HUBANESWAR, India — Kandhamal went up in flames Aug. 23, 2008, with many Christians losing their lives and homes.
Church leaders are bracing for a possible repeat on the first anniversary of the troubles that were sparked by the assassination of a Hindu leader.
But ecumenical leaders in Orissa, led by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital, are calling for a national “day of peace and harmony” to mark the anniversary.
Since Hindu fundamentalist groups are planning a “victory day” on the anniversary, fearful Church leaders have also demanded “complete security and protection to religious minorities, their lives, property, institutions, places of worship … since ‘criminals’ might want to indulge in any wrongful action.”
“The situation is Kandhamal is very worrisome. We do not know what will happen during the anniversary,” said Archbishop Cheenath.
Though Maoists claimed responsibility for the assassination of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, the leader of Hindu nationalist groups in Orissa, saying they were punishing the Hindu leader for mixing religion with politics, Hindu groups blamed the murder on Christians. They targeted them in orchestrated violence that lasted for weeks.
The carnage and mayhem left more than 90 Christians dead and more than 50,000 displaced. In addition, more than 5,000 Christian homes and 250 churches and Christian institutions were looted and torched.
To underline his concern, Archbishop Cheenath noted that a staffer on the archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission was attacked in early August. Chikusagar Nayak was waylaid Aug. 5 after contacting court witnesses of last year’s brutalities. He suffered a fractured arm.
Archbishop Cheenath said that even a year after the orchestrated violence against Christians, Hindu fundamentalists are “still having a free run” in Kandhamal. Apart from “continuing to threaten our people to forsake their faith to return to their villages,” he said the fundamentalists were threatening witnesses to assure acquittal of the persecutors of Christians.
Father Dibakar Parichha, the head of legal support for the Kandhamal victims, said witnesses to the killings are being systematically threatened.
An eyewitness to the murder of his younger brother told the lawyer-priest that he would ensure that the butchers of his brother will not go free. But when he appeared in court on July 8, he told the judge, “I saw nothing.”
That was after gun-wielding visitors threatened him the previous night against telling the truth in court.
Such tactics have already started paying dividends for the Hindu fundamentalists. Sixteen people brought to trial in connection with the killing of a policeman and torching of the Gochhapada police station last September were acquitted by the court on July 31 for “lack of evidence.”
An armed mob of 500 people had blocked roads leading to Gochhapada by cutting down trees to ensure that no police reinforcement could be rushed in to thwart the attack. This attack on police in the middle of the night was in retaliation for the three Hindus who were shot dead by federal police when a mob tried to attack the Kurtamgarh church.
‘Here Because of Our Faith’
The fact that even the police could not get a conviction in a case of preplanned arson of a police station and killing of their colleague points to the possible outcome in most of the brutal attacks on Christians in Kandhamal, where 117,000 Christians account for one-fifth of the population.
Father Parichha pointed out that the Kandhamal administration has not detained even murderers who roam free and intimidate the Christians. The social boycott and threats against Christians, he said, have forced thousands of Christians to flee Kandhamal itself for the dingy refugee camps instead of returning to their villages.
“We are here because of our faith. Otherwise, we could not have come here,” said Sadanand Digal, a Catholic refugee who has taken refuge at the Saliasahi slum in Bhubaneswar, 155 miles from Kandhamal.
Life in a Hut
Digal said he, his wife, two daughters and mother stayed at the relief camp at Raikia until the end of October after they fled Gudrikia when the arsonists destroyed the Christian houses in the village.
Presuming that peace had returned, Digal tried to go back to the village with his family. But the local Hindus were adamant that only Hindus can live in Kandhamal.
Like thousands of other Christians in refugee camps, Digal decided to get out of Kandhamal and landed at the sprawling Saliasahi slum where hundreds of Kandhamal Christians have flocked.
With hardly any savings, Digal took a mud-thatched hut without electricity in the slum for a monthly rental of $8.
“We prefer to stay here as Christians rather than being forced to become Hindus in Kandhamal,” he said.
The Orissa government claims near normalcy in Kandhamal, with the number of refugees in relief camps now below 1,000, compared to 25,000 in September 2008 at the peak of the violence.
However, Father Ajay Singh, social service director of the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese, pointed out that thousands of refugees have not gone back to their villages, as claimed by the government. More than 10,000 Kandhamal Christians, he said, are in Bhubaneswar alone, with the poorer ones living in slums while the richer ones rent houses.
Father Singh pointed out that many have fled to other cities of Orissa as well as outside the state due to continuing threats, intimidation and social boycott of Christians to pressure them to embrace Hinduism.
Anto Akkara writes from