Indian Christians await justice 11 years after mass murder
When he heard reports that a Hindu mob was attacking Christians in his community, Parikhita Nayak fled his village in Kandhamal, Orissa (eastern India) along with his wife and two daughters – both less than ten years of age - but he didn’t know what lay ahead.
On their way to a nearby village, a group of Hindu extremists - armed with swords, axes and sticks - stopped them and asked their religion. One of the men, who was from Nayak’s village, Tiangia, identified the family as Christian. The mob dragged Nayak to a nearby field.
“My daughters and I begged them for mercy while they were beating my husband,” said Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of Parikhita Nayak. “They asked him to convert to Hinduism, and when he denied, they hacked him to death with an ax cutting his body into three pieces.”
After witnessing the murder, Kanaka Rekha escaped along with her daughters. Today, she lives in Bhubaneshwar, more than 200 km away from her village, which still remains unsafe while Christians wait for justice.
Nayak was killed in August 2008 in the worst modern spate of communal violence against Christians in India, who represent the third largest religion in the country after Hinduism and Islam but are only two percent of the population.
Thousands of Dalits, the lowest caste in Hindu hierarchy and former “untouchables”, and Adivasis, the land’s indigenous people, who had converted to Christianity became the victims of the violence that continued for months, sporadically.
According to government figures, during the violence from August to December, more than 600 villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses were looted and burnt, 54,000 people were displaced and 38 people were murdered. Various grassroots NGOs and activists tally the dead at more than 100. The violence against Christians, who formed about 20% of the population in Kandhamal, was planned and executed by Hindu extremists related to organizations which believe in Hindu supremacy and nationalism. They believe the Dalits and Adavasis cannot cease to be Hindu and view Christianity as a foreign religion that’s traitorous for Indians to pledge allegiance to.
The violence involving brutal murders and rapes, widespread destruction of churches and property, and forcible conversions to Hinduism was sparked after the Aug. 23 murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his four followers. Saraswati, an ascetic known for his anti-Christian work in Orissa, was a member of Hindu supremacist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), classified as a “religious militant organization” by the CIA in 2018.
According to an NGO report by the National People’s Tribunal, 295 churches and other places of worship were destroyed. About 30,000 people were uprooted and lived in relief camps. During the riots, about 2,000 people were forced to renounce their Christian faith. The tribunal recorded many cases of rapes by the mob, including a Hindu woman, who was gang-raped and sexually assaulted as a revenge for her Christian uncle’s refusal to convert to Hinduism. Some Hindus were also killed by the mob while they tried to save their Christian neighbors.
In one of the widely reported cases, a Catholic nun was gang-raped and paraded in the market half-naked.
“She was dragged to my office and gang-raped while the police did nothing,” said Father Ajaya Singh, a Catholic priest and noted human rights activist. Singh was not in town when the incident happened, and the thought of what would have happened had he been in town still haunts him, he said.
It took the state government one year to acknowledge the crime, according to media reports. Activists who have followed the case said that the nun faced various hardships while trying to get justice.
“She was humiliated in court, faced corrupt law officers and the jibes of bigoted lawyers defending her tormenters, but she identified them [the perpetrators],” said Dr. John Dayal, researcher, author and Christian human rights activist.
Out of the nine who faced trials in the case, six were let off due to lack of evidence, and three were awarded 11 years of rigorous imprisonment, but all of them are out on bail currently, according to media reports. Calling it a mockery of justice, Singh said, “It always makes me question what justice is in India.”
Victims Still Waiting For Justice
Although 11 years have passed, survivors and rights activists feel that the government is yet to give justice to the victims and their families in the form of compensation and convictions.
“After so many years, justice is still due,” said Father Dibakar Parichha, a Catholic priest and lawyer from Kandhamal who has been helping victims get justice.
Pariccha is also a survivor of the riots who escaped successfully after the violence broke out in his region.
“There is impunity to the perpetrators, and discrimination against Christians in Kandhamal even today. Though the riots ended in 2008, violence in different forms continues against Christians. Lack of convictions and denial of compensation to the survivors are its examples,” he said.
Out of 3,232 complaints, police registered only 828 cases and investigated only 518 while closing others. The police closed the cases, claiming that the offenders could not be traced or no offenses were made out. Though 362 trials were completed by 2016, only 78 resulted in a conviction. Since the government puts the number of dead at only 39, instead of 100 as reported by various NGOs and activists, most of the victims have not been able to receive any monetary compensation.
However, in 2016, saying that “minorities are as many children of the soil as the majority,” the Supreme Court directed the Orissa government to reinvestigate the closure of 315 cases of the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, and “see that the offenders are brought to book.” The apex court also directed the government to pay additional compensation to the victims of the riots. The Court’s ruling elated the survivors and activists who were fighting for justice for so long.
“Though the order was celebrated as historic, hardly any action has been taken so far,” said Singh. As the Supreme Court didn’t specify any deadline for the state to meet the court’s order, the government has not acted on it yet, he said.
The Dalit and Adivasi Christians of Kandhamal who became the major targets of the violence are among the poorest in the state. According to the Orissa Human Development Report 2004, 87% of Dalits and 92% of Adivasis in Kandhamal lived below the poverty line.
“They are poor,” Singh said. “How can they continue their fight for justice when there is no victim support from the government?” Many of the victims have withdrawn their cases, many witnesses have turned hostile after being intimidated by the accused, he said. “Fear and insecurity still remain among the survivors. Their silence and lack of resistance don’t mean that they have forgotten and moved on.”
Kanak Rekha told a similar story. After some of the men accused in her husband’s murder threatened her of raping her daughters if she pursued the case against them, she refused to identify them in the court. Although the court sentenced three involved in the murder for seven years imprisonment, others were let off. “I had to protect my daughters,” she said.
Many activists have also questioned the fairness of trials in cases of Kandhamal violence.
“There have been many acquittals and justice scuttled in many cases by the accused at the trial courts, using tactics such as threatening of witnesses and destruction of evidence,” said Saumya Uma, a lawyer, researcher, human rights activist and co-author of the book, Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice, which critically examines how the state has reacted to the survivors. Uma said that many victims and survivors understandably prioritized survival needs over engaging with protracted litigations.
“The police made sure that reports were filed in a manner that most accused would be let off by courts,” said Dayal, who has worked extensively on Kandhamal violence. “The forensic investigations were a fraud. The fast track courts themselves can be questioned.”
Seven Christians were sentenced by a special court for life imprisonment for Saraswati’s murder in 2013, although the Maoists had claimed its responsibility, which many believed was a way to victimize the Christians.
Dayal said that the evidence on which the special court convicted seven Christians for the murder of the Saraswati would not stand in any court of law which followed basic principles of justice.
“The fact that the high court has been sitting over their appeals [for bail] makes it quite clear that the intent is to ensure that seven Christians are punished,” he said. “This is vindictive.”
The then ruling party in the state, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was in alliance with the now ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was widely criticized for not cracking down on the rioters, and failing to provide justice to the survivors. Experts believe that the BJP, ruling India since 2014 and supported by the Hindu extremist groups involved in the violence, is the reason behind the state’s inaction.
Since the BJP came to power under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the violence against Muslim and Christian minorities has increased significantly. According to Factchecker.in, a website tracking crimes related to religious hatred in India, there has been a 10-fold rise in the cases of religious violence since 2014.
After severing ties with the BJP in 2009, one year after the violence, the then Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the state legislature that the attacks were mainly carried out by right-wing outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing Bajrang Dal. VHP is part of the Sangh Pariwar group, an umbrella organization led by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization which believes in Hindu supremacy, and the ideological parent of the BJP.
Activists Believe The Violence Was Well-Planned, Not Spontaneous
After Saraswati was murdered, his body was carried for about 200 km in a mourning procession, which Christians and human rights activists believe was meant to spark Hindu sentiments. Many prominent right-wing leaders including Pravin Togadia, known for his inflammatory communal speeches against Muslims and Christians, took part in the procession.
Calling the violence orchestrated, Dayal said, “the body of the VHP leader was paraded over 200 or more kilometers when it could easily have been taken by a normal route to the place of cremation.”
The swami had dedicated his life to abusing the local Christians and trying to stall their work in the Kandhamal district, he said.
Kandhamal had a history of anti-Christian sentiments since Saraswati came to the state in 1969 for setting up schools and Hindu monasteries to convert Christian tribes into Hindus through religious and cultural mechanisms. As part of the VHP, he believed that tribes, who practiced animism, were Hindus and should be reconverted from Christianity.
Many attacks on Christians were recorded even before 2008. One such case was the burning alive of an Australian Christian missionary, Graham Steward Stains, along with his two sons, Philip and Timothy, aged 9 and 7 years, while they were sleeping in a jeep after a village festival in 1999. The case was widely reported by the media internationally.
Saraswati was widely perceived to have provoked the anti-Christian violence in December 2007 in which, according to government estimates, more than 900 homes were demolished or burnt and over 100 churches were attacked and destroyed by armed mobs of 2,000-3,000 in the villages across Kandhamal. This resulted in at least 9 deaths and rendered thousands of Christians homeless and forced to take refuge in the forests.
Singh said that though there hasn’t been any major case of violence since 2008, “reconciliation is not possible” unless the survivors get justice. “We are covering the unhealed wounds of violence, which only justice can heal.”
Similarly, Uma said, “The wounds [of Kandhamal violence] haven't healed, though the surface looks 'normal'. The struggle for dignified survival continues. Until justice is delivered, long-lasting peace has no chance.”
Avinash Giri is a Delhi, India-based journalist and Poynter-Koch fellow for Religion Unplugged.