Kandhamal Martyrs’ Day Instituted

Remembering the Anti-Christian Violence in India

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.

It was decided Aug. 30, at the annual meeting of the five bishops of Odisha (known as Orissa until 2011), that the day would be observed 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 that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India 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 continued injustices 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 on Aug. 23, 2008.

While Church officials and Christian groups condemned the killing of the Hindu leader, Hindu fundamentalists said the murder was 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 — 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 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 about 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 asked. “Justice has to be achieved.”

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 about anti-Christian violence, 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 where] 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 taking responsibility for the deed. The memorandum demanded the release of the seven Christians, who were sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial court in October 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 innocent with fabricated cases,” she charged. “These innocents are not even given bail.” Karat also deplored that bail is 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 Kandhamal victims, noted that while properties worth 900 million rupees (more than $13.5 million) were looted or damaged in the violence, only 7-million rupees’ compensation ($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.

“Besides the injustice, Christians are also living in fear,” added Father Parichha, citing the recent killing of a Christian couple by the federal paramilitary known as the Central Reserve Police Force. Following protests, the Human Rights Commission of Odisha called for a government report on the dual killings.

Anto Akkara is based in

Bangalore, India.