Ten Years Later, Indians Remember Worst Violence Against Christians

Father Ajaya Singh speaks to an audience gathered in Delhi for “Kandhamal Day”. Photo by Meagan Clark.

In 2016, India’s Supreme Court ordered the state government to provide additional compensation to families of victims killed and those whose property was destroyed. They also ordered a re-investigation of 315 out of 827 recorded cases, which the local police had closed, claiming the accused people or evidence could not be found. The Odisha government has yet to act on the order, which did not include a deadline.

The National Solidarity Forum and the Kandhamal Survivors Association, with many supporting organizations, are campaigning in Indian cities this week for many demands of the national and Odisha government: to set up a task force to monitor cases from the 2008 Kandhamal violence, protection for witnesses against intimidation, a re-opening of cases and fair police investigation, implementation of the Supreme Court orders, the amendment of a 1950 presidential order that effectively penalizes Dalits for leaving Hinduism and a scrapping the state’s anti-conversion law, which requires someone to report their conversion to the government and is often abused to accuse religious authorities of illegal forced conversions.

“Remembering Kandhamal needs to be an exercise in forging a stronger unity between the various persecuted minorities … against the saffron terror we experience today,” Nandini Dey, a researcher and activist at the Centre for Equity Studies in Delhi, told an audience at an event Aug. 25 to highlight the Kandhamal communal violence.

Hate crimes in India have increased since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election signaled support for right-wing Hindu nationalism. A “hate map” by Amnesty International tracked 200 hate crimes from 2015 to 2017, and 141 crimes were against Dalits and 44 against Muslims. Hindu extremist “lynch mobs” have killed dozens in India this summer.

Christian and Hindu survivors of the Kandhamal violence told their stories alongside survivors of the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, when mobs from the assassinated prime minister’s party killed as many as 8,000 people by some estimates, and the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, when clashes between Hindus and Muslims resulted in at least 62 deaths and more than 50,000 displaced.

Most of the Kandhamal victims belong to the impoverished Dalit or Adivasi communities, the lowest “untouchable” caste in Hinduism and indigenous tribal groups. In one case, a Hindu tribal chief who had promised protection to Christians was stabbed and set on fire in October 2008.

“My brother asked them not to harm anyone, but they burned him alive,” Nungari Pradhan, 58, sister of the tribal leader, told an audience in Delhi. “I sat alone with the dead body all night. There was no one to help me.”

Three men tried for the murder were acquitted of the charges in 2009. The trial court instead sentenced the men to three years hard labor for destroying evidence (they burnt the family’s home), but they were released after three months, Nungari said. She spoke in her regional language, which was translated into Hindi and English.

Another survivor, Pushpa Panda, 52, described how her husband, a Dalit Christian pastor, was dragged by his head and bludgeoned with a stone. Although her family is Brahmin, the highest caste in Hindusim, Pushpa said the upper caste Hindus refused to cremate her husband’s body, so she had to help bury him herself.

“They used to organize, 200 to 400 people at once, and come in a huge mass into our villages,” Father Ajaya Singh, a Catholic priest from the Kandhamal Dalit community and leader of the grassroots organization Odisha Forum for Social Action, said. A mob broke into his office and gang-raped a nun while he was in the state’s capital one day. “If I would have been there, I don’t know what would have been my fate.”

Revenge on Christians

Tensions between Christians and Hindus in the area had been brewing since the 1960’s, when Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati moved in to set up schools and ashrams (spiritual hermitages or Hindu monasteries). As a member of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), he believed the local Christian tribes were converted from Hinduism and should be converted back. (The tribes originally practiced animism, which is recorded as Hinduism by the government.) The VHP is a member of the Sangh Parivar group, an umbrella of Hindu nationalist organizations led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which in turn has supported Prime Minister Modi’s rise to power. The CIA recently classified the VHP as a “militant religious organization.”

In a now widely-circulated video, the swami was recorded teaching that Western nations, the Pope and Sonia Gandhi, an Indian politician of Italian-Catholic descent, wanted to convert the region into “independent Christian land.” He preached that God sent him from the Himalayas, which stalled the Christians’ plans to drive him and other Hindus away, and thus angered the Christians.

Laxmanananda Saraswati was shot dead in his home by masked men in 2008. The recent wave of anti-Christian violence began August 25, 2008, a day after his funeral.

According to an investigative book by the Catholic journalist Anto Akkara, Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda, local VHP leadership incited thousands of Hindus, mostly illiterate, to take revenge on Christians for their leader’s murder by parading the body across the Kandhamal district for two days.

Although the police originally blamed Maoist militants for the killing, many of the swami’s followers did not believe them and blamed the Christians. Today, many still do, claiming the Maoist leaders’ confessions in October 2008 were conspired in order to recruit Christians to join them. One reason religious conversions are a contentious topic in India is that religious conversions often shift votes.

Seven convicted for Hindu leader’s murder

The initial accused of the swami’s murder were four Christians, including a 13-year-old boy, beaten and dumped at a police station by VHP workers, Akkara wrote. After 40 days, they were released.

Then the police arrested seven others found hiding in the forest, where many Christians had fled in fear of attacks or after their homes and churches were reduced to ashes.  In their trial, two judges were transferred before a third convicted them to life imprisonment in 2013. In 2015, two top police officials involved in the case testified to a judicial inquiry commission that the allegations against the seven men were false. Their appeal is awaiting a motion in the Odisha High Court.

The survivors today

Today, many survivors still live in impoverished refugee-like camps in Kandhamal. Some live scattered in slums in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, and some relocated to villages in southern states with higher Christian populations. The few who remained in their native villages were forced to “re-convert back” to Hinduism. An estimated 12,000 children lost their education, according to local organizations. Today, some living in areas with fewer Christians hang two icons in their homes: one of Jesus, and one of Krishna, a Hindu god.

“Federal agencies come and ask lots of questions of the organizations working for this cause,” Father Ajaya, who works for Kandhamal communal violence victims as well as all local Dalits and Adivasis, said.

On August 28, 2018, Indian police arrested prominent rights activists in six states, including poets, writers, priests and lawyers, on a range of serious accusations like links to Maoists, considered a terrorist group, and conspiring to assassinate Modi. Many of those arrested have supported Dalit and Adivasi rights and helped marginalized individuals seek justice for crimes committed against them by higher castes.

“When in their mind, you’re already an enemy… it’s becoming a fascist state,” Father Ajaya said. “People are still not comfortable.”

This story first appeared on religionunplugged.com

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