Three years on, no flowers for martyred Kandhamal

I would have liked to write that somewhere in India, some church – Catholic, Orthodox, Syrian, Episcopal, Pentecost or Evangelical Independent – held a prayer meeting on 23rd or 24th August 2011 for those martyred in the violence that began in Kandhamal, Orissa, on those dates in 2008. I was in Kandhamal during much of the week this year, as in past years, with local Nuns, pastors and catholic priests, so may have missed out on prayer services and observances elsewhere in Orissa and the country at large.

I fear though, barring Masses and prayers on Sundays and weekdays in a routine manner, and perhaps a passing reference in some homily, there was no dedicated prayer service for Kanchanalak victims.   This would be understandable in Kandhamal, where a terribly wounded peace filled with fear and apprehension is really no more than a technical absence of violence. But it is difficult to understand how a nation of a billion and quarter people,  2.3 per cent of them Christians and perhaps another similar number of admirers or private followers of Jesus Christ, could have forgotten the trauma of the victims.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its sister organisations, the Bharatiya Janata Party which was  once a part of the ruling coalition of Orissa,  the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the Bajrang Dal, did not forget the day. It was the murder of their vice president, Lakshmananda Saraswati by Maoists in his second Ashram at Jalespata, that sparked off the violence. Bloodshed followed in forest villages along the route when his body was taken   a couple of hundred kilometres.

The Sangh Parivar as a matter of fact held the entire district hostage as part of its commemoration of that day. The police had practically cut off Kandhamal to ensure that outsiders did not enter the district, but political leaders from Cuttack and Bhubaneswar did enter, including Ashok Sahu, the former Police officer of the Assam Cadre who was a losing candidate of the BJP from Kandhamal in the last elections to the Lok Sabha. Interestingly, one of the key speakers was Manoj Pradhan, accused in several murder cases who is out on bail because the court says he is a Member of the Orissa Legislative Assembly and should therefore, not necessarily remain confined in jail till his cases are disposed off in the fast track courts.

I was witness to RSS cadres on motorcycles keeping vigil along roads, questioning people, including journalists, and mobilising crowds for the rally on 23rd August. An early Janamashtmi festival in fact provided them a double occasion, for it was on the same religious festival three years ago that Lakshmananda was killed, and many traditional people mourned him on that holy day.

The actual political outburst was on 23rd in the district headquarters at Phulbani where amidst police bundobast and policemen and Special Police Officers near major churches, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad held its memorial rally, and later submitted its memorandum to the Collector. The memorandum called for an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati and a halt to conversions to Christianity. The memorandum also demanded prohibition of cow slaughter, and action against those seeking benefits by obtaining fake caste certificates, a phrase they use to focus on Panos, or Dalit Christians in government service.  Laxman Panda, general secretary of the state unit of the VHP said they were upset as the main culprits in the murder case were still at large.  Maoists who have claimed credit for the murder are in jail, as are ten or so Christians accused by the police of masterminding the murder. The last to be arrested was Azad, a Maoist leader, The High court at Cuttack has rejected bail for the Christians a couple of times even as the same court has released Manoj Pradhan on bail despite multiple murder charges against him. The Sangh Parivar however wants to implicate senior church leaders, as well as  lay persons they have been targetting for several years, and they made this clear both in the rally in Phulbani and in a petition before the Orissa High court.

The Orissa government had indeed ordered a judicial inquiry by retired high court judge Sarat Chandra Mohapatra. The crime branch investigated the murder. But the Sangh brotherhood said they were not satisfied with the pace of investigation and demanded a CBI inquiry, in the words of Priyanath Sharma, another VHP leader and a coordinator of the campaign.

Perhaps a reminder is necessary of the magnitude of the violence that was unleashed in Kandhamal and 11 other districts of Orissa in August and September 2008, which also had repercussions in several other states, particularly Karnataka. In Kandhamal alone, over 56,000 people, both the Dalit Panos and the Tribal Kondhs - almost 99.99 per cent of them Christians by faith, were rendered homeless, spending several days each in the forests without food and water, before they could find their way to the safety of refugee camps opened at last by the state government. By Church count, almost 6,000 houses were looted, demolished or burnt down. Close to 300 big and small Churches, including most major Catholic Parishes, were destroyed as were several other convents, clinics, schools, hostels and social service institutions include the premier organisation in the district, Jan Vikas, which had organised the women of the backward district over several years of hard work.  Civil society counted perhaps a 100 dead, though officials kept the count below 50. The number of injured was never really assessed. Neither was gender violence. There are at least three rape cases on record, but there certainly were many other women who were molested or raped. The formal court cases on rape proceed along at a snail’s pace. Almost no one has been sentenced for murder in almost two dozen cases that have so far come up before the two fast Track courts in Phulbani. The few convictions have been for “abduction” of a person whose body has not been found even now, but is presumed killed. Convictions have not come through because almost all significant eye witnesses have been scared to death by the Sangh Parivar. The remaining have been bribed. Despite complaints to the judges, the police have not been able to put into place a reasonable or significant witness protection programme.

Reparations have also not been the best. The government has given compensation to the widows - Rs 2 lakh from the Prime Minister’s office and Rs 3 lakh from the state government, but not every widow has received this compensation. There have been no job offers, no free houses. There is a distinction made by governments of various states, and the Union government too, when it comes to compensating widows of communal violence of various sorts. The government showed its worst face when it came to compensate victims of arson. It divided the houses into partially and fully damaged, even though it realised that partially damaged houses would often have to be razed to the ground and rebuilt. It offered Rs 50,000 for the fully damaged houses and Rs 20,000 for partially damaged, and that too in several instalments. Many people had to use the money for food. There was not just sufficient money anyway to rebuild houses which cost upwards of Rs 85,000 for a small brick house with a tin roof. The church willy-nilly was forced to come up with the balance of money. The Catholic Church and the Believers Church have built about 2,500 and 1,000 houses with other groups including the all India Christian Council also chipping in with about a hundred houses each. But over 2,000 houses may never be built unless new money is found. This of course does not include maybe several hundred houses  in remote villages or on disputed ground that have been listed in the official or church records. The church has gone to the Supreme court seeking proper reparations. Many of these lapses have been listed in detail in the report of the National People’s Tribunal which held hearings around this time last year in New Delhi.

The government has also failed in its duty on issues of employment and rehabilitation. The Supreme court has expressed its concern at the slow pace of rehabilitation.  This is specially visible in areas such as Nandigiri in the worst hit Tikabali block. These are people who had to escape massive violence in the Batticola village.  The Church and attached buildings were obliterated. The people were forced to be converted to Hinduism, or else assaulted. The violence ended, but the people just could not go back home. The government finally allotted them a piece of land under a hill several kilometres away from G Udayagiri. The Believers church made some houses for them, in three neat sterile rows. But here there was no land to till. Their fields had been left behind in Batticola. There were no jobs for the men, none at all for the women. Some had to travel to the nearby Udayagiri Town to find work as casual labour. That situation still prevails there.

But peace still remains tenuous. And some of the threats come from the government, specially in Nandigiri. Thanks to the efforts of Gabriel brother Markose, a lawyer who is helping the victims,. The villages had almost completed a small building on common land to serve as a community house and a church. But these seem to have run against the whims of the local officials. The villages have been given notice to demolish the building forthwith. There is also serious trouble in the case of another church not too far away from Nandigiri, in the Raikia Block. The Baptist Christian community had been worshipping at their village church for more than 60 years. They have a graveyard on a plot adjacent to the church. During the violence of 2008, their church was badly destroyed, only a very small portion of the old church remains now. Rebuilding of the church began over an year ago. But Hindutva activists brought an earth mover and dug up the land between the church and the graveyard. The administration conveniently declared that it was disputed land. Revenue and police authorities repeatedly told the Christian community not to proceed with reconstruction work whenever they began work. On 23 August, the Revenue inspector came to the site to issue an order to the Christians to stop work. The third church affected is the one at Bakingia where the coercion comes from the local fundamentalist group, who seem to be protected by the authorities.  Indian Currents in the past has also covered incidents of economic and business blockade of Christians, which specially injures the few Christian entrepreneurs.

It is in this backdrop that the Church, with all its mistakes over the past three years in not being able to force the State government to  rebuild houses and lives, but is trying to rebuild peace.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, who led the community in the last three years returned earlier this year and has been succeeded by Archbishop John Barwa, SVD, a tribal from Rourkela. Archbishop Barwa is the first tribal Church leader of that rank in Orissa and is hoping that gives him an entry point for some serious work. In his talks with me and with Christian Media, Archbishop John Barwa has articulated his call to tackle religious intolerance, and adding that more work is needed to bring reconciliation in Kandhamal district. He maintains the Church is fully involved with the people and remains apprised of the goings on in the state. Three years after the incident, he finds the lower-ranking officials “disturbing” Christians, but has hopes from higher-ranking officials who now seem more "cooperative". “My message is clear: we need peace and tranquillity - no more violence, no killing. The Christian faithfuls have the right to be in Kandhamal. They are growing in faith,” says the Archbishop, though a number of local groups in the district continued to create problems, blocking the supply of building materials and other supplies for Christian homes and churches.

The focus is now on the Supreme Court of India where petitions are expected sometimes this year for a reopening of the cases of murder of Christians and for redressal of the miscarriage of justice in the fast track courts in Phulbani.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 September 2011 on page no. 12

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