the we heard him, saw him, or heard of him, just about every week in some context or the other. And more than that, one read of him. Surely, he made a difference; and his voice made a difference in many lives, including mine. And also, in the lives of many Christian Dalits and tribals of the remote forested plateau of Kandhamal in the state of Odisha.
He was the first eminent person of that rank and stature who came to Kandhamal to help investigate, on behalf of civil society, the first major targeted violence that had been mounted against the Christian community in India since the long death march to Seringapatam of Catholics of the Konan coast. Justice Suresh was Chair of the People’s Trinunal – the others were Teesta Setalvad, Justice Kolse-Patil and RB Sreekumar, the former intelligence chief of the Gujarat Police who fell afoul of his chief minister for not being pliant in targeted violence programming – which had kindly come at the request of human rights activists alarmed at the total absence of conscience or voice among the upper caste elite intellectuals of coastal Odisha to the happenings in their backyard.
As I wrote then, the Christmas-eve violence 2007 in the Kandhamal district of Odisha traumatised the Christian community of the district, and men and women of goodwill everywhere. But it came as no surprise to Human Rights activists who had cautioned long years ago that Odisha was being made a second laboratory, with Gujarat, in targeting religious minorities and fomenting communal violence as part of a religion-political strategy. Social scientists and political-economists warned that in these states, the official machinery could be expected to let the violence run its course. Such indeed was the case in Kandhamal from December 24, 2007, till the end of that year.
Not that the end of the violence saw a return to normalcy or a restoration of confidence, or any evidence of the rule of law. Sporadic incidents of violence, coercions and forcible conversion of tribal and Dalit Christians to Hinduism continued. Thousands remained displaced. Relief and rehabilitation were of a questionable standard. The criminal justice system, above all, remained paralysed, if not still vulnerable to political pressure and religious bigotry. The Church had to move the High Court of Odisha and the Supreme Court to protect its duty and its right to help the poor victims.
Civil society response from the state was disturbingly dismal. The National Human Rights Commission sent an officer on a fact-finding mission, but it was a perfunctory gesture. The National Commission for Minorities identified the communal elements responsible for the violence, but its report has moved neither the Union nor the State Government nor the State administration. Others identified the man behind the violence as Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Swami Lakshmanand Sarasvati who has been camping in the area for some years and had been indicted by the police in past years for inciting mobs to mount violent attacks on Christians.
The international community was concerned. UN Special Rapporteur for Religious Freedom Asma Jehangir visited Odisha as part of her mission to assess the Indian response to religious freedom. Unfortunately, though she met a few victims of the violence during her stay in the state capital Bhubaneswar, she could not visit Kandhamal. And this reflected in her otherwise excellent report.
The State Government appointed a Commission of Enquiry under retired High Court judge Mr. Justice Panigrahi, but the Commission began on a wrong note, touring the district long before an official notification had been issued, and during his impromptu interaction with the victims, the Chair’s questions were more on Conversions allegedly by Christians. Members of the minority community were rightly apprehensive.
It was then Justice Suresh, Teesta, Kolse-Patil and Sreekumar responded. The Tribunal visited Orissa from May 12 to 17, 2007. Unlike the UN Special Rapporteur Asma Jehangir and even the National commission of Minorities, this Tribunal actually visited the worst affected areas and had its sittings near Balliguda, the central point in Kandhamal. In jeeps and SUVs, they travelled to distant villages from one end to Brahminigaon at the other, including the Barakhama refugee camp, and then sit in two or three sessions in Balliguda.
The tribunal made shocking discoveries which no one had spoken of – gender violence, the role of state officials, and the coalition government. The BJP was the partner of the BJD. The terrible condition in the refugee camps, among others, was a finding of much importance. Teesta Setalvad, as the first woman from outside [other than Sr Mary Scaria] to visit the areas, documented terrible rights violations of the women in the camps, including post-abortion trauma and blood poisoning.
Justice Suresh’s humane presence and questions, his very persona made a great impact.
Tragically, there was much bigger violence in August 2008 after the killing of Lakshmanand by the Maoists. More than 120 people were killed, many women raped, including a nun, more than 400 villages were purged of their Christian population, more than 6,000 houses and 320 churches and institutions were ravaged, burnt or demolished. The police watched.
But the Hosbet Suresh Tribunal had set some benchmarks. The community had been caught unprepared, but after the violence, it recouped, and worked with civil society for a better documentation and advocacy programme that brought some semblance of justice to the area.
Justice still evades some. But Hosbet Suresh has also taught us all the power of sustained advocacy. Our voices too must be our conscience.