Special Investigations Team Sought in Orissa Violence

Acquittals increasingly surpass convictions due to shoddy or corrupt police investigators.

NEW DELHI, December 7 (CDN) — Christian leaders in India have called for a special investigations team to counter the shoddy or corrupt police investigations into anti-Christian violence in Orissa state in August-September 2008.

Of the 100 cases handled by two-fast track courts, 32 have been heard as of Nov. 30, resulting in 48 convictions and more than 164 acquittals. A legislator for the main Hindu extremist party has been exonerated “for lack of evidence” in six cases, most of them involving murder charges. The number of cases registered total 787.

“Christians are extremely shocked by this travesty of justice in Orissa,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass.

The government of Orissa set up two fast-track courts in Kandhamal district headquarters for cases related to the violence that began in August 2008 after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples in Jalespetta on Aug. 23, 2008. The chief minister of Orissa state has admitted that Hindu extremist umbrella group Sangh Parivar was involved in the anti-Christian violence (see sidebar below), and Christian leaders have said they are increasingly concerned over verdicts in the fast-track courts based in Phulbani.

Among those exonerated “for lack of evidence” was Manoj Pradhan, a legislator from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who was acquitted of murder on Nov. 24. He was accused of killing Trinath Digal of Tiangia village on Aug. 25, 2008.

Thus far, Pradhan has been cleared in six of 14 cases against him.

“Manoj Pradhan has been let off in all the major cases against him, mostly murder cases, for lack of evidence,” attorney Das told Compass. “Now only small cases of arson remain against him.”

Attorneys said acquittals have resulted from police investigations that were intentionally defective to cover up for Hindu extremist attackers. In many cases, for example, police have fraudulently misrepresented the ages of suspects so they would not match with those denoted in the victims’ First Information Reports, leaving the court no option but to let the alleged culprits go.

Nine people were convicted, and five suspects, including Pradhan, were acquitted “for lack of evidence” on Nov. 18 for burning the house of Ratha Nayak in Mlahupanga village, Kandhamal on Aug. 27, 2008. Those convicted were sentenced to four years of prison and fined 3,500 rupees (US$75) each.

In a previous case, witnesses had testified to the involvement of Pradhan in the kidnapping of Kantheswar Digal – subsequently murdered on Aug. 25, 2008 – in Sankarakhole village, Phulbani district, but their testimony failed to convince the court to condemn the BJP politician.

Pradhan was arrested and jailed in October 2008 and was elected as BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly from the G. Udayagiri constituency while in jail.

On Nov. 24, Judge C.R. Das acquitted six suspects: Budhdeb Kanhar, Purander Kanhar, Gadadhar Kanhar, Sudhir Pradhan, Ajibana Pradhan and Dadhi Mallick. They were accused of killing Meghanad Digal and his wife Priyatama from Dutukagam village, Tikabali on Sept. 25, 2008.

Judge S.K. Das sentenced 12 persons to four years of prison along with a fine of 2,000 rupees (US$43) each on Nov. 28 for torching houses and shops at Sirtiguda village, under Nuagaon police jurisdiction, on Sept. 13, 2008.

Indo-Asian News Service reported that on Nov. 30 Sanjeev Pradhan was convicted of torching the house of Shravan Kumar Digal of Penagari village on Aug. 25, 2008. Sanjeev Pradhan was sentenced to prison for five years and fined 7,500 rupees (US$160).

Special Investigation Team Sought

Christian leaders are calling for a special investigation team like the one created after communal violence wracked Gujarat state in 2002.

“The need of the hour is a special investigation team, for the investigations of the Orissa police have caused doubts,” attorney Das said. 

He added that the cases should be transferred out of Kandhamal, as Christian leaders feel justice cannot be served in the district’s Hindu extremist atmosphere.

Many of the Christians displaced as a result of the violence have yet to return to their villages. The archbishop of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack, Raphael Cheenath, told media that out of 50,000 people displaced, about half have returned, “but they are facing housing problems. The state government should take it up earnestly.”

Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council stated in a Dec. 4 report that “several thousand of the 50,000 Christian refugees are still to return home. Many cannot, as they have been told they have to convert to Hinduism before they will be accepted in the villages. The threats and coercion continue till today.”

He added that most of the more than 5,000 houses destroyed in December 2007 and August-October 2008 mayhem have yet to be rebuilt.

Attorney Das told Compass many of those who fled their village fear returning home.

“It is true that in many cases, the pre-condition of converting to Hinduism and facing violence if they do not has been the factor that has prevented the people from returning to their homes,” he said. “The fear of being attacked again has also stopped many from going into their villages. The government has not been very successful in instilling trust in the Christian community that such incidents can be prevented in the future.”

Orissa police yesterday arrested a man accused in the rape of a nun during the violence in Kandhamal. Gururam Patra was reportedly arrested in Dharampur.

He was accused of leading a mob that attacked the nun at on Aug. 25, 2008. Police have so far arrested 19 people in the incident, with another 11 still at large. The 29-year-old nun has told police she was raped and paraded naked by a Hindu extremist mob, and that officers only stood by when she pleaded for help.


Official Names Hindu Nationalist Groups in Orissa Violence

NEW DELHI, December 7 (Compass Direct News) – The ruling party of Orissa state, which labelled last year’s mayhem in Kandhamal district as “ethnic violence,” has publicly admitted that Hindu nationalist groups were behind the killings and arson of Christians and their property.

“It is learnt from the investigation into the riot cases that the members of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], the VHP [World Hindu Council] and the Bajrang Dal were involved in the violence that took place last year,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the state legislative assembly last month.

Patnaik, in response to a question by a member of the Communist Party of India, also disclosed that police had arrested 85 people from the RSS, 321 members of the VHP and 118 Bajrang Dal members in the attacks. He said that only 27 members from these groups were still in jail.

The others were either bailed out or acquitted for lack of evidence, which Christians say is due to shoddy or corrupt investigation by police and prosecutors (government attorneys).

Soon after violence in Kandhamal broke out in August 2008, Patnaik blamed it on “conflict of interest” between Dalits (people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in Hinduism and formerly known as “untouchables”) and tribal people.

National media speculated that Patnaik was seeking to deflect attention from the Bajrang Dal, which had been accused of the attacks on the Christians. The Bajrang Dal (Army of Hindu God Hanuman) is the youth wing of the VHP, which is seen as part of the RSS family.

Local Christians had suspected the role of the RSS and related outfits since the violence began on Aug. 24, 2008 – one day after Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed by Maoists (extreme Marxists) and RSS members blamed Christians for it.

The RSS is a Hindu nationalist conglomerate whose political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was part of the ruling coalition during the 2008 eruption of the violence that killed more than 100 people, mostly hacked to death or burned alive, and incinerated more than 4,500 houses, over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Patnaik’s party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) broke up its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP in March 2009, a month before state assembly and national elections were held. The BJD, which fought the two elections alone, won a majority in the state assembly and most seats in parliament from the state.

It was only after the coalition’s break-up that the BJD began to hint at the culpability of the RSS and related groups.

“It was important to break up with the BJP, because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal [violence] – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Patnaik told CNN-IBN, a private TV news channel, on April 19.

A state government-constituted panel, the Justice Mohapatra Commission of Inquiry, is probing the Kandhamal violence but has yet to issue its final report.

Meantime, a report of another panel, the Justice M.S. Liberhan Commission of Inquiry, said that top leaders of the BJP, the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal “meticulously planned” the demolition of the 17th century Babri Mosque 17 years ago.

More than 2,000 people were killed in communal violence across the country following the demolition of the mosque on Dec. 6, 1992. The incident polarized voters along religious lines and subsequently contributed to the BJP’s rise in Indian politics.

The Liberhan report, presented to parliament on Nov. 25, indicted several Hindu nationalist leaders, including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, current Leader of Opposition in the People’s House L.K. Advani, VHP leader Ashok Singhal and former RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan.

Observers said the indictment of extreme Hindu nationalists, however, has come too late, as the BJP no longer seems to be powerful at the national level.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Uttar Pradesh, India, September 29 (CDN) — Hindu extremists chased a pastor into hiding on Sept. 19 in Lucknow. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that hardliners from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad ( World Hindu Council or VHP), Bharatiya Janata Party and Bajrang Dal (youth wing of the VHP) accused Pastor Bechu Azah Chhedi of forceful conversions as they arrived in large number at his church in Ramdaspur village and disrupted the worship service. The same group has attacked the pastor three times, reported AICC, and local Christians who found out about the extremists’ plan hid him. The pastor has relocated for safety.

Jammu and Kashmir – Police detained Pastor Salamat Masih and three others on false charges of forceful conversion on Sept. 17 in Hira Nagar. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Hindu extremists from the Shiv Sena (Religious Army) beat the pastor and falsely accused him of offering 10,000 rupees (US$207) to each of three converts from Hinduism about to be baptized. Police arrived and took the pastor and the three others to the police station, keeping them in custody for two days as a safety measure; local people incited by the extremists were eager to attack them, reported a source. No case was filed against the pastor after the intervention of local Christian leaders.

Andhra Pradesh – About 10 Hindu extremists on Sept. 13 attacked a worship meeting of Opier Ministries Evangelical Church in Warangal, beating a pastor. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that around 1 p.m., the intolerant Hindus barged into the worship service conducted by Pastor Pilly Kumar, verbally abused and beat him, and destroyed a sign board bearing the church’s name. The pastor filed a police complaint, but officers refused to register a case. In May the extremists had warned the pastor not to conduct worship services in the area, reported the AICC.

Madhya Pradesh – Police arrested eight Christians from Blessing Youth Mission (BYM) under the state’s anti-conversion law on Sept. 12 in Katni. A source reported that Christians, including women, were on their way to visit their children at a BYM hostel. They were waiting on the railway platform when, as a Christian worker scheduled to pick them up arrived, railway police arrived and accused them of forceful conversion, blasphemy against Hindu gods and creating havoc. The charges included “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of others with acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention.” The Christians were detained for about 20 hours and released on bail.

Karnataka – A group of unidentified men attacked St. Francis De Sales Church near Hebbagudi, Bangalore early on the morning of Sept. 10. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the men were carrying weapons and broke into the building, damaging windows. The Press Trust of India reported that statues of Infant Jesus and Mother Mary on the premises were damaged. The group also tried to burn a van parked in front of the church building. Damages were estimated at about 200,000 rupees (US$4,144), reported the GCIC. The church has filed a complaint and a First Information Report at Hebbagudi police station. Last year Karnataka, ruled by the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party, faced a series of attacks on churches in Mangalore, Bangalore, Davanagere, Kodagu and other towns.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Shiv Sena (Religious Army) on Sept. 10 attacked a pastor identified only as Ramanjaniah, accused him of cheating people and of forceful conversion, then beat him and paraded him on the street in Tumkur. The Global Council of Indian Christian reported that the pastor was conducting a prayer meeting at a Christian’s house when the intolerant Hindus stormed into the house and assaulted him. They tore a Bible and beat, punched and kicked the pastor and continued beating him as they dragged him about one kilometer. The pastor received hospital treatment for fractures in his face and leg. The extremists pressured police to restrain the pastor from future preaching, but officers only requested the pastor inform them before he conducts worship. They promised police protection should he require it.

Madhya Pradesh – Police arrested a Christian worker for “preaching to forcefully convert people to Christianity” based on a complaint filed by the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Sept. 8 in Barwani district. Sources reported that the RSS members dragged Gopi Krishnan of Friends Missionaries Prayer Band (FMPB) to the police station to file the complaint against him. The police booked him for joining in an assembly of more than five people after being commanded to disperse, and of abetment of the offense. Krishnan appeared before the sub-divisional magistrate the next day and was sent to Barwani district jail. He was granted bail on Sept. 10. FMPB representative Ravi Kumar told Compass that RSS members are pressuring Krishnan to leave his house before Sept. 30 or face harm. The Christian is scheduled to appear before a magistrate on Nov. 9. Local Christian leaders maintained that preaching to “forcefully convert” people does not take place in the area.

Rajasthan – About 30 Hindu extremists on Sept. 4 assaulted two Christian workers from Gospel for Asia and chased them into the jungle near Banswada. Sources reported that the extremists waylaid the two Christians as they were returning from a prayer meeting and viciously beat them and verbally abused them. The Christians fled and hid in the nearby forest. A Christian search team found the duo at midnight and gave them shelter. A Gospel for Asia representative said their names could not be disclosed for security reasons.

Orissa – Suspected Hindu extremists armed with country pistols and swords on Sept. 3 attacked Pastor Isaac Digal of Good Shepherd Community Church for holding a worship service in his house – beating him, his wife and daughter and ransacking his home in Kandhamal. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists also took his mobile phone, bank book and ATM card. The Hindu extremists had reportedly made an earlier attempt to destroy his house and had threatened him several times. Police arrived at the scene, and the pastor filed a complaint. No arrests had been made at press time.

Andhra Pradesh – About 30 Hindu extremists attacked a pastor and a church on Aug. 30 in Mudinepalli. The All India Christian Council reported the Hindu extremists installed a microphone on the roof of the church building, and a Hindu idol in front it, as part of the Hindu Ganesh festival. Pastor Solomon Raju asked the extremists and a local official to move the mike to some other place, with the Hindu hardliners responding by disrupting the Sunday worship service and beating the pastor. He filed a police complaint. No arrests had been made at press time.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Hindu extremists beat Fr. Bernard Digal unconscious, leaving him bleeding in forest.

NEW DELHI, October 31 (Compass Direct News) – More than 3,000 people today attended the funeral in Bhubaneswar, Orissa of a Catholic priest who died on Tuesday (Oct. 28) from injuries sustained in anti-Christian violence that began in August.

Father Bernard Digal died in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, after an operation to remove a blood clot that developed in his brain due to a head injury from Hindu extremists attacking him on Aug. 25-26 in Kandhamal district, Orissa state. He was 46.

“He was smashed like a pulp,” Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, told Compass. “Because of the hate campaign of the [Hindu extremist] Sangh Parivar, the attackers lost their humanity and they became devils. Human beings can’t do what they have done.”

Archbishop Cheenath flew with Fr. Digal’s remains from Chennai to Orissa. Treasurer of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese in Orissa, Fr. Digal was visiting Sankarakhole parish when violence flared after Maoists killed Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and his disciples on Aug. 23.

Though police suspected Maoists from the start and the outlawed Marxists had claimed responsibility for the murders by Sept. 1, Hindu extremists bent on stoking anti-Christian flames continued to publicize that Christians had committed the crime – and have not stopped doing so.

Fr. Digal and Father Alexander Chandy, along with driver Sisir Pradhan, had taken shelter in a forest after a furious mob gathered outside the parish shouting slogans to kill all missionaries. After spending two days in the forest, they left the forest after Fr. Chandy became ill, moving from village to village.

They finally took refuge in a gutted church building in Dudukangia village. It had been torched and only its walls were standing. Legs swollen from walking, the refugees hoped that the enraged Hindu mobs would not come, Archbishop Cheenath said.

But the mob tracked them down by midnight, the archbishop said, and the clerics and driver ran. The crowd caught hold of Fr. Digal, who later told Archbishop Cheenath, “The mob shouted to each other to kill me. I pleaded for my life, but in vain.”

Stripping Fr. Digal naked, the Hindu mob then hit him with crowbars, iron rods, cycle chains, axes, sticks and other weapons, the archbishop said.

“They made a bonfire to burn him alive,” he said.

Seeing the fire, Fr. Digal managed to escape and run through some thorny bushes but was caught shortly after. The intolerant Hindus continued to hammer him until blood flowed from his head and he lost consciousness, and they left him for dead, Archbishop Cheenath said.

“He lay there on the wet ground and in the cool breeze for six to seven hours,” he added. Two villagers who found him in the forest carried him to Phulbani.

After much pressure, the state administration took Fr. Digal to a private hospital in Bhubaneswar, under security cover, and from there he was taken to Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai.

Discharged the first week of October after more than a month in the hospital, he reached Chennai, Tamil Nadu on Oct. 12 to visit his friend the vicar general of the archdiocese, who was undergoing a heart treatment in St. Thomas Hospital.

“Fr. Digal, after coming to Chennai, complained of high fever, blood in the urine and headache, and lastly his lungs collapsed,” Archbishop Cheenath told Compass.

Tests revealed he had a blood clot in the brain, and he underwent emergency surgery on Sunday evening (Oct. 26), reported The Times of India. The next day, he developed acute respiratory disorder and slipped into a coma.

Kandhmal district Police Chief Pravin Kumar told the national daily that he had no knowledge of the attack on Digal.

“So many incidents took place,” he reportedly said. “I don’t know whether there was any formal complaint pertaining to the attack on him. The police can begin an enquiry into the incident if a complaint is lodged even now.”

The Orissa state government has ordered a probe into the death of Fr. Digal, according to The Statesman News Service.

Fr. Digal was ordained on May 29, 1992. He was a native of the village of Tiangia in Kandhamal.


Orissa Rape Victim’s Plea

Two months after a nun was raped and paraded half-naked on Aug. 25 in the anti-Christian violence in Orissa, the victim went before the media in New Delhi on Oct. 24 and recounted her traumatic experience.

Her head and face covered by a black scarf, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa accused police of being “friendly” with the attackers and of not being responsive to her plea. Expressing her distrust in Orissa police for failing to protect her from those who raped her and other attackers, she demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.

The nun had gone into hiding after the attack but decided to come forward after the Supreme Court turned down her initial request for a CBI investigation last week.

Sr. Barwa read from her handwritten statement, giving stark details of the incident. Archbishop Cheenath accompanied her in the press conference.

“Two of them were holding my neck to cut off my head with an axe,” she said. “Others told them to take me out to the road; I saw Fr. [Thomas] Chellan also being taken out and being beaten.”

The 40 to 50 men were armed with axes, spades, crowbars, iron-rods and sickles, Sr. Barwa added. She said she was taken to a building full of ashes and broken glass and raped there, with the mob subsequently parading her and Fr. Chellan for about a half a kilometer. Upon reaching a market she asked about a dozen Orissa police to help her, she said, “but they did not move.”

“This hate campaign,” Archbishop Cheenath said, “is done under the very nose of the authorities, and they are mere spectators of these shameful deeds.”

At the Balliguda police station, the nun recounted, she told the inspector in charge and other government officers how she was attacked, raped, taken away from policemen and paraded half-naked, and how the officers did nothing as she wept bitterly. The inspector asked her, she said, if she knew “what will be the consequence” of filing a First Information Report (FIR).

On Aug. 26, as she was writing the FIR, the inspector told her to hurry and not write it in detail, she said.

“State police failed to stop the crimes, failed to protect me from the attackers, they were friendly with the attackers,” she said. “They tried their best that I did not register an FIR, not make complaints against police, [and] police did not take down my statement as I narrated in detail and they abandoned me half of the way. I was raped and now I don’t want to be victimized by the Orissa police. I want a CBI enquiry.”

Since her press conference, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has called for a detailed report on the sequence of events from the district collector and superintendent of police.  

Report from Compass Direct News


The persecution of a Baptist layman in India’s state of Orissa provided the focus of an Oct. 13 article in The New York Times about the oppression of Christians by Hindu militants in the region, reports Baptist Press.

Solomon Digal symbolized almost two months of suffering inflicted by the violence, which has claimed more than 30 lives and seen 3,000 homes and 130 church buildings destroyed.

The persecution began in the aftermath of the Aug. 23 murder of a revered Hindu teacher in the area. Although police have said communist rebels committed the killing, Hindu extremists blamed Christians and began inciting violence against them in retribution.

Digal, a Christian since childhood, told The Times that his family was forced to turn over their Bibles, hymn books and images of Jesus to village leaders in Orissa’s volative Kandhamal district. The family was forced to kneel and watch as the symbols of their faith were burned. Family members were told that if they did not convert to Hinduism, their house would be destroyed and they would be killed or driven from the village.

Later, a stiff fine of 501 rupees was levied against the family for telling a reporter about their circumstances.

Although India’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Hindus in at least six Indian states are forcing Christians to convert under threat of violence. Christians account for only about 2 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people. The religious problems are heightened by long-running ethnic and economic tensions between the Pana and Kandha people groups, according to the Times article.

Other stories of persecution abound, ranging from five men who were forced by machete-wielding neighbors to submit to a conversion ritual to the story of a Catholic priest and nun who were paraded naked in the streets before she was gang-raped.

When The Times reporter asked the leader of a Hindu radical group in the state to respond to the rape allegation, he described the violence as “a spontaneous reaction” and said the nun had engaged in consensual sex.

Report from the Christian Telegraph