A first-person account of the anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal: Father Thomas Chellan stresses the need for central command in Orissa
He is a man in his fifties who has been serving as director at the Dibyajyoti Pastoral Centre at Kanjamendi in the Kandhamal district of Orissa for the past seven years. He oversaw the pastoral centre with care. The gardens bore fruit and flowers. Today most of the trees have in all likelihood been uprooted, slashed or burnt.
Today he is in convalescence, recovering from a series of brutal attacks by a mob, attacks that were ably aided and abetted by the Orissa State Armed Police (OSAP) who stood watching, attacks moreover that lasted for a period of 72 hours from 4.30 p.m. on August 24 to 2 a.m. on August 26. To flee the mob Fr Chellan and two colleagues spent a few hours hiding in a nearby forest before they were attacked and humiliated again. He spoke to Teesta Setalvad at a hospital where he is recovering from his injuries.
Even as we speak, the breakdown in the administration continues. Yesterday and today hundreds of poor, tribal Christians are being forced, through threats of violence, to sign false affidavits by paid hirelings of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal to say they were forced through false inducements to convert to Christianity. With all of us, priests and nuns, having to flee due to the failure of the Orissa administration to protect us, these defenceless persons are being coerced into making false statements. Normalcy will only return if these three districts are kept permanently under central command and CRP (Central Reserve Police) posts are positioned in several places. The poor of Kandhamal, Phulbani and Gajapati districts have completely lost faith in the state government. In addition, the cadres of these organisations are being fed false propaganda about Christians and missionary activity.
The sequence of events
Several men of the OSAP were camping at the UGCC school in front of the pastoral centre where I have served for the past seven years. The OSAP camp had been there for a month after an earlier incident of alleged cow slaughter at Tumbudibandha. Apprehending trouble the moment news of the gruesome killing of Swami Saraswati appeared on television, we approached the OSAP for protection. They assured us that ‘there was nothing to worry’.
But the attack did take place…
At around 4.30 p.m. on August 24, when despite this assurance a huge crowd arrived at the gate of the pastoral centre shouting slogans, my companion priest, the sister and I ran for our lives, jumping over the boundary wall at the rear of the property. We could hear sounds of the centre being vandalised, breaking glass, and then in a short while saw smoke and flames. Fearing for our lives, we spent a few hours in a nearby forest before we took shelter in the house of Prahlad Pradhan of K. Nuagaon.
The next morning I could see a crowd of people from my room, breaking down a small church. Sensing danger, Prahlad shifted me to an outhouse and locked me in. At around 1.30 p.m. a group of 40-50 persons came, broke down the door and pulled me out of that room. Sister Meena, whom they had already got hold of, had been hauled into the midst of the mob. They started hitting me all over and forcibly removed my shirt and banyan. "Why did you kill the swamiji? How much money have you given to the killers? What meetings are you conducting at the pastoral centre?"
They dragged us to the Jana Vikash building on the other side of the road. They were armed with lathis, axes, spades, crowbars, iron rods, sickles, etc. They continued their assault inside the building. They tore off the sister’s blouse and began assaulting her. When I objected they hit me with an iron rod on my right shoulder, pulled me out, poured kerosene all over me and pulled out a box of matches. They were debating how and where to burn us, some suggesting we should be burnt alive in the middle of the road. I was made to kneel down on the road. The sister was brought out and some persons were searching for a rope with which to tie us up before setting us alight. Then they decided to parade us in that state for half a kilometre up to Nuagaon. We walked with folded hands as they kept up the assault, attempting to pull off the rest of our clothes.
As we neared Nuagaon, a dozen or so men of the OSAP stood by as the assault continued. I pleaded, "Sir, please help us." We suffered greater blows for attempting to get help. The police were silent onlookers. I was kicked in the face, where I have been stitched up now. A nearby shopkeeper was collecting discarded tyres on which to burn us.
Then suddenly some people in the crowd asked us to go to the K. Nuagaon block building and one of the officers there took us to the police outpost. There I was given some first aid and at around 9.30 p.m. the inspector in-charge and his team took us to Balliguda. Throughout our wait at the outpost one of the mobsters was inside, watching our exchanges with the police.
At Balliguda we were provided accommodation at the inspection bungalow. The next morning when we were taken to the Balliguda police station the inspector who was making arrangements to send us to Bhubaneswar (about 280 kilometres of difficult terrain away from Nuagaon) asked us whether we were ‘really interested’ in registering a first information report (FIR)!
We lodged three separate FIRs but we still have to be given copies of these. The FIRs relate to the attack on Dibyajyoti, the attack on me and the assault of Sr Meena. The police dropped us off at Nayagarh and we reached Bhubaneswar in a private vehicle at 2 a.m. on August 27.
Postscript: The attack on poor, tribal Christians and Christian institutions in Orissa is an outcome of the sangh parivar’s view of the world, using intimidation, mob frenzy and violence. The excuse this time is that the violence was ‘retaliatory’ (in law this is not justified) when all indicators are that the assassins of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati had nothing to do with the innocents killed and brutalised ‘in revenge’. Since Sunday, August 24, the day after Saraswati was killed, reportedly by Maoists (who have even claimed credit for the murder), over 40 innocent Christians have been killed, many burnt alive, about 13,000 persons live in several relief camps and 4,000 homes have been destroyed. A majority of priests and nuns in the area are locals.
No political leaders were allowed entry into the disturbed areas, not even the union minister of state for home, Sriprakash Jaiswal. Only the chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, visited and his administration also allowed the international general secretary of the VHP, Praveen Togadia, into the ravaged districts, who added fuel to the flames by making more inciteful speeches. In the past (2003-2004) Togadia has been jailed by the Rajasthan government and also banned from entry into a district in Karnataka when the district magistrate felt that his entry would do more harm than good. Serious questions on the role of the state, its administration and police in failing to protect life and property and being agents if not provocateurs in mob violence, remain unanswered.
Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2008. Year 15, No.134, Special Report 2, Orissa