Amid Mounting Injustice, Church in Odisha Promotes Kandhamal Martyrs’ Day

Christian persecution continues today in the Kandhamal area, seven years after the worst anti-Christian violence in India’s history.

Wives of seven Christians, who were controversially convicted for the 2008 murder of  Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, pray Aug. 11 at Carmel convent in Balliguda, India.
Wives of seven Christians, who were controversially convicted for the 2008 murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, pray Aug. 11 at Carmel convent in Balliguda, India. (photo: Anto Akkara)

KANDHAMAL, India — The Church in the state of Odisha in eastern India has committed to make “Kandhamal Martyrs Day” a regular memorial for the dozens of Christians martyred for their faith, in the anti-Christian violence that engulfed the Kandhamal district seven years ago.

The annual meeting of the five bishops of Odisha (known as Orissa until 2011) decided Aug. 30 to observe the day beginning next year.

The victims of the anti-Christian persecution “deserve honor and respect and should be recognized as martyrs for sacrificing their lives for their faith and witnessing Christ,” Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur, who is a native of Kandhamal, said in a statement.

The regional bishops’ council has also decided to request the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India to declare Kandhamal Martyrs Day a national Church event.

The decision of the Church leaders to honor the martyrs prominently came on the same day as more than 5,000 Christians and others rallied at Raikia in Kandhamal. The march was organized to demand an end to atrocities and to protest a continued injustice to thousands of surviving victims of the 2008 violence, which constituted the worst persecution of Christians in Indian history.

Christian targets in the jungles of Kandhamal were burned and Christians were hounded like enemies, following the mysterious murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Saraswati was shot dead in his Ashram in Kandhamal on Aug. 23, 2008.

While Church officials and Christian groups condemned the killing of the Hindu leader, Hindu fundamentalists blamed the murder as a “Christian conspiracy” and attacked the Christian community during unabated violence that lasted weeks.

Thousands of beleaguered Christians had to flee to jungles — to escape being trooped into Hindu temples for reconversion rituals to force them to recant their faith — rendering more than 56,000 of them refugees.

Several prominent Indian leaders and civil rights activists addressed the Aug. 30 rally, organized by the Kandhamal Council for Justice, Peace and Goodwill, calling for measures to restore “justice and harmony” on the seventh anniversary of the orchestrated violence.

“At least 6,500 houses were looted and burned, 56,000 people were rendered homeless, and 350 churches and worship places were razed and gutted,” said the Council's press release on the rally. Further, it noted that the protracted violence also led to looting and destruction of three dozen schools and Church charity centers.

“Diverse religions and castes used to live in peace. But, suddenly a lot of people were killed, displaced, houses and churches were destroyed, women were raped and molested," said Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former federal minister and a Hindu, who traveled through Kandhamal’s jungles to address the rally.

“Should we forget what happened?” Aiyar said. “Justice has to be achieved.”


Protest Memo

In a follow-up to the protests, survivors of Kandhamal’s violence sent an Aug. 31 memorandum to Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, urging him “to ensure peace and justice” in troubled Kandhamal.

Elaborating on the injustice, the memorandum pointed out that of the approximately 3,300 complaints Christian victims made to the police, only 820 cases were registered. The police investigated only 518 cases while the remaining complaints were dismissed as “false reports.”

Seven years later, only 247 of the 518 registered cases have been disposed of, while the rest remain pending before Indian courts.

In 30 murder cases that have been handled by the courts, there have been only two convictions “due to shoddy investigation by the police and intimidation of the witnesses in the court premises,” according to the memorandum of complaint.

“This miniscule conviction rate has led to a [situation] that people are losing faith in the justice delivery system. Therefore, we demand a judicial enquiry by a panel of sitting judges from the (federal) Supreme Court of India," the memorandum stated.

Further, the memorandum lamented that the police arrested seven “innocent” Christians for the Hindu leader's murder despite Maoist rebels publicly owning up responsibility for the murder. The memorandum demanded the release of the seven Christians, who were sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial court in October in 2013.

This injustice also was highlighted by Brinda Karat, a national leader of the Communist Party of India, in her address at the Aug. 30 rally.

“You do not punish the guilty. You punish the innocents with fabricated cases,” she charged. “These innocents are not even given bail," Karat also deplored that bail is frequently easily available to those who are responsible for communal violence in any part of the country.

Father Dibakar Parichha, a lawyer who coordinates the Church's legal efforts for justice for Kandhamal victims, noted that while properties worth 900 million rupees (more than $13.5 million) were looted or damaged in the violence, only a token compensation seven million rupees ($106,000) was paid by the government.

“We have [appealed] to the Supreme Court for meaningful compensation. It is still pending before the court," Father Parichha told the Register on Sept. 3.


‘Living in Fear’

“Besides the injustice, Christians are also living in fear,” added Father Parichha, citing the recent killing of a Christian couple by the security forces.

Indeed, ahead of the anniversary, Kandhamal Christians were given a grim reminder of the atrocities heaped on them seven years ago when a Baptist couple was shot dead July 26 on a mountaintop, while they were talking on phone to their son working in a quarry in southern Kerala state.

“I could hear my mother shrieking and protesting as if somebody was trying to do something wrong with her (attempting to rape her)…. My father was also shouting… Then, I heard gun shots and the last words of my father were “I am dying,” Raul Nayak, elder son of Dhubaleswar Nayak and Bhubudi Nayak who were shot dead by the federal paramilitary known as CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), told this correspondent two weeks later.

Every Sunday afternoon, Raul's parents used to climb the mountaintop of Pangalpadar village under Kotagarh region in Kandhamal — for clear mobile signal to talk to him.

A fact-finding team of secular action groups that investigated the murder in its report stitched together an outline of the killings.

The Christians had been stopped and questioned with guns pointed at them by CRPF personnel — looking for Maoist rebels — as they were climbing down the mountain after making the calls while the slain couple were on the mountain top.

After an hour of their return to the village, they heard gunshots from the mountain. When the villagers reached the spot next morning, they found bloodstains but the bodies were missing.

Only after hundreds of irate villagers — many of them Christians — forced the closing of local shops and blocked roads for two days were the bodies were handed over at Phulbani, headquarters of Kandhamal district and located 1o0 miles from the murder site.

“The dead bodies were fully coated with soil and mud. They [police] may [have] buried the dead bodies. But when the mass protest rose, they [exhumed] the body,” the fact-finding report speculated.

Narendra Mohanty, who led the fact-finding team, alleged, “When the couple resisted a rape attempt by the security forces, they shot them dead."

Following the protests, the Human Rights Commission of Odisha has called for a report from the government into the killing of the Christian couple.

Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.