PHULBANI, India — Half a dozen major events in both Odisha and New Delhi marked the 10th anniversary of the worst persecution of Christians in India in the modern era.
Christian targets in the idyllic jungle district of eastern Odisha state went up in flames following the August 2008 slaying of Hindu nationalist monk Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati in his hermitage in Kandhamal.
The body of the mysteriously slain Hindu leader was promptly displayed across Kandhamal in a funeral procession. Alleging the murder as a “Christian conspiracy,” Hindu nationalists promoting the two-day display called for revenge on Christians, leading to a bloodbath.
In the aftermath, nearly 100 Christians were killed, and 300 churches and 6,000 houses were plundered in unabated violence, rendering 56,000 people homeless when thousands of Christians refused to recant their faith, as ordered by the Hindu mob.
Advocacy groups and researchers expressed anger and frustration — over a lack of justice and even compensation for victims of the orchestrated violence — in protests held in New Delhi, in Odisha’s capital of Bhubaneswar, and in Phulbani, the administrative headquarters of Kandhamal district.
A decade later, the Catholic Church’s observance of the tragedy was cool and sober. A dozen bishops from other parts of the country joined six bishops of Odisha in a solemn Mass of thanksgiving Aug. 25, with a message of reconciliation.
“We are here to give thanks for the valiant witness of Kandhamal Christians: those who embraced martyrdom, those who had to live in the jungles for months for their faith,” said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, in his homily during the Aug. 26 celebration in Bhubaneswar.
“Due to the witness of the Kandhamal Christians, the faith of the Indian Church has increased,” added Bishop Mascarenhas. Further, he said, “There are regrets in the minds of those who carried out the violence. We ask the Lord today to change the minds of those who carried out violence so that they come to the path of peace.”
Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, which includes Kandhamal, reiterated this theme of thanksgiving at the beginning of the Mass, which was attended by 3,000 people.
“What happened is behind us. We are happy with the positive changes taking place in Kandhamal,” Archbishop Barwa told the Register, in an apparent reference to the hundreds of assailants who have since apologized for the assaults on the Christians, with dozens of them even embracing the Christian faith.
For some, however, the harsh memories have yet to heal.
Kadamphul Nayak, the widow of pastor Samuel Nayak, spoke at a 10th anniversary event Aug. 28 in Phulbani.
“My husband was hacked and burnt alive for his faith, along with his [81-year-old] mother,” recounted Nayak, who also had been attacked as she rushed forward to try to protect them.
“My husband, Samuel, did not throw down the Bible when he was asked,” she added. “He embraced martyrdom for faith in Christ.”
The statement drew applause from the nearly 3,000 attendees who had converged at Phulbani from the far corners of Kandhamal.
Christian youth wearing special t-shirts could be seen moving among the crowd singing hymns. Slogans of “No more bloodshed in the name of religion — Kandhamal never again,” reverberated during the three-hour event.
Paul Pradhan, a Catholic who ran a secular action group with more than 80 staff in Kandhamal, is one of those for whom the pain of the religious violence remains unforgettable.
Pradhan said he was lucky to escape the marauding Hindu fundamentalists hunting for him. But his large office complex was torn apart and has turned into a bushland.
“I had to live outside Kandhamal till 2013, until the hostility eased,” Pradhan told the Register.
“But the government has not paid me a paisa (penny) in compensation. We are still being discriminated on the basis of religion,” Pradhan added.
However, he was ecstatic when asked about the change in attitude of some of those who attacked the Christians.
“Their attitude has changed,” said Pradhan. “There is no enmity now. They feel they have made a mistake [by attacking Christians].”
Added Pradhan, “They tried to make us into Hindus. But what has happened is the opposite: Our numbers are increasing now.”
Rabindra Pradhan, a retired Indian soldier, also confirmed to the Register that “the hostile atmosphere has changed completely.”
“Several Hindu families have become Christians in our village,” said Rabindra, the elder brother of Rasanand Pradhan — a paralyzed youth who was burnt alive in his house, becoming the first martyr of the 2008 violence.
Despite changes at ground zero, those fighting for civil justice for the attackers and restitution for the victims are far from happy.
“Nobody [in authority] is bothered about what the Supreme Court ordered in the shocking acquittals,” Father Ajay Singh said at the Aug. 29 conference in Odisha. The priest is spearheading a “Justice for Kandhamal” campaign for the victims of the attack.
According to the reports of the investigation, nearly 6,500 people were arrested. There were 827 criminal cases registered. Of those, 315 cases were not pursued. Of the 362 cases in which a verdict was given, only 78 resulted in a conviction. Approximately 150 cases are still ongoing.
“Such a large proportion [of cases without convictions] is very disturbing,” T.S. Thakur, the chief justice of India, declared in August 2016, when he ordered additional investigations and additional compensation to the victims of Kandhamal violence.
However, two years after this verdict, Father Singh noted that no steps had been taken by the Odisha state government to ensure justice to the victims of the violence triggered by Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati’s killing.
Swami Agnivesh, a popular Hindu activist, contends the violent slaying was “pre-planned” by Hindu nationalists who were looking for an opportunity to attack Christians.
Addressing attendees of an event commemorating a decade since the violence Aug. 23 in New Delhi, the saffron-clad ascetic said, “The long march with the dead body of the swami was responsible for triggering the communal flare up against Christians.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.