ORISSA: Fact-finding team expelled from Phulbani

Fact-finding team expelled from Phulbani

Dr John Dayal, member, National Integration Council of Government of India and President, All India Catholic Union, writes his first-hand account of how Dr Dayal and other members of a fact-finding team were expelled by the state. Read more..

I report with deep sorrow and anguish that I and a five member Fact Finding Team that had gone to the Phulbani area of Kandhamal district on Saturday, 29th December 2007, was forcibly expelled by Inspector General of Police Pradeep Kapoor who ordered the Phulbani Town Police Inspector to ensure that I left the district that night.

The Town Police Inspector then made us follow an armed police escort for a one and a half hour drive through the night darkness till we reached the border of Ganjam district, where he left us. We could return to Bhubaneswar by 4 am today, 30th December 2007, deeply distressed and
feeling very frustrated with the experience.

The fact finding team was set up at a meeting of activists in the Swasti Hotel in Bhubaneswar on 28th December 2007 to get an authentic first hand account of the developments and the violence in the Kandhamal district because rumours, absence of authentic media reports
and often inaccurate government accounts of the casualties, had left the people confused. There were also fears that lack of authentic information would impact on the confidence building measures and the peace process.

I was requested to lead the Fact Finding Team in view of my experience in Gujarat, Nandigram, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan the North east.

As a matter of abundant precaution, I wrote to the Director General of Police, Orissa, on 28th December 2007. I, inter alia, said "I am a Member of the National Integration Council, Government of India, and the National President of the All India Catholic Union. I am part of a Fact Finding team set up by Civil society and Human Rights groups to assess the situation in the violence affected areas of Orissa for us to be able to formulate People's initiative for confidence building and peace."

"The team, consisting of six persons including me, intends to leave Bhubaneswar on the morning of 29th December 2007 and return in the evening of 31 December 2007. We will have a night halt in Phulbani. We will appreciate any assistance and facilitation we can get from the Orissa Police and in particular from the Police forces of the District. I am sure your office will take the necessary steps, and inform the District Police of the area."

We drove to Phulbani on 29th December; reaching safely and without any problems, by about 5 p.m. En route we were able to assess the damage done to the NISWAS School of Social Work set up by Dr. R K Nayak, IAS retired and currently a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha. We also saw the damage done to the Carmelite Convent and the Carmel English School. Nuns we interviewed told us how attempts were made to set the convent on fire even as the Nuns were cowering in a room where they had locked themselves in. Two sisters who could escape injured
themselves in the process.

Later, we went to the Offices of the Police Superintendent to discuss with them our onward journey to Balliguda that evening or early next morning, and to see if here was need for Curfew Passes, which are normally given to Media and other groups.

The Inspector General of Police, Mr Kapoor, the Divisional Commissioner and the Deputy Inspector General of Police were present in the room. I was questioned in some detail, always very politely, by Mr Kapoor who wanted to know about my membership of the NIC, my
credentials as a journalist and the books I had authored. He also photographed my colleagues and me with his Mobile Telephone camera. I gave a patent reply to every single question. I also pointed out that this was not a government enquiry, but that I would prepare a report I would submit to the authorities and which would also help facilitate the National Minority Commission members who are scheduled to visit the spot on 6th January 2008. I reminded the police were a peaceful group, and our team included an Advocate, apart from interpreters and with expertise in ethnic studies.

Mr Kapoor was ever polite, but remained adamant. My colleagues felt they were being interrogated in a police station.

Mr Kapoor said he would not allow me to proceed, or even to remain in Phulbani. He said it would not be safe for me, or for the persons with whom I would stay. He said the Rapid Action Force had been deployed in Phulbani town and I had to draw my inference from this fact about the situation and tension in the place. I told him there was no way we would be crashing police barriers. It was not for fear of our lives but in deference to the rule of law that we would go. He was apparently not satisfied. He called the Phulbani police officers and ordered them to escort me out.

The Kandhamal region needs not just media coverage and government relief operations. The rescue, relief and rehabilitation programme has to be done in a transparent manner. Already there have been too many complaints of police and administrative apathy, complicity and even
aggressive force against one community, the victim community.

Independent fact finding teams and the information they give help in maintaining transparency and positively contribute to the peace process.

I hope we will be able to visit and record the situation in every affected village as an important part of building long term peace, harmony and in ensuring relief, compensation and rehabilitation.

Dr John Dayal