State witnessed country’s ‘bloodiest anti-Christian attack last year.’
NEW DELHI, August 22 (Compass Direct News) – One year after India’s worst-ever attack on Christians, which began after the killing of a Hindu leader on Aug. 23 in Orissa state last year, churches across the country will fast and pray for a peace that remains elusive.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has appealed to all the Catholic dioceses in the country to “pray for peace and harmony and a spirit of reconciliation” by fasting tomorrow, one year to the day that Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed by non-Christian Maoists last year.
“This appeal is made in a special context to what happened to the Christians in Orissa after the murder of Saraswati in Kandhamal [district] on Aug. 23, 2008,” CBCI Secretary General Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes said in a statement.
Archbishop Fernandes urged the Christian community to “adhere to the Christian principle of forgiveness and move forward so as to build a strong and integrated civil society.”
On Monday (Aug. 24), an inter-denominational meeting to pray for peace, healing and reconciliation will be held at The Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi to mark “National Kandhamal Day.”
Leaders of all major denominations and church groups, including the CBCI, the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of India and the All India Christian Council (AICC), as well as government officials, are expected to attend the meeting.
A Distant Peace
Christians believe it may take a long time for peace and reconciliation to become a reality in Kandhamal, where violence in August and September 2008 killed more than 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses, over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions.
“The road to peace is not easily available to the Christian community,” Dr. Sam Paul, spokesman for the AICC, told Compass.
The Hindu extremists who inflicted the violence last year have warned those who have returned from refugee camps for displaced Christians to withdraw the cases filed against them, Paul said.
“At some places they were threatened to convert to Hinduism,” he said. “At a few places, to maintain the peace, the local Christians had to deny their faith.”
Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the Christian Legal Association, emphasized that without justice there can be no peace.
“Unless the administration is able to work together with the victims to ensure that the attackers are brought to justice, there will never be peace in Kandhamal,” he said. “On the part of the Christians who have been displaced, there is a need to courageously give testimonies against the accused to ensure that minorities everywhere are able to live in peace.”
David said it will take at least a year for the more than 827 criminal cases filed to be settled.
Dr. Krishan Kumar, Kandhamal district collector (administrative head), denied that peace had not returned to the district.
“There has been no incident of violence for more than seven months,” he claimed.
Asked why a majority of the displaced Christians had not returned to their villages yet, he told Compass, “I have no knowledge about it.” He added that he and other officials have been meeting regularly with religious leaders of various communities.
Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians said Kandhamal did not need “mere moments of peace, but an era of peace.”
AICC’s Paul warned that if the attackers were not brought to justice, the impunity would further embolden them.
A New Delhi-based non-profit group, the Indo Global Social Service Society, has spearheaded a campaign to gain signatures for a memorandum highlighting the true condition of Kandhamal and hopes to present it to the president of India tomorrow (Aug. 23).
The memorandum states that although more than 11,000 persons were named in police complaints, only 679 had been arrested.
It also points out that a total of 50,000 persons were displaced as a result of the destruction of their houses, arson and looting, but that less than half of them have returned to their homes.
“A number of those who have returned have been denied access to water, firewood, and even to shops to buy daily necessities,” the memorandum states.
Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), a private news agency, spoke to victims of the Kandhamal violence on the eve of the one-year commemoration.
“It was the darkest night of my life,” recalled 45-year-old Ravinder Nath Pradhan, who a year ago saw his house and paralyzed brother doused with gas and set afire by a fanatical mob. Since then, Pradhan told IANS, justice is “nowhere near.” On Aug. 24, 2008, some 500 people attacked his village and destroyed his house.
“Within moments they flung petrol on my wheelchair-bound younger brother and torched him,” Pradhan, a retired soldier from Gadragaon village, told IANS. “We fled for our lives.”
After the violence, his family and a group of 120 Christians were forced to flee their homes to a relief camp in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.
“We went back once in December to reap our crop,” he told IANS. “Tension still loomed large. We [minority and Hindu families] used to share all our joys and sorrows. Now they say a passing hello and inquire where you are headed, and that’s it. We live underneath trees where we once had our own home.”
Seeds of Destruction
The region had been tense since the 2007 Christmas season, when alleged extremists of the VHP carried out attacks on Christians, killing at least four persons, burning 730 houses and 95 churches and rendering thousands homeless.
The spark that ignited the violence was a minor conflict between VHP supporters and local Christians over the pitching of a tent for Christmas celebrations in Brahmanigaon village. Christians were beaten, and their shops were destroyed as they went ahead with their celebration plans. In the melee, VHP leader Saraswati, who was believed to be behind the assault, came under attack and “retributive” action followed. (See “Four Die in Christmas Rampage by Hindu Extremists,” Dec. 28, 2007.)
Eight months later, with hundreds of displaced victims still living in relief camps, Maoists assassinated VHP leader Saraswati and four of his disciples on the evening of Aug. 23. The VHP wrongly blamed Christians for the murders in order to ignite large-scale violence on the minority community.
VHP leaders made public statements blaming the killing of their leader on local Christians, claiming it was to avenge the December 2007 violence. Fearing tensions, the administration of Kandhamal imposed a curfew. The VHP, too, imposed a “closure” across the state to protest Saraswati’s death, requiring a society-wide shutdown.
Defying the curfew imposed by the administration, the VHP mobilized hundreds of supporters and organized a funeral procession carrying Saraswati’s body from his ashram (religious hermitage) in Jalespata area to another site in Chakapada area – using a circuitous route that took it more than 100 kilometers (66 miles) to provoke greater conflict, according to The Hindu. As the VHP’s funeral procession continued on Aug. 24 with police escort, reports of violence began to flood newsrooms across the country.
Local police were apparently under political pressure not to take action against the organizers of the procession (see “Police Do Little to Protect Christians in Orissa,” Sept. 4, 2008). The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close links with the VHP, was still part of the ruling state government, in partnership with the regional Biju Janata Dal party.
The state government excused itself by blaming its inability to prevent arson, rape and murder on the “difficult” hilly terrain of Kandhamal, according to The Indian Express, and the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) offered nothing more than token expressions of concern.
The UPA issued an official warning to Orissa under Article 355 of the constitution, which empowers the federal government to proclaim an emergency. But the warning came three weeks too late – by then the worst was over.
Report from Compass Direct News