It is now eight years since the anti-Christian pogrom took place in Odisha (then Orissa), the eastern state of India, and yet justice continues to elude the victims of the horrible tragedy.
A massive outbreak of violence broke out against the Christian community, starting in the troubled district of Kandhamal on 23rd August 2008 and soon spread to at least 13 other districts.
The worst ever violence against the Christian community in India’s history, that continued abated for almost three months and engulfed along with Orissa (then name of the state), at least three neighboring states as well, left more than 120 people dead, close to 60,000 people internally displaced, close to 5000 homes broken / damaged and a few hundred Churches and institutions demolished / destroyed and razed to the ground.
The violence was the culmination of a systematic hate campaign against the Christian presence in the tribal areas of Orissa and was triggered by the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his associates, on August 23, allegedly by Maoists. However, the Hindu fundamentalist forces blamed the Christians for the misdeed.
Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, who had spearheaded the movement of the VHP (World Hindu Council) against Christian missionaries in the area for some decades and had mobilized Kandha tribals against Christian Panas leading them to mass scale violence against Christians in December 2007, was vicious even in his death. The false propaganda coupled with feelings of jealousy against Christians who had over the years progressed in education, power and influence, provided a perfect opportunity for a potential genocide.
As the fundamentalist Hindus led by VHP leader Pravin Togadia, marched over 160 kilometers, with the body of the deceased Swami, the mob accompanying them burnt Church after Church. The statewide protest by the VHP and Bajrang Dal against the murder of the Swami and his 4 associates turned violent and very soon large-scale violence engulfed 14 districts of Orissa, which has a total of 30 districts.
Kandhamal saw the maximum violence and wrath of the Hindu Fundamentalist who ruthlessly killed people, ransacked and burnt Christian homes, raped women, burned churches and forced the people to flee for their lives leaving behind their homes, and other assets. Even children were not spared. Despite the imposition of curfew, rape of Christian women and killing of Christians continued in the very presence of police and armed forces that were deployed for protection of the minority Christian community. It was as if the state machinery had turned a blind eye to the cries of the Christians.
The violence in December 2007 led personally by Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, had largely been confined within the district of Kandhamal and had seen more than 600 Christian homes burnt and 4 people killed.
According to reports, as a result of the violence that began in August 2008, more than 54000 people were rendered homeless, 120 plus people were murdered including 7 full time Priests / Pastors, ten more clergymen were seriously injured along with hundreds of others, two rapes were confirmed, out of which one is a catholic Nun, many others were molested whose reports have never surfaced, 315 villages were completely destroyed, 4640 houses were burnt (State government estimates), 252 Churches destroyed (State government estimates), 13 schools and colleges were destroyed, and 20000 Children lost a year or more of education.
Struggle for Justice
The struggle for justice for victims of the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal has been long and hard.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India speaking to Global Christian News said, “The Kandhamal story has been now recorded carefully by a band of committed Christian activists, and law researchers. The well-known Supreme Court lawyer, Vrinda Grover, has conducted two analyses based on law data to comment on how justice has been deliberately distorted or denied, by acts of commission and omission involving the police, the politicians, and even the judicial personnel.”
There are several angles to the Kandhamal issue that was described as “national shame” by the then Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh that need a closer investigation. The careless way in which the administration approached justice for the victims was even observed by the Supreme Court in a recent judgement.
The Supreme Court, in August 2016, responding to a Public Interest Litigation moved in 2008, by the recently deceased Archbishop Raphael Cheenath observed: “The affidavit filed on behalf of the State disclosed that out of 827 registered cases, 512 cases resulted in filing of charge-sheets while in 315 cases final reports were submitted. In other words, in 315 cases either no offence was found to have been made out or the offenders could not be detected. Such large proportion is quite disturbing. The State could do well in looking into all these 315 cases and see that the offenders are brought to book. Similarly, out of 362 trials which stand completed only 78 have resulted in conviction, which again is a matter of concern. The concerned authorities must see to it that the matters are taken up wherever acquittals were not justified on facts.”
The Supreme Court also directed the Odisha government to pay additional compensation to the victims. The bench headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur and Justice Uday U Lalit ruled that the compensation paid to the victims was not adequate and ordered additional amount to be paid.
Dr. John Dayal, Spokesperson of the United Christian Forum told GCN, “That over 60,000 people, who were displaced after 6,000 and more homes were destroyed in several days of mayhem, had to struggle for years in the Supreme Court of India to get a modicum of justice speaks of the prevailing situation.”
The case of Sr. M
While justice is seen largely in terms of collective data, it is individual cases that impress upon us the impact of the violence on lives and the gruesomeness of their experiences.
The case of Sr. M is one such reminder of what victims of persecution and anti-Christian violence in India go through.
Sr. M is a tribal woman, a nun, and a brave soul who has faced not only the painful trials in court but also the sharp often piercing eye of the media and the slander of the Hindu nationalists, in her telling of her story of being gang raped during the violence in Kandhamal and in her pursuance of justice.
Rev. Vijayesh Lal says, “Many women were raped in Kandhamal and at least one young Hindu woman was murdered. The rape of Christian women particularly Nuns is a tragic reality of India that no one really wants to speak of in academic or other conversations.”
Today Sr. M is a frequent visitor in the District and Sessions Courts in Cuttack, Odisha. Her latest appearance before the court was after she was summoned by the defence lawyers to be cross-examined after she had identified five of the men who had assaulted her and her colleague, Fr. Thomas Chellan. She was the solitary witness to the assault on the priest.
Dr. John Dayal writes: “Her own experience in the trial of her rapists had been a painful one. The magistrate recording her statement would not do so honestly. The high court was remiss. Ultimately the Supreme Court had to remind the Orissa justice system where their duty lay. As a witness in the assault on Fr. Thomas Chellan, the Catholic priest who too had sought to hide from the mobs before they were caught, she raped, and he beaten to within an inch of his life, Sr. M’s experience was once again traumatizing.
“Nobody accompanied her; no senior lawyers, just a young lawyer to help her face a very hostile team of local lawyers who carry their ideology on their sleeves, several of the assailants, and a huge media contingent which was looking for some juicy interlude to telecast and report. The Nun felt rather helpless,” Dr. Dayal writes.
GCN Editor met Sr. M, not long after her recent harrowing experience in court. The eight years that have passed have been painful for her at every step of the encounter with the justice administration system and although she is a member of the powerful Catholic Church, she seems to be fighting this battle all-alone. Unfortunately, so do the independent pastors, their wives and daughters, most of the time.
She is however hopeful and takes comfort in knowing that many people still continue to pray for her. He painful experience has only made her cling harder to her faith in God.
“Although, Supreme Court has ordered the opening of 315 cases, there are apprehensions that the fate of the cases would be similar as the earlier experiences. Unless the Supreme Court monitors the cases, the same police officials and prosecutors who are complicit or indifferent to the cases could repeat their earlier ways. Besides, there are other factors like poverty, intimidation and lack of witness protection schemes that would ensure the accused get off scot free,” says Fr. Ajay Singh, a Catholic Priest and activist who has been closely involved in the struggle for justice for the victims of the anti-Christian violence.
Dr. John Dayal sums it up, “Justice is not just winning or losing a criminal case, or some criminals going to jail. It is a comprehensive situation. The victims must feel the state cares for them as citizens; they must feel they have been rehabilitated, that there is employment, that the children have overcome the break in their education, and that women who were assaulted are healed psychologically and spiritually.”