When I stepped first into remote Kandhamal jungles of Odisha state in eastern India following the Christmas arson attack of more than 100 churches and Christian institutions in 2007, I had no clue to that I was embarking on a life-changing voyage.
A decade after my maiden trip to Kandhamal (located 130-220 miles southeast of Bhubaneswar, capital of Odisha), I completed in early December the silver jubilee of my visit to the region.
The goal of my 25th visit to Kandhamal was something special: to launch a prayer in the local Odia language for the release of seven innocent Christians — six of them illiterates, including a mentally challenged person — languishing in jail for more than nine years for a murder they never committed.
My earlier visits and research had confirmed that the 2007 Christmas atrocities in Kandhamal had been only a precursor to the bloodbath that unfolded in Kandhamal Aug. 23, 2008.
On the night of the sacred Hindu festival of Janmashtami, 81-year-old Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was assassinated, along with four others, at his hermitage in Kandhamal. The swami’s funeral procession subsequently crisscrossed the jungle tract for two days, calling for revenge on the Christian community.
In the frenzied aftermath, nearly 100 Christians were killed and 300 churches and 6,000 houses were plundered. Approximately 56,000 people were rendered homeless. Valiant Christians refused to recant their faith even under threat of death, and dozens embraced martyrdom.
Thousands fled into the jungle, leaving everything behind to escape the ignominy of being made to renounce faith in reconversion ceremonies organized by Hindu nationalists who alleged that the Hindu leader’s murder was a Christian conspiracy.
Soon after the murder, four Christians, including a 13-year-old illiterate boy, were picked up by Hindu fundamentalists, beaten and dumped in police stations. It was not police, but Pravin Togadia, a prominent Hindu nationalist leader, who made public the names of these alleged killers. That was how the nation was fooled.
When the police could not convict the suspects, who had been detained for 40 days, they were let off with an affidavit stating: “Due to fear, we had taken shelter in police station.”
Then the investigation team arrested another batch — seven innocent Christians (all non-Catholics) from the remote Kotagarh region. On the day the charges were filed in the court, Togadia outrageously demanded that the “Pope should apologize to Hindus.”
During four years of trial for the accused Christians, hardly any worthwhile evidence was brought before the two judges who heard the case. Biranchi Mishra, the judge who had presided over the final two years of the trial, was transferred in 2013 before delivering the verdict.
He repeatedly challenged the prosecution as to why the Christians were in detention (he even recorded that the conduct of the investigating officer was “deplorable”).
The shocking guilty verdict — sentencing the seven accused Christians to life imprisonment and delivered abruptly by a newly appointed third judge in October 2013 — convinced me a miscarriage of justice had been perpetrated.
I probed deeper, visiting the spartan homes of the convicted men in the jungles of far-off Kotagarh. I was amazed when even Hindu neighbors of the convicts questioned how the judicial system could convict their neighbors and expressed readiness to be witnesses to prove their innocence in any court.
Surprisingly, two years after this conviction, the same police officers who had ensured the conviction of the innocent Christians told the Justice Naidu Commission of Inquiry that the much-trumpeted “Christian conspiracy” theory was baseless. Yet the appeal for the innocent Christians filed following their conviction was gathering dust in Odisha High Court.
After knitting together all the contradictions and absurdities in the conviction verdict, I made secret arrangements to talk to the wives of the convicted Christians in New Delhi and scheduled a news conference to announce an online campaign for their release March 3, 2016. Despite a host of top opposition party leaders and eminent social activists being present to launch the campaign, half a dozen news channels walked out minutes before the program started.
The media blackout confirmed my findings that major figures in the Hindu nationalist BJP government, which is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were the key conspirators behind the Kandhamal fraud to defame Christianity and exploit it for political gain.
I had gathered credible evidence against top Hindu nationalist leaders, including Ajit Kumar Doval, Modi’s adviser who holds the post of national security adviser of India, and Nirmala Sitharaman, the current defense minister of India, for their role in the conspiracy.
Two months later, my investigative book that exposed the fraud, Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?, was released by Kuldip Nayar, a 93-year-old patriarch of Indian journalism, along with the alleged first group of Christians suspected of killing the swami. While a portion of the national media reported it, major editors buried the revelations.
Subsequent releases of the book in more than a dozen cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kochi, including Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, made more headlines. At long last, the Odisha High Court took up briefly the appeal of the convicted men for hearing in December 2017.
Previously, I launched a prayer initiative (in English and Malayalam) in Kochi Oct. 15 for the release of the “Kandhamal 7.” The prayer was translated into Hindi, Nepali and Odia languages and launched in several cities, including Mumbai, Bhopal and Delhi, apart from Odisha.
This prayer, I firmly believe, is working miracles. A hearing on the appeal has begun, and, more importantly, two of the seven men — Bijay Kumar Sanseth and Gornath Chalenseth — were released Dec. 23 for a two-week Christmas parole. Meeting Sanseth and Chalenseth Jan. 2 near the Odisha High Court in Cuttack was indeed a thrilling moment in a decade of speaking up for voiceless Christians.
Before rushing to Odisha for the meeting, I laid out the Kandhamal fraud Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, with the release of the revised edition of my investigation at a news conference in New Delhi at the Constitution Club of India.
The Kandhamal fraud and the plight of the men languishing in jail were all over the country, after premier news agencies like PTI (Press Trust of India) and UNI (United News of India) sent out dispatches on the book release. The presence of Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, and Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi in the audience indicated that the Church, too, is ready to stand in solidarity with the campaign seeking justice.
Coverage of my book brought the Kandhamal fraud in the open without a word of protest or denial from Hindu nationalist groups.
Another report, like others, carried a stinging critique of the verdict from Brinda Karat, a senior leader of the Community party, pointing to the “absurdities and discrepancies” of the conviction of the innocents based on “manufactured evidences.”
After my meeting with the two men on Christmas parole, I organized a news conference to discuss the evidence anew in Bhubaneswar.
Leading Hindu social activists of Odisha stood by me, and more than three dozen members of the media attended the Jan. 4 conference to hear the story of Kandhamal. Afterward, Prafulla Samantara, winner of the 2017 Goldman Prize (known as an alternative Nobel Prize for environmental action), challenged those present, “Is there anyone to challenge [the findings of] this book?”
Along with Samantara, Kedarnath Mishra, a senior journalist and author, Dhirendra Panda of the Civil Society Forum on Human Rights, and Narendra Mohanty of the Campaign Against Fabricated Cases made it possible for the word to get out outside of India.
The publication of the news in UCAN India, a major international source of Catholic news, provided greater exposure.
With the “Prayer for the Kandhamal Innocents” being said daily in churches, convents and homes in several Indian languages across the nation, amazing things have been happening in the pursuit of truth and justice for Kandhamal.
That confirms the Gospel assurance of Luke 12:2: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known.”
Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.