We Must Not Forget Kandhamal, a Wound That Is Yet to Heal-Indian persecution of Christians

BY APOORVANAND ON 25/08/2017
It is true, if painful, that the hurt of Kandhamal is felt only by Christians. But the toxicity of this will surely infect and destroy Hindu souls.
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A vehicle burns inside a church in Nuagoan village in the Kandhamal district of Orissa August 25, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files

Kandhamal is yet another wound on the body of ‘Mother India’. It was inflicted nine years ago; the cut is still wide open but the sensation is gone.
The ‘mother’, when reminded, can say that she has been cut at a hundred points and is confused about which wound is deeper, more grievous than the others. Which injury to attend to is her dilemma.

We desire to see our nation as a integrated body, but we know its constituents do not feel too connected to each other. They do not share each others’ joy and pain. It is only natural, therefore, that the task to remind our ‘mother’ nation that the wound of Kandhamal, yet to be healed, falls on Christian communities. The rest of India would not like it to be acknowledged. Many say it is negative memory; and for the majority, the incident is fiction.

Yet, August 25, 2008, is a date India must remember. It was on this date that Sister AA, a nun working in the Dibyajyoti Pastoral Centre of Kandhamal, ran away from the centre with Father Thomas Chellam fearing attack from a violent mob, and was sheltered by Jasobanta Pradhan. But they were forced out of this shelter the next day and dragged to the premises of the Jana Vikas Kendra, an NGO. She was stripped naked, thrown on a veranda strewn with ash and splinters of glass, and gangraped.

This was not the end of her plight and the idea of revenge that the Hindu crowd harboured. She was paraded almost naked in the local market and physically assaulted in this road show of Hindu valour.

I remember the faint yet firm voice of Sister AA, who had come to Delhi to inform the capital of the crime that was perpetrated on the Christians of Kandhamal. There was a macabre desire from the media to see her face uncovered. What did not interest most of them is worth repeating: the details of the horror she had gone through.

“When we reached the market place, about a dozen personnel from the Orissa State Armed Police police were there. I went to them, asking them to protect me, and I sat between two policemen but they did not move…The state police failed to stop the crime, failed to protect me from the attackers. They were friendly with the attackers and they tried their best to make sure I did not register an FIR nor make complaints against the police …. They abandoned me half of the way.”
This feeling of having been abandoned halfway is what comes out of the narratives of the victims from the nearly 600 hundred villages destroyed by mobs, instigated by the members and affiliates of the RSS.

The role of the RSS was noted by the judge who convicted Manoj Pradhan, a former MLA of the BJP, the political arm of the RSS in State v Manoj Kumar Pradhan. As Vrinda Grover and Soumya Uma note in their book Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice, “This judgement is also critical as it notes that the RSS and other affiliated Hindu right wing organisations were mobilized and it was their members who led the violent attack against the Christian community.”

The judgement firmly dismisses the argument of spontaneity. Grover and Uma say that it is important to analyse this judgement to understand how and why a verdict of conviction in such cases is reached. It is only done when “the trial court identifies and appreciates the specific contours of communal and targeted violence, in which the crimes are committed.”

Most cases of communal violence result in acquittals. The reason is clear – the courts fail to see that in such incidents, the evidence and testimonies of the witnesses cannot be tested against the yardstick of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ times.

The violence at Kandhamal falls in a different category. As the case of Sister AA shows, nuns were specifically hunted. The crowd took relish in violating them, as it meant destroying their primary oath of remaining a virgin to be in the service of Jesus. The aim was to demean the church, using their bodies.

Christians attend a protest against the killings and atrocities on Christians in Odissa and Karnataka, in New Delhi September 26, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/Files
People attend a protest against the killings and atrocities on Christians in Odissa and Karnataka, in New Delhi September 26, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/Files
Those who think, as was argued to legitimise the violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, that a cause existed prior to the violence are wrong. In the case of Kandhamal, the killing of Swami Lakshmanand Saraswati, a VHP missionary, was presented as a pretext for the spontaneous outburst of his follower Hindus. This is patently wrong, as the judgment convicting the BJP leader clarifies. It was an organised, well planned and well thought out attack on Christians, in which mobs participated because they were led to believe, through sustained propaganda, that the church was out to destroy their religion.

One must see a link between the Kandhamal carnage and the murder of Graham Staines and his sons by a mob led by Bajrang Dal leader Dara Singh in 1999. The court, while holding Singh responsible for the killing, also suggested that his anger was somewhat justified as he and his followers were upset that Staines and others like him encouraged religious conversion. In the wake of the murder, the then poet prime minister wanted a national debate on conversion. It seems nobody told him that the issue was, in fact, the murder of a man and his sons.

The violence in Kandhamal would not have been possible had there been no violent campaign against the church and missionaries in the district of Dangs in Gujarat at least ten years prior to the violence of Kandhamal.

The story of Kandhamal is not exciting for the media anymore. It is a boring task to keep repeating the same lament every August, about the absence of tolerance and acceptance of diverse ways of practising one’s religion. It is the singular failure of Hindus in general to appreciate that all regions are not practiced and professed in only one manner.

Why it is important to talk about Kandhamal can be understood if we notice what is now happening in Jharkhand. The state assembly has just passed a Bill practically making conversion illegal and has also launched a hate campaign against Christian missionaries. It is bound to reach, at some point, where Kandhamal was nine years ago. Then it would look natural, spontaneous and justified in many ways. Christians and missionaries would be asked to mend their ways .

Kandhamal, like Dangs and the burning of Staines and his sons, was done in the name of Hindus. We have not seen Hindu moral indignation at this serial violence in their name. Instead, a majority of them lend their support to the leaders of this unending campaign of hate and violence by handing over to them the power to rule.

It is true, if painful, that the hurt of Kandhamal is felt only by Christians. But the toxicity of this will surely infect and destroy Hindu souls.

Apoorvanand teaches in Delhi University.