Kandhamal violence seared in memory of India’s Christians

Christians meet near their rebuilt church in Kandhamal. In 2008, almost every church in the area was destroyed by Hindu nationalists. | John Fredricks

Feb. 24, 1784, was the day the Christian community in India shed its innocence, discovering its vulnerability in a land where social, religious and other identity groups jostled for power, some with notional or virtual alliances, others with armed gangs patronized by the rulers, and still others at the head of real armies.

This was the day the prosperous Catholic community in the Canara region was attacked by the armies of Tipu Sultan of Mysore and taken into captivity, with 60,000 marched to his fortress capital in Seringapatam.

More than 20,000 died in the march of thirst, hunger, exhaustion and disease. The rest remained in captivity for 15 years, toiling, tortured and often converted to Islam. Fewer than 20,000 eventually made it back to their Mangalore homeland. The numbers remain disputed. The memory remains real more than three centuries later.

Aug. 24-25, 2008, is the second date seared into community memory. We remember it as Kandhamal Day. Kandhamal is far away from Mangalore, a forest-clad plateau district in the eastern state of Orissa (now known as Odisha). The Christian community living there, consisting of the Kondh Adivasi and Pano Dalit groups, was the target of a massed attack in the aftermath of the assassination of a Hindu religious and political leader, Swami Lakshmanand Saraswati, a vice-president of Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He was shot dead in his ashram by a posse of Maoists.

The initial fury lasted several days, its residual fires several weeks, touching even Mangalore. By the time the savagery subsided, more than 56,000 people had been displaced, half of them spending up to a year in refugee camps organized by the government and civil groups and guarded by armed police. A hundred or more people were hacked to death, some burned alive. Forty women were raped or molested. Several cases of forced conversion to Hinduism were also reported. Christians were reportedly expelled from over 400 villages, with some 5,600 houses and 395 or so big and small churches destroyed.

The figures once again remain a matter of dispute with the government. No one can dispute the agony.

I have met women who gave birth to children in the forests where tigers can be heard and bears and elephants are routinely sighted. The children will be entering their teens now. The trauma and displacement, which lasted more than a year, disrupted the education of 12,000 children.

Survivors submitted more than 3,300 complaints to the police in Kandhamal. Only 820 or so of these were officially acknowledged and filed as official first information reports, the document which forms the basis of all criminal justice procedures in India. The rest of the complaints were perhaps thrown into the dustbin.

Of the complaints they did register, the police took 518 cases to court for trial. Judgements have been given in 247 cases. The rest are pending before the sessions and magistrates’ courts. The accused persons in many cases were acquitted. In the cases in which the criminals were actually convicted, most were soon out on bail.

A study by Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover and law professor Dr. Saumya Uma found that the conviction rate was as low as 5.13 percent of the charge-sheeted cases. If one were to take complaints as a yardstick of the justice process, just 1 percent of the victims or aggrieved persons received a measure of justice.

The National Solidarity Forum, which was formed by civil society activists and groups as an umbrella body to work with the victims, said “the diabolic attacks on Christians in Kandhamal, Odisha, in the consecutive years 2007 and 2008 were much beyond a matter of shock, shame, pain and grief.”

The forum called on former Delhi High Court chief justice A.P. Shah to head a national tribunal in Delhi where victims and survivors told a jury of legal experts and civil society leaders about their brush with death and their lives as refugees seeking justice. The tribunal’s report remains a lasting document of what went on for days stretching into weeks in the land of the deep Sal forests and hills.

The Christian community was not expecting this to happen in Orissa, though they had not forgotten the gruesome murder of Australian leprosy mission worker Graham Stuart Staines and his young sons Timothy and Philip in January 1999. They were burned alive as they slept in their jeep after a festive village meeting in the Manouharpur region of the state.

The murder shocked the world, with Indian leaders calling it a blot on the nation. After a manhunt, the police arrested a man called Dara Singh, said to be the scourge of Muslim cattle traders who took their herds through Orissa on the way to markets in Bengal. He had killed a key trader, Rehman. Dara Singh was identified as a member of the Bajrang Dal, a Sangh affiliate. The sessions court sentenced him to death. Many people in the Christian community said they opposed capital punishment. Graham’s wife, Gladys Staines, stunned the nation when she said she forgave her husband and sons’ murderers. The Supreme Court gave Dara Singh a life term. When last heard, he remained in jail.

Before then, the largest incident was during Christmas 1998 in yet another forest region, the Dangs district of Gujarat, the infamous “laboratory” of targeted violence. 

One late evening, gangs drove through the villages in the forest, attacking and destroying every hut or building they could find which had a cross and could be called a church, however small. When they were done, three dozen or so such church huts had been destroyed. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made it a point to take a helicopter down to the area to see the evidence of the violence himself. Characteristically, he condemned the violence and called for a national debate on conversions. That call still reverberates now through much of India.

Organizations of the victims and survivors pressed hard with the government and, in desperation, moved the Supreme Court. On Aug. 2, 2016, the Supreme Court bench of Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice Uday Lalit ruled that the quantum and scope for compensation was not satisfactory. They found it disturbing that the offenders were not booked by the police. The Supreme Court ordered a review of 315 cases of communal violence that were filed.

Persecution continues but it is dispersed. The 350 or so cases that the United Christian Forum, Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India and Persecution Relief record every year mostly take place in small towns and villages in northern and central states, though some happen in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Maharashtra. These consist of attacks on small churches and prayer congregations, plus banning Christian communities from the use of village wells. As elsewhere, the police are a silent witness, other than when they are complicit.

So why was the death count in Kandhamal a “mere” 100 or so? One has to see the topography of Kandhamal to realize the miraculous escape from destruction not of hundreds but tens of thousands of people who were being chased by armed mobs. The villages nest in the valleys of hills heavily forested with dense groves of Sal and other trees that provide instant shelter and then sustenance to those seeking refuge in their bosom.

John Dayal is a veteran human rights and Christian political activist. He is a member of the National Integration Council of India, Secretary-General of the All India Christian Council, and was president of the All India Catholic Union. The article is originally published here.