Systematic and brutal attacks on the Christian community in Orissa
Brutal attacks on the Christian community by Hindutva forces ravaged Orissa’s Kandhamal district during Christmas week 2007. As an unconcerned and partisan administration looked on, a coordinated and well-planned series of attacks was launched on Christians and Christian institutions across the district. While official figures claim that three people were killed, independent estimates state that the number of those dead is much higher, with several people still missing and many more injured. Over 500 homes, more than 70 church institutions and property worth lakhs of rupees was destroyed. More than 3,000 victims of the violence were housed in refugee camps where they are subjected to further torment and denied access to justice and equitable relief.
A preliminary report by the independent fact-finding team led by Dr John Dayal, member, National Integration Council (NIC) and national president, All India Catholic Union, which visited Kandhamal district, Orissa in December 2007 and January 2008. Excerpts:
A tragedy that was waiting to happen and a tragedy that could repeat itself: Urgent conclusions
- The events in the Kandhamal hill district of Orissa during Christmas week from December 22, 2007 to January 1, 2008 are a story of a tragedy foretold, of political and official condoning if not actual support to the activities of criminals and political activists spreading bigotry, the ideology of hate and violence. It is also a painful narrative of police and administrative indifference, repeated complicity and consistent incompetence. And finally, it is the documentation of an utter collapse of the law and order machinery on December 24, 25, 26 and 27, 2007. So much in a state where Christians number about two per cent, less than the national average.
- There is an urgent caution and a warning in the Kandhamal developments: Unless everyone – the union government, the Orissa government and its agencies, and religious, social and development agencies – wakes up and acts in concert, there is more tragedy waiting to happen. Like a coalfield fire, passions and tensions are simmering, wounds are suppurating. Only a judicial inquiry by a Supreme Court judge, assisted by the findings of a criminal investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), meets the ends of justice.
- 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 Kandhamal 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 caste non-tribals and non-Dalits who had migrated from other districts of Orissa and other states although some youth of the suppressed communities had also been persuaded to join the mobs. The role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and their extension organisations must be the subject of an intensive investigation by the CBI.
- The sequence of events is quite clear. The Christian community and its institutions were targeted for more than 48 hours with the police looking on and being physically present at the spot in many cases. The anti-Christian violence continued until December 27, 2007. The anti-Hindu violence in Brahmanigaon (Bamunigaon) took place more than 60 hours after the first church was burnt down.
- There are unique, unprecedented and possibly dangerous elements to the Kandhamal violence of Christmas week 2007 although the state has an unhappy history of recorded and unrecorded persecution of Christians, including the burning alive of Australian leprosy mission worker Graham Stuart Staines and his sons Philip and Timothy, and Fr Arul Das, in 1999, and attacks in the Raikia block of Kandhamal and other parts of the hill tracts of Orissa.
- This is the first time at least one Hindu Oriya non-tribal house cluster has been destroyed by arsonists, affecting perhaps a total of 97 families in the villages of Brahmanigaon and Godapur.
- This is the first time that there has been a reported incident of an exchange of fire between the police and a mixed group of tribals, non-tribals and outsiders in Brahmanigaon on December 27, 2007. It is in fact a dubious first for India in which Christians’ involvement is alleged. This by itself must be subjected to close study by academics and state organisations as also by the Christian leadership.
- This is the biggest recorded case of such a large number of Christian houses being burnt, in Brahmanigaon and Barakhama, other than churches, convents and hostels which have been targets of violence in other states, most notably in Gujarat 2002, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka and occasionally even in New Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Kashmir. We have recorded over 200 cases of violence across the country before the outbreak in Kandhamal in Orissa.
- The burning of medical centres and hostels speaks of a criminal disregard for humanity and the welfare of the people. We were told of several instances where nuns said they and their patients were in need of food and medicines.
- This is the first time in history since independence that about 3,000 Christian men, women and children are forced to live in two refugee camps, eating boiled rice not fit for human consumption because of the quantity of sand and grit, and living in the cold with no toilets, precious little medical care and no woollens. In the camp in Brahmanigaon they share this misery with their Hindu brothers and sisters. The irony is not lost. In the super cyclone and other natural disasters that have devastated the state of Orissa in the past, Christian NGOs and church groups were almost always among the first to set up relief camps and rehabilitation projects for the common people irrespective of religion and ethnic identity.
- The quality of violence against the Christian faith must be recorded so that lessons can be learnt. It has to be seen to be believed. Hate so deep and pungent does not augur well for the country and, of course, poses an immediate threat to the ideals of secularism and freedom of faith, the right to life and the right to dignity enshrined in the Constitution of India. Church buildings are broken, nuns manhandled, priests chased away, convent cows killed as their straw is set afire. These are heinous crimes. The ravishing of statues of Mary, grinding her face underfoot until nothing remains but shreds, desecrating the Host which Catholics hold to be the body of Christ and vandalising of ritual holy material before setting everything on fire speaks of an ideologically cultivated venom that has percolated deep and will need deep political and social activism to quell, defeat and eliminate.
- The police force of the district failed on all counts. The government must ensure that in future police action is not thwarted by roadblocks (however big the tree that has been felled), communication failure and lack of mobility. It is a matter of regret for the people of the state and shame for the Orissa police authorities that several incidents of grave violence and heinous crime were committed while the police looked on. This happened in more than one block headquarters.
- It is a matter of regret that until January 3, when we spoke to the last police officer before leaving the district, we recorded extremely partisan, even bigoted, behaviour in senior field police officers of the rank of circle inspector and subdivisional police officer. Senior development officers of the rank of commissioner, in their language to the victims and to us, displayed a condemnable cynicism and bias against a minority community. We are happy to record that junior and young tehsildars (administrative officers), rushed in the last days, show a more humane nature.
- There is a continuing reign of terror. Many villages are now villages of women. The men are in hiding. Elsewhere, entire villages are deserted. Steps must be taken to create a situation in which the people can return to their homes and not live in terror.
- Despite four days of extensive investigation, we have not been able to speak authoritatively of the number of dead killed by arsonists, in clashes, in police firings, or of injuries. Two dead in Brahmanigaon and two dead in Balliguda are confirmed by the police – the one person killed in police firing remains unidentified. Any one dead body just confirms a single death but does not tell how many others may have died whose bodies have not been recovered by the authorities.
- Similarly, only major church buildings, particularly of the Catholic church, the Church of North India (CNI) and the Baptist church can be easily counted because they are along the roadside at major crossroads and towns. Independent Evangelical churches and mission stations of major denominations exist in villages that have still not been reached.
- The state government’s claims of an overlay of the issues of Maoist activities in the region, the agitation of the Kuis and the Christmas week violence is not tenable. The presence of Maoists or Naxalites and the Kui movement are real in some blocks but the nature of the violence against Christians is in a group by itself. Whatever overlay does exist could have been overcome and much violence prevented if the authorities had not given permission for the hartal, or closures, on Christmas day, a date with which they are, and ought to be, familiar as educated persons.
- Attempts are also being made to present the incidents as a tribal versus Christian conflict. The evidence is to the contrary. 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. The issue that remains pertinent is the targeting of Dalit and tribal Christians by political-religious fundamentalists.
- It is clear that Christians, both tribals and Panas, and Dalits of various religious persuasions, are particular victims of violence. Persons opposed to the demand by a section of the community to seek scheduled status have mobilised and hijacked some of the youth of their followers to join the mobs in various hamlets and towns. The issue of scheduled tribe status must be amicably resolved with the help of a judicial or similar commission and through appropriate inquiry without delay.
- The government must also sympathetically consider the classification of a group of people who are being discriminated against twice over because of their religion. This is a group which was listed as a scheduled tribe under the British government and then listed as a scheduled caste by the state administration. Those of them professing the Christian faith are denied protection of the law and access to affirmative action programmes of the government on both counts. They do not get scheduled caste reservation and other privileges because they are now Dalits. And they do not get the privileges their Dalit brothers and sisters get because as Christians they are no longer supposed to be even Dalits. They remain in an inhuman, unconstitutional limbo, discriminated against just for their religious beliefs. This discrimination must end forthwith if the guarantees of freedom of faith under the United Nations Charter and the Indian Constitution are to have any meaning.
- The Government of India, the Supreme Court of India and other state agencies must take notice and learn their lesson. Peace committees as being constituted are not the answer. They have lost credibility. Victims have lost faith in committees constituted of their persecutors. Truth and reconciliation and an entirely unbiased state are the answer. Everyone has a role to play in this.
- Keeping in view the deep distrust that victim communities have of local police officers, central police forces must remain in the area until confidence is restored.
- Peace and reconciliation will be possible only with justice and truth. The guilty must be identified and prosecuted with all the might of the state. Biased officials, as much as corrupt officials, are responsible for the lack of development in the Kandhamal region. They must be identified so that they are never again in command positions where they can join with communal political elements pursuing their agenda of hate. There are many wise suggestions contained in the Justice Wadhwa Commission report that inquired into the murders of the Staines family, as also in reports by other commissions set up in the aftermath of communal incidents in other states. They need to be implemented, especially those relating to the police and the administration, and fundamentalist organisations, if Orissa is to remain peaceful.
- Orissa does not have forums such as a State Minorities Commission that can move fast to restore confidence. A State Minorities Commission, as recommended by the National Commission for Minorities, must be set up soon with statutory powers.
- Relief too must consist of materials and compensation according to national standards set in states that see communal violence and persecution, and it must also contain compassion, fairness and transparency.
- Irrespective of the sloganeering by Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati who has made Kandhamal his home in recent years with the avowed objective of purging the region of every Christian presence, Christians are not enemies of the people of India or of the state. To say, as he says repeatedly even in the presence of the police, ‘Whosoever converts to Christianity becomes an enemy’, is a crime under the law of the land. To say ‘Christians will not be tolerated’. And to say it on national satellite channels is equally a crime. Action must be taken in the interests of justice and protecting the Constitution. This saintly gentleman is obviously not just above the law but is the law in the area, judging by the attitude of the police and local administrative officers towards him.
- National TV channels and segments of the local media need to introspect on whether in their reportage of the Kandhamal developments they have observed the code of ethics of the Editors Guild of India and practices observed in their reporting. Secularism, fairness and truth must remain part of the training of media persons in media institutions as well as in print, television and cyber media organisations as an ongoing process. It is interesting to note that video interviews of Lakshmanananda Saraswati were filmed by a private videographer, a known activist of the RSS, within the premises of a medical centre belonging to another RSS activist, and the tape was then telecast without further corroboration. In the tape Lakshmanananda 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.
Statistics of the violence
Deaths: Police confirm three deaths – One in police firing (unidentified but unofficially listed as Christian by the police) and two (one Hindu, one Christian) in Barakhama and Brahmanigaon. Human rights activists understand that six persons have died in the police firing in Brahmanigaon. The bodies have not been found, and are presumed to have been taken away by the mob. There have been no deaths reported in the arson although several priests and nuns had a close encounter with death.
Missing: There are persons reported missing from almost every hamlet. This is the subject of long-term investigations. Many have fled out of fear of the police. Some are safe with relatives. Others are in police custody with the police not admitting or confirming this. It will take many weeks before a count becomes possible.
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 Kandhamal 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.
Arson: Fire was the instrument of choice. The arsonist mob was well motivated, well armed and had come prepared with weapons and sharp iron implements.
Preliminary list of properties/places destroyed and desecrated:
Church institutions destroyed (Total: 71)
- Parish churches (five):
Balliguda; Brahmanigaon; Sankharakhole; Pobingia; Padangi
- Village churches (48):
Bodagan–Balliguda; Balliguda town; Kamapada–Balliguda; Mandipanka–Godapur; Jhinjirguda–Brahmanigaon; Ulipadaro–Brahmanigaon; Goborkutty–Kattingia; Kulpakia–Nuagaon; Dohapanga–Balliguda; seven churches in Sirtiguda–Balliguda; four churches in Phiringia; seven churches in Phulbani; four churches in Ruthungia; four churches in Kalingia; two churches in Tikabali, four village churches in Nuagaon; three other village churches; Boriguda (Padangi); Bakingia (Raikia); Dalagaon; Iripiguda. (This list of village churches is not exhaustive for reasons of topography and accessibility.)
- Convents (five):
Balliguda; Pobingia; Phulbani; Brahmanigaon; Sankharakhole
- Presbytery (four):
Balliguda; Pobingia; Brahmanigaon; Padangi
- Hostels (seven):
Pobingia – two; Balliguda – two; Brahmanigaon – two; Minor seminary (Balliguda)
- Others (two):
Vocational Training Centre (Balliguda); Sarsananda, leprosy centre (Pobingia)
Houses looted and destroyed/burnt (Total: over 500)
- 400 houses looted and destroyed in Barakhama; Tractors, cycles, motorcycles, shop goods, burnt
- 31 Christian houses burnt in Brahmanigaon
- 67 Hindu houses burnt in Brahmanigaon Oriyasahi
- 30 Christian houses burnt in Ulipadaro (Brahmanigaon)
(Arson in Phiringia, which continues (beyond the initial phase of violence), is political, involving supporters and opponents of former Orissa minister Padmanabha Behera and the caste issue.)
Shops /other properties destroyed (Total: 126)
- Brahmanigaon – 81
- Godapur – 25
- Barakhama – 20
Vehicles and other properties destroyed: Survey not yet done
Animals killed: One cow, black Jersey milch cattle, Balliguda convent, consequent to arson
Violence affected revenue blocks, Kandhamal district
Daringbari block; Balliguda block; Phiringia block; Phulbani block; Tikabali block; Khajuripoda block; Nuagaon block; Gumsar Udaigiri block; Tumudibandha block; Kothaghar block
Relief camps: The Government of Orissa has set up two relief camps, in Barakhama and in Brahmanigaon, in school buildings. The conditions in both camps are inhuman and shameful, particularly the utter lack of regard for the needs of women, children and the ill. Despite its experience of natural calamities, the government has not learnt lessons in immediate succour and assistance to the distressed and needy. We find it incomprehensible that the union home minister and the Orissa chief minister came to Barakhama in a helicopter, 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 metres to the classrooms where the injured and the ill lay. 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.
Calendar, chronicle and narratives of the violence
- Brahmanigaon, December 9, 2007
Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, commonly referred to as Swamiji, visited Brahmanigaon and had a secret meeting with the Bighneswaro Banika Sangh who are members of the RSS and VHP. The situation was tense in and around Brahmanigaon from that day onwards.
- Brahmanigaon, December 19, 2007
Permission for Christmas celebrations was obtained from the subcollector and CI office, Balliguda.
- Church youth and the Dr BR Ambedkar Banika Sangh took permission for Christmas celebrations. Officials approved it. The police circle inspector and subdivisional police officer (SDPO) inspected the site and approved it. They promised protection from December 23.
- Brahmanigaon, December 21, 2007
The SDPO visited Brahmanigaon. Christian elders met the SDPO and apprised him of the situation; he also assured them of his participation in the celebrations. The SDPO had called leaders of both communities, Hindus and Christians, for the meeting but the Hindus did not attend.
- Bhubaneswar, December 21-23, 2007
The Arya Samaj of Bhubaneswar organised a three-day Baba Ram Dev yoga programme at Capital High School, Unit III, Bhubaneswar. Twenty-five to 30 busloads of people were brought in from Kandhamal for the purpose.
On December 22, all RSS presidents from every panchayat of Kandhamal district attended a secret meeting held from 11.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. at an unknown location.
On the evening of December 23, once the yoga programme concluded, attendees returned to their respective homes. And from the morning of December 24, attacks began on the various church communities.
- Kandhamal district headquarters, December 22, 2007
The Christian Jana Kalyan Samaj of Kandhamal met the collector and Kandhamal district SP (superintendent of police), Narasingh Bhol. They handed over a written statement protesting the bandh called on December 25 and 26 at Kandhamal and asking that Christians be allowed to observe Christmas.
- Brahmanigaon, December 22, 2007
The SP visited Brahmanigaon to inquire into the situation, saw how matters stood but did not station any additional police forces there.
- Brahmanigaon, December 23, 2007
The police force of the district failed on all counts. The government must ensure that in future police action is not thwarted by roadblocks, communication failure and lack of mobility. It is a matter of regret for the people of the state and shame for the Orissa police authorities that several incidents of grave violence and heinous crime were committed while the police looked on
Hindu youth told church women and youth not to put up Christmas decorations. The Christians showed them their government permission order.
- Brahmanigaon, December 23, 2007, 1.30 p.m.
The Dr BR Ambedkar Banika Sangh of Brahmanigaon together with six sarpanches of the area assessed the situation and sent a fax message to the district SP in Phulbani and then met him at Brahmanigaon. The Ambedkar Banika Sangh went to the police station and discussed the tense situation in the area. They also discussed the likelihood of a secret plan by Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and VHP leaders to perform a yagna (offering/sacrifice, puja) in front of the church.
- Brahmanigaon, December 23, 2007
6.30 p.m. – A member of the Ambedkar Banika Sangh phoned the district SP, requesting additional police forces in the village.
- Brahmanigaon, December 24, 2007, 6.00 a.m.
The sarpanches of six gram panchayats together with village heads went to the police station and asked them to allow the weekly haat market to be opened, which RSS and Bajrang Dal activists were opposing.
- Brahmanigaon, December 24, 2007, 7.00 a.m.
The ASI (assistant subinspector) came to the market and ordered that the market be opened.
- Brahmanigaon, December 24, 2007, 8.30 a.m.
The weekly market was under way. All of a sudden, RSS leader Bikram Rout, Dhanu Pradhani and others came and threatened vendors and customers, warning them to stop trade. They also ordered shopkeepers to close down their shops and there were tussles between them. A customer was beaten up by the Bikram Rout group. Christians needed to shop for some important articles as December 25 was Christmas day.
Some Christians were putting up Christmas decorations, a big pandal (temporary structure) with a crib, sound system, etc, for night worship. The same miscreants also went to them and asked them to stop the decorations, even warning the Christians not to have any celebrations. Here too there were tussles between both groups.
At around 10 a.m. Bikram Rout and others, RSS, VHP, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Bajrang Dal members, came armed with guns, swords, iron rods and other lethal weapons and attacked the Christians. The Christians, who were unarmed, fled to the nearby forest to save their lives. In the process, two Christians (Sillu and Avinash) sustained bullet injuries. Some others were wounded by other weapons.
The local police were inactive and did not take prompt action against the miscreants; these events all took place in the presence of the police. The police station is just 400 yards from the church.
All the Christians, including the priest and nuns, fled to the forest, leaving all their belongings behind.
- Dasingbadi, December 24, 2007, 10.45 a.m.
Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, known as Swami, at Jalespatta, Tumudibandha PS in Kandhamal district, was travelling to Brahmanigaon in his vehicle when a private bus that was in front of his vehicle on the narrow road encountered some technical trouble and had to stop on the road at Dasingbadi, near the Dasingbadi upper primary school.
There is a small village church in Dasingbadi, not far from the road, where Christian youth were busy putting up decorations for Christmas. Christmas music was being played.
Hearing the sound, Lakshmanananda Saraswati apparently asked his bodyguards and his driver to go and have the music stopped. The security guards and the driver (who are government security men) went to the spot, got into an argument with the Christian youth and at some point pulled down the decorations and the sound boxes, etc even as the Christian youth confronted them.
There is no evidence of a physical assault on Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Because of the controversy surrounding this incident, there is need for a CBI inquiry specifically into this as part of a general probe.
Lakshmanananda Saraswati then went to Daringbari in his vehicle and took his security men to the medical officer, Dr Pradhan, at Daringbari Community Health Centre, claiming they were injured. He spent two days there, at the family planning office, looked after by Dr Pradhan (who is also a Bajrang Dal member) while the inspector in-charge (IIC) of Daringbari, Mr Pradhan, provided eight or 10 policemen to guard him. The IIC advised Lakshmanananda Saraswati not to go to Brahmanigaon.
From the afternoon of December 24, rumours of Lakshmanananda Saraswati being attacked in Dasingbadi spread across the district.
Dharmendra Pradhan and Surendra Sahoo, local residents from Daringbari, went to meet Lakshmanananda Saraswati on hearing about the incident, that there had been a tussle between his security men and Christian youth at Dasingbadi. They were saddened by events and proposed to have a peace meeting to resolve the issue. But there, in the presence of the IIC and other local leaders, Lakshmanananda Saraswati said, "Kranti no thile shanti nahi, Mote kichhi mado hoi nahi (Without revolution no peace, I am not hurt)".
At about 1 p.m. on December 25 Lakshmanananda Saraswati left the Daringbari community hospital by an official jeep via Soroda road.
An RSS youth, Muna Sahoo, who owns a video camera, filmed the statement and interview with Lakshmanananda Saraswati, which was then telecast on satellite television channels in the media.
- Barakhama, December 24, 2007, 4.00 p.m.
The Christian community, aware that some untoward incident could well take place, started their Christmas worship at 4 p.m. itself.
A group of hoodlums, about 2,000 people with red tilaks on their foreheads, armed with swords, axes, pharsas (hoes), etc and chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’; ‘Christian manonku mari diyo (Kill the Christians)’; ‘Girija dhansa koro (Destroy the church)’, etc, destroyed the Pentecostal church that lies in the eastern part of the village.
Seeing the mob and the flames, Christian villagers started running towards the forest to save themselves.
Those whose houses were burnt belong mainly to the Christian community and they are now taking shelter at the Barakhama high school.
Frightened for their lives, the men are still living in the jungle and yet officials demand that the women bring their menfolk with them else they will not receive relief materials. On the other hand, when the men do leave the jungle to come to the camp, the police book them on false cases and arrest them. Moreover, the officers in charge refuse to accept the victims’ FIRs (first information reports) pertaining to the initial attacks.
- Balliguda, December 24, 2007, 7.30 p.m.
At about 7.30 p.m. more than 400 miscreants, likely Bajrang Dal and RSS members, kumkum on their foreheads, chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram ’ and bearing guns, swords, axes, pharsas and other lethal weapons in their hands, broke open the main gate of the church, abusing the few Christian youth who were busy adding the last touches to their decorations before Christmas worship. There was stone throwing.
The mob charged towards the youth shouting, ‘Salle Christian manonku jeevan re mari diyo’; ‘Girija dhansa koro’. Faced with the barbarity of the crowd, the youth together with priest, nuns, hostel boys and seminarians all fled to the jungle to save their lives.
The mob then collected all the furniture, material for worship, the contents of the hostel godown and various personal belongings and set them afire, burning them to ashes within minutes.
The school, hostel and sisters’ residence, which is in another compound, were also ransacked and set on fire. It was only with great difficulty that the sisters and the hostel girls managed to escape to safety. One of the sisters was caught and badly manhandled by the mob.
A cow died as a consequence of the arson.
All this took place in the presence of police officials, including the tehsildar, the BDO (block development officer), the subcollector, the IIC and others.
No police action was taken. No curfew was imposed in the district.
- Pobingia, December 25, 2007, 9.00 a.m.
A mob entered the church compound at Pobingia and burnt the church, presbytery, boys’ hostel, convent and girls’ hostel.
- Brahmanigaon, December 25, 2007
10.00 a.m. – A mob first entered the village church of Ulipadaro, then destroyed and burnt 30 Christian houses and severely beat Christian residents.
11.45 a.m. – A mob entered the main gate of the church, breaking down the grills, houses, church, the priest’s residence and other properties and setting them on fire.
- Brahmanigaon, December 25, 2007, 2.00 p.m.
Orissa, December 2007
Miscreants gathered once again, entered the market and burnt shops and houses belonging to the Christian community.
- Kalingia, December 25, 2007, Day
Village church was burnt.
- Tikabali, December 25, 2007, Day
Village church was burnt.
- Sarsananda, December 25, 2007, 10.00 p.m.
Church was attacked and burnt in the presence of a magistrate and 22 police personnel.
- Bodagan, December 25, 2007, Night
Church was attacked.
- Kamapada, December 25, 2007, Night
Church was attacked.
- Kulpakia, December 25, 2007, Night
Church was attacked.
- Sirtiguda, December 25, 2007, Night
Seven churches were burnt.
- Phiringia, December 25, 2007, Night
Church was attacked.
- Ruthungia, December 25, 2007, Night
Eight village churches were burnt.
- Nuagaon, December 25, 2007, Night
Nine village churches were burnt.
- Dalagaon, December 25, 2007, Night
Village church was burnt.
- Iripiguda, December 25, 2007, Night
Village church was burnt.
- Krutumgarh, December 26, 2007
Non-Christian tribals of Krutumgarh collected Rs 50 from each family and had a yagna in the village. After the puja they were dancing with weapons like swords, sickles, pharsas, etc.
- Padangi, December 26, 2007, Night
Boriguda village church was burnt.
- Sankharakhole, December 26, 2007, Night
A mob entered the church compound at Sankharakhole and attacked the church, convent and priest’s residence.
- Brahmanigaon, December 27, 2007, 12.15 p.m.
There are differing accounts, even from victims, as to how the Oriyasahi (non-tribal, non-Dalit, Oriya-speaking Hindu) houses were burnt. Some say villagers from the local area burnt houses in Paikosahi. Others say it was outsiders, even from outside the district.
The police have still not provided a coherent account about the direction from which the mob came, to the walled area where civilians had taken shelter or were being kept, and to the premises of the police station nearby. This is not an open area and involves rough ground, a narrow road and many houses. Police forces opened fire on the mob when two persons were killed and the crowd dispersed.
Because this is in the nature of an encounter between a mob and the police, with an exchange of fire, this needs a separate inquiry under the law.
There is also need for a thorough probe as to what happened to the civilians injured in police firing, as several rounds were fired. The police admit to one uniformed person being injured.
Illustrative testimonies of key witnesses/victims
Oral testimony by Father Rabi Sabhasundar, Catholic parish priest, Brahmanigaon, a native of the district
"The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Brahmanigaon, Kandhamal district, Orissa consists of around 1,630 members belonging to 217 families. Like any other year, this year, 2007, the people of Brahmanigaon were getting ready to celebrate Christmas. So they had put up a Christmas pandal and crib in front of Christian shops as they do every year. The Christmas pandal was adorned with lights and other decorations and had a sound system. A committee (Ambedkar Banika Sangh) had already received permission for the pandal-making and celebrations from the collector, subcollector and SP. As they proceeded with these preparations, with prior permission, on the eve of Christmas celebrations, the Banika Sangh committee of Hindu groups along with RSS president Bikram Rout, 40, son of Kishore Rout, Nuagaon, Brahmanigaon PS, and Dhanu Pradhani, son of Bainath, Jhinjirguda, Brahmanigaon, in order to disrupt these celebrations, went to the police station and complained repeatedly to the ASI telling him not to allow the weekly market at Brahmanigaon.
At around 10 a.m. on Monday, December 24, the RSS president Bikram Rout along with his RSS members and Hindu traders went to the marketplace and forcibly stopped people from holding the market that day. Earlier, the ASI of Brahmanigaon police station along with five or six sarpanches from the area and most market-goers from the village had come to the marketplace and convinced Bikram Rout and his group to allow the market to continue. However, soon after the ASI’s departure, Bikram Rout and his group assaulted several villagers who had come to the market, some of whom were severely beaten with sticks and iron bars. The group brandished their weapons, threatening to attack the market-goers.
Not long after this, a mob of about 200 people came running to the pandal with guns, spears, axes and many other traditional weapons and completely destroyed the beautifully decorated crib. They also broke, looted and burnt Christian owned shops. Some of them poured petrol on and burnt three motorcycles belonging to Christians. The angry mob also burnt a generator, the light and sound system and other articles of decoration belonging to people from Digapainy, Gajapati district, which had been hired for the Christmas celebrations.
During the attack on the pandal, a 15-year-old boy was shot. Another young boy of about 12 was brutally attacked and sustained sword wounds to the head. When the boy’s parents rushed to his rescue, both of them were also beaten, receiving injuries from iron bars and traditional weapons. Following this fearsome attack, many Christians from the locality and many market-goers who had come to Brahmanigaon from nearby villages ran for their lives. Taking advantage of their helpless dispersal, Bikram Rout and his RSS members along with Hindu traders and many other Hindus set out to destroy the Christians’ shops one by one.
On December 24, 2007, instead of celebrating midnight mass, most Christians, their babies and young ones in tow, took shelter in the nearby forest where they spent a bitterly cold, dark and sleepless night. On December 25, believing that the attacks would have stopped, many of those who had taken shelter in the forest returned to their houses. But the atrocities continued on that day as well. At 10 a.m. around 400-500 RSS activists, Hindu traders from the locality with many other Hindus from nearby Hindu villages marched towards the Christian street, shouting slogans like ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Jai Hanuman’, and hurling abuse, using all sorts of vulgar and threatening words like ‘Magyasala’, ‘Padry manonku jail diyo’, ‘Semango Church ebang anustano pudi diyo, Christian manonku hatao’, and then looted and burnt most of the houses.
After having completely destroyed the houses and their contents, they forcibly entered the church campus with guns, petrol, diesel, kerosene, bombs and traditional weapons and broke and burnt the doors, windows, statues, altar, several musical instruments, the lights and sound system, furniture and many other church and religious articles, including the Bible, and completely desecrated the church. Meanwhile, some of them entered the presbytery and burnt the father’s residence as well as two motorcycles, a generator, steel and wooden almirahs, all the documents and furniture after looting several lakh rupees worth of property.
After completely destroying the church and the presbytery, the angry mob went around in search of priests and nuns to harass and burn alive. Confronted with the ravaging mob of RSS activists, three priests, a deacon, a regent, two brothers, five sisters of the Holy Cross Convent, Brahmanigaon and four domestic workers ran to the nearby jungle together with many other Christians to save their lives.
It is especially tragic that all these atrocities, this destruction, took place in the presence of police forces. Till today, priests, nuns and others are hiding out in forests and nearby villages in sheer terror. Though the government has promised to provide relief to people of both communities, unfortunately only one community, Hindus, are given relief while Christians are neglected. When Christian women go to ask for relief materials, government relief officials harass them and tell them to bring their husbands. Having experienced atrocities at the hands of the Hindu community and then harassment by government officials, Christians continue to live in fear and trepidation. We don’t know how long this violence and cruelty will persist."
Statement by Sister Zerina, principal, Carmel School, Phulbani
"The school is situated only about two kilometres from the superintendent of police and collector’s offices in Phulbani. There are 550 students in our school, which was started in 1989. Ninety-eight per cent of the students are Hindu, there are only two per cent Christians in the school. There are four sisters, four Christian teachers, 13 Hindu teachers, two Christian staff and one Hindu accountant at the school. I have been principal here for the last two years.
I received news on December 23 that something would happen and also heard about the bandh called on December 25 and 26. I wanted to go to Bhopal for a meeting the same evening but a local shopkeeper advised me not to go that night or the next day. We then decided not to go to Bhopal at all. At 6.30 p.m. on December 24, some locals came and met us; they reported that automobile tyres were being set on fire at Madiguda chowk, just 200 metres from the school. At about the same time, the parish priest, Fr Mathew telephoned to say there would be no holy mass at the Christ Jyoti parish church. I also received a phone call from Sr Christa in Balliguda, saying the problem was escalating. The deputy collector, Arun Parichha rang to tell us that there was some trouble in Brahmanigaon. He said the vehicle of an RSS leader had been attacked and there would be more trouble and that he was monitoring the law and order situation. At about 8 p.m. Sr Christa from the convent in Balliguda rang me to say the convent in Balliguda had been set on fire. She asked us to pray for them. The sisters and I panicked. At about 8.30 p.m. we received news from Sr Christa in Balliguda saying they were safe but acutely suffocated because their premises were filled with smoke. That was the last connection we had with our sisters from Balliguda that day.
At around 9.30 a.m. on December 25, a Hindu teacher, Mr Sarangdhar came to the school to ask about my travel plans. Fr Bijya Nayak from Krutumgarh also rang up and warned us of a possible attack on the school, convent and parish. We rang up a neighbour, Mr Paul Raj from Sadhan, to ask for help from the police. Meanwhile, Sr Christa also rang and advised us to leave the premises and take all our important documents with us. There were a total of four sisters, two maidservants and two hostel girls who were also with us at the convent. At 11.00 a.m. I went for prayers. That was when Sr Rohine shouted, "They’ve come inside!" The mob was shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Kill the Christians’. They all carried swords and other weapons. On seeing the crowd, Sr Rohine and Sr Hemanti jumped over the convent wall and ran for their lives. One of them sprained her leg in the process. About fifteen minutes after the attack began some policemen came to our school. There has been damage to the school and the school bus."
Statement by Fr Laxmikanta Pradhan, Catholic church, Balliguda
"At around 7.30 p.m. on the evening of December 24 a huge group of Hindu fundamentalists with kumkum on their foreheads and carrying lethal weapons like swords, guns, iron rods and axes in their hands, rushed to our church, abusing the priest and sisters in very filthy language. They broke the main gate and entered the church compound, started breaking all the Christmas decorations, pandal and worship materials. They then wanted to kill some of the Christians who were busy preparing for Christmas celebrations. We ran for our lives and took refuge in the jungle. From the hill we could see the flames rising up from our church, residence and hostels. Later, we found that the church and all the worship materials had been burnt down. In the residence and hostels too we found that everything had been burnt."
Setting up the fact-finding committee
The first act of violence took place on the morning of December 24, 2007 in the small town of Brahmanigaon, which has a police station, the office or the revenue office and other institutions. This is a major entry point to the entire Kandhamal hills region and an important marketplace. Some Christians own shops and are comparatively better off than others. They have mobile phones, as does the parish priest whose church was the first to be burnt down. They informed Archbishop Raphael Cheenath and his office, and they in turn informed others, including Dr John Dayal in New Delhi. Dr John Dayal and others immediately informed the national media in New Delhi and Mumbai. But it was Christmas Eve and news planners were focused on the celebratory and commercial aspects of the holiday season. The event did not get the coverage it deserved.
Church and civil society groups however were alerted, in swift order, the offices of the prime minister, president and union home minister were informed, as was the office of the chief minister of Orissa. The prime minister was not initially available but a delegation called on union Home Minister Shivraj Patil on December 27, 2007. President Pratibha Patil was met by the bishop of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and eventually Archbishop Cheenath and Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi met the prime minister. Two public rallies and candlelight vigils were taken out in New Delhi as also in Mumbai, Bhubaneswar and other cities.
At those rallies it was decided that the facts of Kandhamal had to be ascertained in detail and without bias.
At a meeting of Christian and other activist groups in Bhubaneswar the fact-finding group was set up. The fact-finding team consisted of:
1. John Dayal, member, National Integration Council, Government of India, senior editor and political columnist and well-known national human rights activist with experience in many people’s tribunals and fact-finding missions.
2. Nicholas Barla, lawyer and human rights expert from Rourkela with experience in police and social conflicts in the state.
3. Hemant Nayak, social scientist and human rights and development activist, Bhubaneswar.
The team was facilitated by many persons at various stages.
The team made two visits to the district. The first visit was aborted at the Phulbani offices of the police superintendent on December 29, 2007 after having visited affected churches and convents in some of the areas. The second visit took place from January 1 to the night of January 3, 2008 and covered almost every affected area barring one.
It is important to record the circumstances of the first visit. We believe that truth must prevail and that facts, if unearthed early, naturally quell doubts and ensure that rumours are not given currency.
We noted in our press statement in Bhubaneswar on December 30, 2007: "I report with deep sorrow and anguish that I and a five member fact-finding team that had gone to the Phulbani area of Kandhamal district on Saturday, December 29, 2007, was forcibly expelled by inspector general of police, Pradeep Kapoor, who ordered the Phulbani town police inspector to ensure that I left the district that night. The town police inspector then made us follow an armed police escort for a one and a half hour drive in the dark of night until we reached the border of Ganjam district, where he left us. We could return to Bhubaneswar by 4 a.m. today, December 30, 2007, deeply distressed and feeling very frustrated with the experience.
"The fact-finding team was set up at a meeting of activists in the Swosti Hotel in Bhubaneswar on December 28, 2007, to get an authentic first-hand account of the developments and the violence in Kandhamal district because rumours, absence of authentic media reports and often inaccurate government accounts of the casualties had left people confused. There were also fears that lack of authentic information would impact on the confidence-building measures and the peace process. I was requested to lead the fact-finding team in view of my experience in Gujarat, Nandigram, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, the North-east.
"As a matter of abundant precaution, I wrote to the director general of police, Orissa, on December 28, 2007. I, inter alia, said ‘I am a member of the National Integration Council, Government of India, and the national president of the All India Catholic Union. I am part of a fact-finding team set up by civil society and human rights groups to assess the situation in the violence affected areas of Orissa for us to be able to formulate a people’s initiative for confidence-building and peace. The team, consisting of six persons including me, intends to leave Bhubaneswar on the morning of December 29, 2007 and return on the evening of December 31, 2007. We will have a night halt in Phulbani. We will appreciate any assistance and facilitation we can get from the Orissa police and in particular from the police forces of the district. I am sure your office will take the necessary steps and inform the district police of the area.’
"We drove to Phulbani on December 29, reaching safely and without any problems by about 5 p.m. En route we were able to assess the damage done to the NISSWAS School of Social Work set up by Dr RK Nayak, IAS retired, and currently a member of parliament, Rajya Sabha. We also saw the damage done to the Carmelite convent and the Carmel English School. Nuns we interviewed told us how attempts were made to set the convent on fire even as the nuns were cowering in a room they had locked themselves in. Two sisters who could escape injured themselves in the process.
"Later, we went to the offices of the police superintendent to discuss with them our onward journey to Balliguda that evening or early next morning and to see if there was need for curfew passes which are normally given to media and other groups. The inspector general of police, Mr Kapoor, the divisional commissioner and the deputy inspector general of police were present in the room. I was questioned in some detail, always very politely, by Mr Kapoor who wanted to know about my membership with the NIC, my credentials as a journalist and the books I had authored. He also photographed my colleagues and me with his mobile telephone camera. I gave a patient reply to every single question. I also pointed out that this was not a government inquiry but that I would prepare a report I would submit to the authorities and which would also help facilitate the National Minority Commission members who were scheduled to visit the spot on January 6, 2008. I reminded the police we were a peaceful group and our team included an advocate apart from interpreters with expertise in ethnic studies.
"Mr Kapoor was ever polite but remained adamant. My colleagues felt they were being interrogated in a police station. Mr Kapoor said he would not allow me to proceed or even to remain in Phulbani. He said it would not be safe for me or for the persons with whom I would stay. He said the Rapid Action Force had been deployed in Phulbani town and I had to draw my inference from this fact about the situation and tension in the place. I told him there was no way we would be crashing police barriers. It was not for fear of our lives but in deference to the rule of law that we would go. He was apparently not satisfied. He called the Phulbani police officers and ordered them to escort me out.
"The Kandhamal region needs not just media coverage and government relief operations. The rescue, relief and rehabilitation programme has to be done in a transparent manner. Already there have been too many complaints of police and administrative apathy, complicity and even aggressive force against one community, the victim community. Independent fact-finding teams and the information they give help in maintaining transparency and positively contribute to the peace process. I hope we will be able to visit and record the situation in every affected village as an important part of building long-term peace, harmony, and in ensuring relief, compensation and rehabilitation. – John Dayal"
We are very happy the fact-finding team could visit the Kandhamal region again from January 1, 2008, without police escort, without police protection, without official cooperation and with no help other than the goodwill of all people – Christians and Hindus alike.
(Non-government white paper on the violence in Kandhamal district, Orissa: A preliminary report of the fact-finding team led by Dr John Dayal, which visited Kandhamal district, Orissa, on December 29, 2007 and from January 1 to January 3, 2008. Released at Bhubaneswar, January 5, 2008.)
Archived from Communalism Combat, January 2008 Year 14 No.127, Cover Story 1