KANDHAMAL, India — When Sanathan Badamajhi, the last of seven imprisoned Christian men from Kandhamal, was released last month, it marked the end of an 11-year struggle for the men who have maintained their innocence over the 2008 assassination of a prominent Hindu holy man.

The Supreme Court of India ordered Badamajhi’s release on bail from the jail in Rampur in eastern Odisha state on Dec. 9. Buddhadeb Nayak, Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Durjo Sunamajhi and Munda Badamajhi were released on Dec. 5 from the jail in Balliguda. Gornath Chalanseth was released in May, and Bijay Kumar Sanseth was freed in July.

All seven men had challenged their conviction, by a third judge after two judges had been transferred during trial in an Odisha high court soon after their conviction in 2008. When the court refused to grant bail to them a second time in December 2018, they petitioned India’s apex court challenging the denial of bail.

However, unlike in the case of Chalanseth or Sanseth, the bail pleas of Sunamajhi, Nayak, Sunamajhi, Badamajhi and Badamajhi were delayed in the Supreme Court.

Finally, the Supreme Court on Nov. 26 ordered bail to the remaining five incarcerated Christians on the plea advanced by the action group Human Rights Law Network, on behalf of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, which comprises Kandhamal.

However, the typical long road to justice for the poor was epitomized in the case of the five. This long wait for their release seemed to symbolize the justice system in Kandhamal. The appeal of these seven Christians — convicted to life imprisonment abruptly by a newly appointed third judge in October 2013 for the murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati — had been dragging on in the Odisha High Court for six years.

The murder of the Hindu leader and four others at his ashram in Chakkapad on the Hindu festival night of Janmashtami on Aug. 23, 2008, was immediately called a Christian conspiracy by Hindu nationalists. They then called for retribution on Christians, plunging Kandhamal into unprecedented attacks against Christians. Weeks of unabated violence left nearly 100 Christians dead and rendered more than 56,000 homeless, along with 300 churches and 6,000 Christian houses plundered and torched in the jungle district, where Christians accounted for one-fifth of its 650,000 inhabitants.

Soon after the Hindu leader’s murder, a crime that remains unsolved, the seven suspects were beaten and dumped in police stations by brigades of Hindu nationalist groups. In one of their actions, Hindu nationalists emptied the bag three Christians carried with their clothes for a long journey and inserted a Bible, knife and black cloth in order to claim that the swami’s alleged killers had been caught red-handed with Christian literature, weapons and masks.

However, after six weeks of investigation, the police freed the Christians, after making each of them sign a legal declaration: “Due to fear, I had taken shelter in the police station.”

Afterward, the seven Christians who were to languish in jail for 11 years, until 2019, were arrested in two batches from the remote Kotagarh jungle area.

 

Welcome Home

“I am thrilled,” Jiremiah Sunamajhi told the Register, as a group waited at the gate of Balliguda jail Dec. 5 for his uncle’s release. “Police had picked me, too, that midnight [Oct. 4, 2008] when they came to our village.”

Dozens of villages were eagerly awaiting the released Christians, including Chalanseth and Sanseth, whose release earlier in May and July had spurred the kin of the remaining five to conduct regular common prayer meetings in rotation in their native villages.

After songs, prayers and felicitations, each of those five released were asked to share their experiences in jail. When it came to Munda’s turn, he was reluctant even to stand up.

In the end, without uttering a word, he stood up only to greet them with folded hands in Indian style and sat down.

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.

He has reported on this story since 2008 and has written a book, Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?, about the case, and contributed to the 2018 documentary, Innocents Imprisoned.