New Delhi — A Hindu spiritual leader was murdered mysteriously the night of August 23, 2008, along with four of his disciples. While Church officials and Christian groups condemned the killing, fundamentalists blamed the killing on a Christian conspiracy.
The witch hunt for Christians and the violence that began shortly thereafter went on for weeks, leaving more than 100 Christians dead and nearly 6,000 houses and 296 churches destroyed. Thousands of Christians had to flee to nearby jungles.
Those who came in the path of raging fundamentalists were asked to proceed to nearby temples for a reconversion ritual. Those who refused to go were put to the sword, chopped into pieces, crushed with boulders and even burnt alive.
Yet, hardly any Christian embraced Hinduism. “They stood firm as Christians. We are really proud of them,” said Archbishop John Barwa of Kandhamal. Nearly half of the 117,000 Christians—20 percent of the population of the jungle district—became homeless for their faith. Most fled Kandhamal and lived in urban slums for months.
The anniversary was marked in New Delhi on Monday with scores of Hindu and Muslim action groups joining Christians in solidarity under the banner “Kandhamal Never Again.”
Yet, six years after the worst persecution of Christians in Indian history, thousands of Christians are still craving for justice. They felt a particularly harsh blow when a three-judge bench of the federal Supreme Court recently downplayed the suffering they had endured.
“Most of the churches get funds from foreign governments. So it is not proper for you to ask for chairs in the church or church bells,” Justice H.L. Dattu told Colin Gonzalves, a senior Catholic lawyer in the Supreme Court, who has been representing the Church for six years.
The judge's remarks came while hearing the plea of Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack Bhubaneswar, Archbishop Barwa's predecessor, who saw the fruit of his work of 27 years go up in smoke in August 2008.
The Supreme Court also dismissed the Church's appeal that the families of those who died of diarrhea, cholera and snakebites in relief camps (following the orchestrated violence) should be given compensation.
In fact, the government has acknowledged the deaths of only 38 Christians while refusing to register dozens of killings and deaths due to massive displacement. Consequently, families were denied combined compensation of 500,000 rupees (US$ 8,360) from the state and federal governments.
“Please don’t make such pleas. You can’t ask anything. You can ask for the moon, not the sun. You have to be reasonable. The state of Odisha is also not that prosperous,” Justice Dattu said.
Over the years, only 3,181 of the more than 11,300 defendants named in 828 criminal cases were brought to trial. But the courts found evidence to convict only 477 of them—often for lesser offenses like arson and rioting.
Of the 27 murder trials, all but two have ended up in acquittals due to shoddy investigations, lackluster prosecution and rampant witness intimidation.
Further, the National Human Rights Commission, which had been set up to ensure “better protection of human rights” and was a beacon of hope to the victims of the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2001, seemed to turn a blind eye to the persecution of Christians in Kandhamal. The autonomous commission issues press releases regularly on human rights violations—but not one on Kandhamal.
Repeated efforts to get a response to this silence yielded no response.
In fact, a report submitted by the commission's investigation team made a sweeping observation that “the relief camps have been well established.” That stood in stark contrast to reports of social action groups highlighting the deplorable state of affairs in the open-air refugee camps without even water supply and sanitation.
Archbishop Barwa has mixed emotions: “We are sad that our people are still waiting for justice. Amid such injustice, we have reason to be proud also as our people have shown to the world what it is to bear witness to Christ at any cost.”
The Church submitted in 2012 an appeal to the National Human Rights Commission demanding a ‘task force’ to be set up to provide comprehensive compensation for the losses Christians had suffered, rehabilitation, education and employment for the affected people.
Two years later, the Church appeal has made hardly any progress. Except for the token compensation of 50,000 rupees ($830) for “fully damaged” houses and 20,000 rupees ($330) for “partially damaged” houses, the Orissa government had not provided any compensation to the Christians — some of whom lost property worth millions in the arson. Anto Akkara has authored two books,
Kandhamal Craves for Justice and
Early Christians of 21st Century, on the incredible witness of Kandhamal Christians. It was released by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for Evangelisation of Peoples, at the silver jubilee conference of bishops of 130 Latin rite dioceses in India in 2013.