Persecution of Christian minority in India: from individual attacks to communal violence

ChurchDhamtari

Attacks on religious minorities in India, where about a fifth of the 1.25 billion population identify themselves as belonging to other religious than Hinduism have been challenging Indian democratic pluralism and tearing apart the secular fabric since decades.

The instances of violence against religious minorities turning into massive violence disrupting the peace in the particular are, district or the whole state are generally related to the attacks on the Muslim community that comprises 14.2 per cent of the total population.

The attacks on Christian community that is smaller significantly, according to official census, seem less immense and limited to personal attacks on church fathers, pastors and other individuals. However, analyzing multiple government and non-government reports year after year since 1990s, one realizes that attacks are multiple, continuous, and devastating for the victims, even though they may not always trigger massive violence which officially becomes a national issue.

Another question is what to consider “massive” violence? Can persecution of tens of families in a tribal village be considered as massive? Although it never becomes a national issue and is hardly covered by any media, for a particular village or community it is massive and ruinous.

Moreover, permanently existing conflicts between communities may provoke tremendous unrest as it happened, for example, in Karnataka in Orissa in 2007 – 2008, and in Karnataka in 2008. These instances of massive violence challenge the state’s ability to secure the basic right of its people.

According to figures of the religion census of 2011 (to be officially released in 2015), Hindus comprised 78.35 per cent of the total population compared with 80.45 per cent of the total population in 2001. In absolute terms, however, the Hindu population increased 14.5 per cent from 82.7 crore to 94.7 crore during the period (2001-11). The share of Christians in the total population remains a little over 2 per cent, however, some Christian leaders and activists estimate the real number of Christian population at about 14 per cent of the total.

Since the converted Christians are facing oppression from the society, majorly from Hindu community, as well as risk losing benefits they otherwise get from government (being under the category of ‘Scheduled Castes’, which provides eligibility for a set of affirmative action benefits, including quotas of reserved places in public sector education and employment)  they tend to keep the fact of conversion in secret, do not change their name and identify themselves as Hindu in the communication with government authorities and local panchayats. This is despite largely believed idea that the point of conversion to Christianity for lower caste Hindu and Dalits is an attempt to overcome social and religious discrimination.

In fact, the exclusion of Dalit Christians (as well as Muslims) from the Scheduled Castes category represents a significant disincentive for Dalits to embrace Christianity (or Islam), and therefore obstructs their freedom to adopt a religion according to their choice, in contrary to Indian constitution that grants protection against discrimination on the basis of religion (Articles 14, 15 and 25), and of international standards on religious freedom.

“Whenever issues affecting the Christian community as a whole occupy center stage in the national minority discourse, the Christian identity gets strengthened, but when the minority discourse dwells on the socially back- ward classes in India, especially the Dalits and the STs, religious identity weakens or breaks down completely in the face of SC or ST unity. Such changes are perceived particularly when one looks at discussions and debates surrounding the issue of reservations for Dalit Christians”.

The purpose of this project, however, is not to assess the issues of conversions to Christianity or any other  ethnic, social, economic or legal aspects of communal violence against Christian community in India, but to expose how the attacks against the community, whether individual or massive, spread across the country challenging the idea of the state as protector of the basic right of its citizens and become a threat to its internal security.

Attacks against Christians in India: Gujarat, Orissa, Karnataka, MP, Chattisgarh

Church_service

While this project was in the pipeline, about a dozen of attacks against Christians occurred across India. Within just two month, February and March of 2015, several churches were vandalized and church members were attacked in Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra, West Bengal and New Delhi.

Several attacks on Christian institutes (churches and schools) in the capital in February lead to street protests and security alert in New Delhi. The attack on Convent of Jesus and Mary School in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, during which 75-year-old nun was gang-raped in March triggered peaceful Christian protests in several cities of India.

In what may seem a “rise” of communal hatred against Christians among Hindu extremists since the right-wing BJP party came to power in 2014 is, in fact, continuation of the same pattern that got suddenly exposed by the media. The attacks on Christians have been happening all over the country for decades. However, few of them attracted media attention or an adequate state response.

Using static data to analyze the scope of violence again Christians across India is quite challenging due to lack of monitoring of such instances on either government or non-government level. There is no government body that keeps  track of records on attacks against Christian minority or having any updated data on such attacks despite the existence of National Commission on Minorities (NCM) set up under the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992 and  as State Minorities Commissions set up in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in order “to safeguard and protect the interests of minorities provided in the Constitution and laws enacted by Parliament and the State Legislatures”.

On the non-government level, too, there is no single body dealing with attack on Christian minority. Instead, there are multiple church associations representing different Christian denominations (largest of which are Roman Catholics, Malabar Catholics, Syro-Malankara Catholics, Malankara Orthodox, Jacobite Orthodox and Marthoma Orthodox, Syrian Anglicans, Pentecostals and Baptists), various groups of activists, NGOs, both in India and abroad, that conduct surveys and studies, release reports on persecutions of Christians based on interviews with church members and leaders. The authenticity of such reports is therefore questionable and although used in this project, its accuracy has been kept in mind.

According to US-based non-profit organization Open Doors, that conducts yearly surveys (World Watch List) on attacks on Christians worldwide, in 2014 pressure on Christians increased in 29 countries. Researchers calculate that 4,344 Christians were “killed for faith-related reasons” in 2014, which is “more than double the 2,123 killed in 2013, and more than triple the 1,201 killed the year before that.

In Asia, Open Doors report shows that China, India and Malaysia registered the largest increases. India is on 21st position among 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution (up from 28th position in 2013), ahead China and most of other countries in South Asia although unlike in some other countries where the Christian population recorded significant numbers, in India Christians officially constitute only 2.3 per cent of 1,25 billion population.

“A new Hindu government (in power since May 2014 and led by Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi) is radicalizing society. All traditions of Christianity are affected by persecution in India, but Christian converts from a Hindu background and non-traditional Protestant groups are suffering most. At the top level the influence of fundamentalist Hindus has increased. Hindu radicals have started monitoring Christian activity in much detail,” – the report says.

A report “100 Days Under the New Regime The State of Minorities A Report” published in September, 2014 and edited by prominent Christian and Dalit rights activist and secretary general of All India Christian Council (AICC) John Dayal, states that the Christian community, the pastors, congregations and churches, were targets of mob violence in dozens of cases in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh since May, 2014 when new government came to power in India and the leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its associate organizations, collectively called the Sangh Parivar declared a campaign of “Ghar Wapsi” or conversions “back”  to Hinduism, and a war on all evangelical activity.

“Target dates, one of them coinciding with Christmas 2014, have been set to “cleanse” various areas of Muslim and Christian presence. The state apparatus and specially the police often became a party arresting not the aggressors but the victims to satisfy the demands of the mob. There have attempts at religious profiling of Christian academic institutions, and their students in the national capital.”

Many reports on attacks against Christians in India note that most of the attacks are launched against “converted Christians”, i.e. Dalits and Tribals (Adivasis). According to The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (C.B.C.I.) of the 24 million Christian population in India, the Dalits constitute about 16 million and the Tribals about 2 million with majority of Dalit Christians living in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and of the Tribal Christians in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Northeastern states.

It is widely believed that Dalit Christians, historically marginalized community, turn to Christianity seeking life without oppression and with dignity. However, even after converting to Christianity, they experience discrimination both within their Hindu-dominated community and within the church since many churches practice “casteism” within themselves as dominant caste converts do not accept the people of lower castes as their equals.

While discrimination of Dalit Christians is mostly on the social level, they are often denied equal rights, including access to resources like water, food rations, etc. within their communities this particular section of Christians experiences the most aggressive and numerous attacks. Such attacks are not widely reported by media nor are they accounted by local or central authorities, including police.

For example, in June, 2014 at Sirisguda, Bastar, Chhattisgarh 52 Christian families were denied ration for two months in the Sirisguda Village be an order enforced by the panchayat head. They approached the food inspector of the district and asked for an inquiry to be conducted. Two representatives were sent to the village but were drove out by locals. Locals filed a false complaint at the Badanji Police Station about the Christians beating the Hindus in the village. This was simultaneously followed up by a mob of 200 perpetrators who attacked 52 Christian families. Most families were stoned and chased away with sticks, while 8 men and 2 women were seriously injured and hospitalized.

There are hundreds of similar instances when tens of Christian families are being attacked, mostly in remote villages and tribal areas in past decade. That is apart from thousands of cases of individual attacks against pastors, church leaders and members and their families.

Since it is impossible to accumulate such data from available reports (their count goes in hundreds) in this particular project, we will further highlight the most immense and thus well covered, researched and documented instances of violence in several states of India trying to realize the role of state in preventing such instances or, in case of impossibility of prevention, its ability to control violence, protect the victims and provide justice to them.

Gujarat

The Hindu organizations considered most responsible for the communal violence in Gujarat, first against Muslims and later Christians include Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an umbrella organization, that along with the Bharatiya Janata Party collectively form the Sangh Parivar (“family” of Hindu nationalist groups).

These organizations promote the argument that India should be a Hindu state since Hindu constitute the majority of Indians.

September 1999 Human Rights Watch report “Politics By Other Means: Attacks Against Christians in India notes that “nationwide violence against India’s Muslim community in 1992, 1993 and against India’s Christian community since 1998, including the state of Gujarat, have also stemmed from the violent activities and hate propaganda of these groups”.

According to the report, a majority of the reported incidents of violence against Christians in 1998 occurred in the western state of Gujarat, the same year that the BJP came to power in the state. The year began with an unprecedented hate campaign by Hindutva groups and culminated with ten days of nonstop violence against Christian tribals and the destruction of churches and Christian institutions in the southeastern districts at the year’s end. Human Rights Watch investigated these attacks in Dangs, Baroda, Surat, Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar in the state of Gujarat happened from February 1998 to November 1998 in which not only the “hooligans” and RSS activists but even the heads of the village police attacked several prayer halls, churches, cemeteries, schools and physically assaulted the worshipers.

According to Human Watch document citing the reports in local and national media, the state’s chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, and VHP General Secretary Dr. Pravin Togadiya have both denied the involvement of Sangh Parivar activists in any of the attacks. Togadiya claimed that most of the incidents being blamed on VHP activists were “fits of imagination of a section of the media”.

Madhya Pradesh

One of the most egregious incidents involved the gang rape of nuns in the state of Madhya Pradesh. At about 2:00 a.m. on September 23, 1998, four nuns who operate a medical clinic in Preetisharan Ashram in Nawapura village, Jhabua district, were gang raped by more than a dozen men. According to Father Lucas, secretary of Indore Diocese, a group of about eighteen or twenty armed men tried to enter the convent by pretending to be the relatives of a sick boy who needed medical attention. When the four nuns refused to open the gate, the men forced their way in and looted cash and valuables. They then proceeded to gang rape the four nuns who had taken refuge in a chapel inside the ashram.

The district administration claimed that the incident was a random attack by local tribals, some of whom had criminal records. The BJP condemned the rapes as “outrageous” and called for the offenders to be punished on a “most immediate basis”. The VHP, however, accused the nuns of trying to convert local Hindus to Christianity, while VHP secretary B. L. Sharma claimed that the incident reflected the “anger of patriotic Hindu youth against the anti-national forces”.

The BJP did not criticize such inflammatory remarks and instead accused opposition parties of giving the incident communal overtones. Home Minister L. K. Advani made a statement in Parliament that twelve of the twenty-four accused rapists belonged to the Christian community, adding that the statement was based on information obtained from the Madhya Pradesh government. Human rights activist and journalist John Dayal of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights saw the FIR registered in the case and spoke to the DSP in-charge. He told Human Rights Watch that no one identified by the victims was Christian and that no Christians had been accused.

The National Commission of Minorities recommended a judicial inquiry and a CBI probe into the incident. While the NCM said it was satisfied with the action taken by the state government, and with the progress of the investigation, it pointed out that the local police had delayed the registration of the First Information Report and the medical examination of the nuns.

Indore, the largest city of Madhya Pradesh, has witnessed several attacks on churches and church members during 2000s. In February 2015, the mob from the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal armed with petrol bombs broke into the church during a service forcing people out. Around the same time at least 125 Hindu extremists attacked one of the oldest and best-known churches in Masihi Mandir Church in Ujjan district of MP, brutally beating one of the fleeing members. The assault followed an attack in Kosmi, Balaghat district of MP in which a mob of Hindu extremists dragged at least four people from a home where Christians were meeting and beat them with bamboo poles, rods and belts.

In the most recent times, the rising number of attacks against Christians since 2014 has touched the tribal-dominated areas like Mandla of Madhya Pradesh where about half of 70% tribal population are Christians. According to media reports, tensions feared in tribal-dominated Khuma village in some 100 km from Jabalpur, where a church was attacked in March 2015 allegedly by Hindu Dharma Sena and Bajrang Dal. Around 30 Christian families  live in this village, both Catholics and Protestants.

Chhattisgarh

Since the early 2003 when BJP government came to power in Chhattisgarh, the state became one of the major centers of attacks against Christians.

In 2003in Jalampur, Dhamtari district, Pastor James Ram and 20 other Christians were beaten and arrested, after singing Christmas carols in Jalampur. The attack was perpetrated by members of the extremist group, Bajrang Dal, who came in the mob of hundred people and stormed the church, beat a number of the Christians and destroyed hymn books and Bibles.

The incident was reported in a number of national newspapers, including the Times of India, which quoted the police superintendent, Bharat Singh, as saying, “the missionaries were caught bribing poor Hindus in a slum colony to convert to Christianity”.

According to Pastor James Ram, Church of God at Dhamtari, interviewed for this project, he and ten other church members were arrested for forcibly converting impoverished Hindus. Pastor James Ram had seven such cases against him, most of them closed by today.

House of dalit villager who was excommunicated after converting to Christianity

House of dalit villager who was excommunicated after converting to Christianity

In 2014, 28 out of 147 attacks were recorded here.  While since January 2015, according to Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, Raipur, at least dozen attacks on churches and pastors have been registered.

Earlier in October 2014, amidst several attacks on Christians in Chhattisgarh local officials from Bastar summoned the Christians from the area to a meeting in Madota village, Bastar District, on the pretext of resolving conflict over bans in the district on missionaries and non-Hindu religious activity since dozens of villages in the district passed such bans earlier. According to church leaders, no one except Christians gathered at the village, instead, Armed Hindu extremists wearing saffron bands arrived and beat more than 15 of church leaders, two were taken to hospitals for treatment, including seven who were seriously injured.

According to multiple media and local sources, local Hindutva groups such as the VHP are pressurizing local Catholic missionaries to put up pictures of Goddess Saraswati in their educational institutions. The Catholic schools are also under pressure to rename the principals in their schools, as “Pracharya”, or “Up-pracharya”, instead of the term “Father”, which is usually used.

Such oppression of Christians as social boycott is successfully used by Hindu groups against low-class Christians in Chhattisgarh tribal areas same applies to MP and Odisha). Christian families, sometimes dozens of then, are excommunicated and deprived from enjoying common facilities of the village such as road, wells, and forests. There are cases of water pollution in the wells used by the Christians.

Moreover, Christians are been forbidden to talk to others, take part in any social functions or walk on the main roads. They are threatened to lose their lands and properties. Chhattisgarh is one of few states having tough anti-conversion law since 2000s. The state assembly passed the Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2006 that provided for a three-year jail term and a fine of Rs 20, 000 for those indulging in religious conversion through allurement, fraud or force. The act, however, provides that “the return to ancestor’s original religion or his own original religion by any person shall not be construed as ‘conversion’ that allows right-wing Hindu organizations conduct forcible re-conversions known as ‘Ghar Wapsi’.

Karnataka

The attacks against Christians in Karnataka from individual instances turned into mass violence during August-September of 2008. After few individual attacks on churches and priests in Davanagere district, including the one in Bada, where a group of about 300 individuals attacked the Yesu Kripalaya Church and burned bibles, the multiple well-planned attacks were launched days later

Around 20 churches attacked across Karnataka of which 14, in different places, were attacked within one hour. The attacks began on 14 September, when a group of youths from the Bajrang Dal attacked the chapel of Adoration Monastery near the Milagres Church in Mangalore.

Some twenty churches and prayer halls, including those of Catholic, Protestant and other evangelical denominations were damaged in towns and villages in the Mangalore  and other parts of Dakshina Kannada district, Udupi district and Chikkamagaluru district. A few Christian institutions were later attacked in Bangalore and Kasaragod.

Christian community responded with protests first in the city of Karkala and then in various areas of Mangalore. The protestors gathered around churches, blocked main roads. In Hampankatta, Mangalore, over 4,000 Christians united to defend the devastated Milagres Church. Violence broke out at the Adoration monastery, which is just opposite the church, as police used tear gas and resorted to lathicharge. The protesters were suppressed, some 150 people were arrested, dozens injured.

The Christian protestors also clashed with police at St. Sebastian Church in the Permannur area of Ullal on the outskirts of Mangalore, shouting slogans and throwing stones at the police for their failure to arrest the perpetrators of the attacks. The police arrested several Christians after firing into the air and being involved in a lathi charge.

A witness in Permannur claimed that Christians attacked the houses of Hindus in retaliation, shouting slogans against the BJP government. Four people of pro-Hindu organizations were reportedly injured at Kalladka and Attavar on the outskirts of the Mangalore when their vehicles were attacked and were pelted with stones.  Ten people, including one of the Sri Ram Sena activists, were reportedly stabbed during the protests and according to the police, the situation was used by some to settle personal scores and not all stabbing incidents were related to attack on churches and the subsequent violence in the city. The Sri Ram Sena protested against the stabbing of one of their activists by organizing a shutdown of educational institutions and shops.

The district administration responded by declaring a holiday for all educational institutions in Mangalore and extended prohibitory orders under the Section 144 Criminal Procedure Code for two more days in the wake of the attacks and protests as a precaution.  Section 144, or the “prohibitory order” has an old history in India, especially with regards to prohibitory orders on “unlawful assembly”. It was first introduced in 1861 and used frequently during the British Raj to clamp down on nationalist protests.

According independent report of Justice Michael F. Saldanha, “even if the Section 144 Cr.PC Order was valid, (which it was not), there was zero justification for the use of violence by the Police because the assembly of persons was not armed and nor were they resorting to any unlawful or violent activity”.

Orissa

The state of Orissa has about 36,8 million inhabitants (2001 census) out of whom about 8 million, or 22 per cent are tribals (ST) and 6 million, or 16 per cent, are dalits (SC). Orissa is one of the poorest states of India with per capita expenditure per annum is Rs. 790 in Orissa and for members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC & ST respectively) it is Rs. 558. In rural areas of Orissa, the figure drops to Rs. 422 for SCs and STs. Kandhamal is one of the poorest districts of Orissa.

Kandhamal consists of more than 2400 villages and has quite poor connectivity with other districts because of hilly and forested areas. In these hilly and mountainous interior of Orissa many numbers of various tribes, various ethnic groups, who speak a variety of non-Indo-European languages live. They were originally animists with indigenous cultures and traditions, most of them were never Hindu, however, the Sangh Parivar1 considers them to be Hindu (irrespective of what religious they had adopted). Thus, the tribals are the targets for re-conversion.

There is a difference between the dalits and adivasis in case of Kandhamal. The adivasis are called Kandha. About 78% of them are living below poverty line. The dalits known as Panas, they constitute about 17% of the population and more than 90% of them are believed to be Christians.  The dalits are generally poorer than the adivasis and have less access to common resources (they also hold only about 9 percent of the land, comparing to about 70 per cent held by Kandhas).

The violence of 2007-2008, although spontaneous, was not at all the first instance of attacks against Christians. Much earlier, in December 1998, 92 Christian homes were burnt in the Ramgiri-Udaygiri areas of Orissa. Next month, in January 1999, an Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons aged 10 and 6 were burnt to death in Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district by a crowd led by Bajrang Dal member Dara Singh. Singh was also charged in the killing of Muslim trader Shaikh Rehman at Padibeda village in Karanjia sub-division of Mayurbhanj district and in the murder of a Christian cleric, Arul Das, in Jamboni village in the same district.

Dara Singh was sentenced to life in prison, although he may have acted on behalf of Sangh Parivar organization, he was personally held responsible for attacks. The Commission of Inquiry set up to probe the case denied involvement of Sangh Parivar stating there was not enough evidence.

The judicial commission of inquiry headed by Supreme Court Justice D. P. Wadhwa (Wadhwa Commission) also blamed the Indian government for failing to provide it with adequate resources for the inquiry and charged that the government was not “serious” about finding the culprits, the commission also criticized the Intelligence Bureau and the intelligence wing of the Orissa police for lacking information on mounting tensions in the area prior to the incident.

A month after the attack on Graham Staines, a Catholic nun was gang-raped in Mayurbhanj district. Orissa’s Christians have been the target of such attacks for a number of years. The anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal that took place in 2007 and 2008 were not individual attacks, as before, but well planned and carried out massacre. They also made clear the minority discourse of the Sangh Parivar.

The first act of violence took place on the morning of 24th December 2007 in the small town of Brahminigaon where Christians were preparing to celebrate Christmas. On that day, a mob attacked several shops in the main market area protesting against Christmas decorations. The violence spread to other district after the rumors of attack on Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Orissa’s top VHP leader who was famous for campaigning against Christian missionaries.

On 25th December attacks took place in various districts, including Brahminigaon, Pobingia, Srasananda, Barakhama, Budaguda, Nuagaon, Tikkawali, etc.  The violence continued for three to four days until was brought under control by the security forces (CRPF). Thousands of Christian families were tortured and forced to flee, their houses burned, churches destroyed. According to some estimations, in total 71 church were destroyed within few days, more than 500 houses burned and looted, farming equipment burnt, more than 120 shops destroyed, most of them in Brahminigaon.

Most of reports available conclude that the attacks were performed by well-trained mobs in a deeply planned and orchestrated wave of violence that engulfed towns and deep villages of the heavily forested plateau in the heart of the state.

“It is beyond doubt that the violence was premeditated, pre-planned and the work of a well-disciplined group to ensure simultaneous eruption across the Kandhamala district within hours of the first incident, and to sustain it for five days despite the presence of the highest Police officers in the region. It is clear that the attackers were, in the main, upper castes non-tribals and non-Dalits, migrated from other districts of Orissa and other states, though some youth of the suppressed communities had been persuaded to join the mobs“.

The Government of Orissa set up two relief camps in school buildings in Barakhama and Brahminigaon where thousands of refugees could be sheltered before they could return to their destroyed villages. However, finding team led by John Dayal and All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) delegation reports note that the conditions in both camps were intolerable especially for women, children, sick and injured.

“We find incomprehensible that the Union Home Minister and the Orissa Chief Minister came in a helicopter to Barakhama, came to the Relief camp, and chose to sit under a shamiana or tent and talk to the people across a rope. They did not walk down a few meters to the classrooms where injured and sick people were lying down. Nor did they even bother to look at the cooked rice, full of grit, which the people had to eat for want of anything else”.

While several government and non-government committees, commissions and independent NGOs were investigating the December Day violence, a new flash of anti-Christians violence sparkled in August 2008, after the murder of Lakshmananda – allegedly by the Maoists (who claimed responsibility later in September 2008).

Protesting against the killing of Swami Lakshmananda and several other Hindus, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal called for a statewide shutdown on Monday, 25 August 2008. Since this day the attacks a Christian houses, schools, churches spread across many areas. Despite curfew imposed in all towns in Kandhamal district, the violence continued in Phulbani, Tumudibandh, Baliguda, Udaygiri, Nuagaon and Tikabali towns.

By 1st September 2008 the violence declined since the government deployed 12 companies of para-military forces, 24 platoons of Odisha State Armed Police, two sections of Armed Police Reserve forces and two teams of Special Operation Group (SOG) were to control the riots. However, the attacks continued throughout September and October.

According to different estimations, more than 300 villages were affected with around 5,000 homes and 250 churches burnt, from 13,000 to 18,000 people were injured and around  50,000 displaced with more than 12,000 people living in relief camps both in the same state and on other states. Not only Christians, but many Hindus were killed and injured and some Hindu temples were damaged.

“A claim made by the Bajrang Dal – the militant wing of the Sangh Parivar – to the effect that Orissa is the second “Hindu rajya” after Gujarat, 9 indicates that Orissa has been the focus of Hindutva forces and their religion-based divisive politics in a manner similar to their campaigns in Gujarat. In the light of the fact that the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 resulted in the killing of over 2000 Muslims and a partly achieved disruption of the community, a targeted attack on the minority communities in Orissa was a disaster in the waiting. The dynamic of Kandha-Pana
tensions that could be manipulated to serve the purposes of religious fanatics make Kandhamal an ideal site for such an attack”.

“In the post-independence period the kandha-pana ethnic divide, according to many researchers, played significant, although not a determining role in the conflict. Kandhas, the original tribal inhabitants of Kandhamal, had always perceived themselves as “rajas” while poorer and landless panas, the Dalits, were perceived as “subjects”. The white paper on the violence in the Kandhamala District (Preliminary report of the fact finding team led by John Dayal which visited the Kandhamala district, Orissa, on 29th December – 3rd Jan, 2008) reads: ”This was further crystallized with the perception that the panas, with the help of the state as well as the church, have been cornering the maximum benefits of constitutional reservation due to their educational and economic advantage. This perception is a little misplaced as a large majority of the panas are poor and being Dalit Christians, they are constitutionally deprived of the benefits of reservation. The kandhas, however, allege that the panas hide their Christian identity and even claim to be scheduled tribes (ST) or Hindu scheduled castes (SC) by producing forged certificates. The panas, they fear, are out to dominate them economically, politically and culturally”.

However, many reports, including ones by John Dayal commission, note that attempts “to present the incidents as a Tribal versus Christian conflict have no evidence” and claim that the “relations between Christian tribals and Christian Non tribals, Christian Dalits and Dalits of other faiths, as well as between Christians belonging to the tribal and Dalit communities remain cordial as they have been historically good”.

Between 75 and 123 people were killed in the violence – though the government has confirmed only 54 deaths. Thousands were forced to live in the camps, most of which were closed in 2013-2014. Many have migrated to other districts in Orissa and to other states, including Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Of those who returned to their villages, many live in the outskirts, due to the socio-economic boycott and cultural exclusion that they face, according to Times of India Report from 1 September 2008.

State response to violence: lessons to be learned

prayforindia

Fortunately or unfortunately, the pace of violence that took place in Orissa and Karnataka in 2007-2008 allowed these instances to become the first and only “case studies” for Indian Government as well as Indian society. Since these two cases, the Orissa violence especially, are the most reported, commented, researched and analyzed, we would limit ourselves to analyzing the government, media and society response to attacks against Christians based on the materials available for these cases.

In case of Karnataka violence, Chief Minister of State Yeddyurappa who was blamed by Christian community for not being able to control the protests, stated that senior civil and police officials of the districts would be held responsible if attacks on churches and prayer halls and promised that strict action against them.

In ‘Kandhamal: The Law Must Change its Course’ Saumya Uma writes that the official report into the attacks initiated by the government, released on January 2011, contradicted this and stated, “the impression and allegations that the top police officers and the district administration had colluded with the attackers in attacking the churches or places of worship has no merit. The concerned police in all districts did their best and have been successful in nabbing most of such miscreants and large number of charge-sheets have been filed in various courts which have to finally adjudicate their identity and culpability”.

Same report suggests, “There is no basis to the apprehension of Christian petitioners that the Politicians, BJP, mainstream Sangha Parivar and State Govt. directly or indirectly, are involved in the attacks. In fact no Politician or representative of any political party in the state who politicalized the incidents of attack for their benefits immediately did not come before the Commission with their affidavits or to give evidence or opinion in the matter”.

However, later in 2014 the Government of Karnataka issued a statement rejecting the report of the Justice B K Somasekhara Commission’s inquiry into the attacks. For state authorities, the report is “politically motivated” and designed “to exonerate the Sangh Parivar” groups.

The state cabinet accepted the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report on 2008 church attacks including nine recommendations of NHRC regarding payment of compensation to those injured in the attacks and protection for places of worship of minority communities.

Following the instances of violence against Christians in Karnataka, the National Commission for Minorities suggested a ban on such organizations as Bajrang Dal “responsible for breakdown of communal harmony”.

Retired Justice M. F. Saldanha, formerly of the Bombay High Court, published an independent report in 2011 investigating the 2008 attacks after he visited 413 locations, examined 673 witnesses and 2,114 victims of the attacks. He described the attacks as “state-sponsored terrorism”, and concluded that “the attacks and incidents which took place were instigated and pre-planned. They were not only supported by the state, but were also covered up for by the state”.

Orissa massacre was far crueler, devastating and revealing, most importantly in terms of state response to the issues, than any previous and, so far, following instances.

Two Commissions of Inquiry were established by the state government and are functioning simultaneously. The government had appointed Justice Basudev Panigrahi Commission to inquire into attack on VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and the violence after that in Kandhamal district in December 2007. The government has spent Rs 2.20 crore on the commission, but after seven years it has not given any report. Within months of the commission’s constitution, the seer was assassinated in August 2008. The government constituted Justice Sarat Chandra Mohapatra Commission after the seer’s killing. After Justice Mohapatra’s death, the government entrusted the probe to Justice A S Naidu. A total of Rs 1.71 crore has been spent on this panel, but it also has given no report.

Moreover, in February 2015 Commission probing violence of 2008 asked for extension of deadline to one more year.

Several non-government commissions were set up, including most prominent finding group lead by human rights activist, editor and columnist Dr. John Dayal, Member, National Integration Council, Government of India, advocate Nicholas Barla, lawyer and human rights expert from Rourkela with experience in Police and social conflicts in the State, and Hemant Nayak, social scientist and human rights and development activist from Bhubaneswar. The numerous reports published by his finding group provide insights into the real state of affair that took place during and after the Kandhamal violence.

The response of legal machinery to the violence was inappropriate with many delays, according to various reports. “There has been an inordinate delay in the registration of First Information Reports
(FIRs) because the victim-survivors had, perforce, to stay in the jungles for many days after fleeing their villages, and thereafter had moved to relief camps or other districts/states”.

The Biju Janata Dal (BJD)-BJP coalition government in Orissa miserably failed to protect the lives and properties of the Christian minorities. The BJD chief minister, despite his secular conviction, gave in
to political compulsion. The district police chief was suspended under BJP pressure and the Parivar was given a free hand to kill and terrorize the Christian minorities.

The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) visited Orissa thrice and issued at least three reports (two on 2007 violence and one on 2008 attacks). All the reports contain numerous recommendations to the state government, including on prevention, protection of members of Christian minority community, rehabilitation and re-integration of the victim-survivors in their communities. At the same time, according to reports from 2008, “Orissa does not have forums such as a State Minorities Commission which can move fast to restore confidence. The State Minorities Commission, as recommended by the national Minorities commission, must be set up soon with statutory powers”.

Despite having various departments and government agencies (Orissa State S.T & S.C Development, Minorities & Backward Classes Welfare Department, Odisha Human Rights commission, etc.) Orissa is one of few states, which have not yet formed a State Minority Commission (the other states are Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, & the Union Territories (UTs) of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Daman &Diu, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Lakshadweep & Puducherry).

As for the compensations announced for the victims, many affected households could not be enlisted in the official records for compensation and those who could were still awaiting for the compensations there years later.

Saumya Uma in her research on Kandhamal violence suggests that the state, since its duty and obligation is to protect the lives and property of its citizens in times of communal violence, could prevent the violence in many ways. “It could have made preventive arrests of key Sangh Parivar leaders prior to the funeral procession of Swami Lakshmanananda and called an all-party meeting seeking support of leaders of all political parties to ensure peace. If Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had, through electronic media, personally appealed to the public and assured them that his government was taking steps to investigate and identify the persons who killed Swami Lakshmanananda, and further issued a strict warning to the people against taking law into their own hands, such an initiative may have prevented violence to some extent”.

Researcher suggests Further, there are three potential ways in which it could have prevented the
violence. Firstly, by implementing the recommendations made by the National Commission
for Minorities (NCM) that visited Kandhamal in January and April 2008 (investigating Christmas 2007 violence). Secondly, by preventing the funeral procession of Swami Lakshmanananda across a
long route that passed through communally sensitive areas. Thirdly, by preventing hate speeches and propaganda from being spread, as these inflamed communal passions and incited violence.

The last point appeals to many researchers and commentators on Kandhamal violence who see the larger role of media in handling such sensitive issues as communal hatred more professionally, on one hand, and engaging in in-depth reporting of issues that are not quite on the surface of daily lives.

“National TV channels and segments of the local media need to do some introspection if in their reportage of the Kandhamala developments, they have observed the Code of Ethics of the Editors Guild of India, and practices observed in their reporting… It is interesting to note that Video interviews of Lokhanananda Saraswati were made by a private videographer, a known activist of the RSS, within the premises of a medical center of another RSS activist, the tape then telecast without further corroboration. In the tape Lokhanananda Saraswati repeatedly said, “When people become Christians, they become enemies, they become enemies of the nation. I will NOT tolerate this” [translated from the Hindi/Oriya]. This statement, assiduously propagated, went a long way in fanning the fires”.

Few church leaders interviewed for this paper suggest that diversity of Christians in India, the disconnection within the church or, rather, between denominations and casteism practiced by some of them are among many other issues contributing to growing insecurity of Christian minority in India.

Defending this point, the church leaders note that Christians remain weak community since they follow Christian dispensations teaching not to fight back or take revenge on the aggressors and thus do not engage in political, rhetorical or physical battles.

Although arguable, this point can be viewed from another angle. According to various estimations, about 70 to 80 per cent of Indian Christians are people “converted” from Dalit community or backward caste Hindus. As mentioned in the beginning, conversion to Christianity is not necessarily provides people with better lives, better acceptance in the society. Sometimes, it is quite the contrary. The mentality of “oppressed” people, people without rights, whose voice is never heard, thus tends to remain unchanged even after conversion.

Such mentality along with the “backwardness”, i.e. lack of resources, lack of access to education and in general poor level of empowerment in these communities lead to vulnerability of the whole community. It also leads to inability to convince the society, the media, the public opinion, the people in power of the seriousness of the issue and of the threats the community comprising more than 24 million of people is facing.

Leave a Reply