Remembering Kandhamal

After travelling to Gujarat following the pogrom of 2002, I began inquiring into Hindu nationalist mobilisations in Odisha

The Hindu Right’s contemporary targeting of Muslim and Christian religious minorities may be traced to the 1990s. The Muslim community in Bhadrak was targeted through massified violence in March 1991. In January 1999, Graham Staines, 58, Australian missionary, and his 10 and 6-year-old sons were murdered in Keonjhar district. In August 1999, Shiekh Rahman, a Muslim clothes merchant, was mutilated and burned to death in a public execution at the weekly market in Mayurbhanj. In September 1999, Catholic priest Arul Das was murdered in Mayurbhanj, followed by the destruction of churches in Kandhamal.

Hindutva activists amalgamated their position and established crucial networks within the state government through relief work in the aftermath of the cyclone that left approximately 10,000 dead in Odisha in October-November of 1999.

In 2005, I had the privilege of convening the Indian People’s Tribunal on Communalism in Orissa (name changed to Odisha in 2011) with valued colleagues. Leading up to this, in February 2004, seven Dalit Christian women and a male pastor were tonsured by upper caste and Hindu-identified Dalit neighbours, against their will, signifying their ‘return’ to Hinduism. This event took place in Jagatsinghpur district, in Kilipal village. In August 2004, Our Lady of Charity Catholic Church was vandalised in Raikia and eight Christian homes torched. The Raikia incident led to broad-based economic and social ghettoization of the Christian community.

The report of our people’s tribunal, published in September 2006, detailed mobilisations by Hindutva (ideology and political aspiration of the Hindu Right)-affiliated organisations, including in Kandhamal, and highlighted those in incubation, making recommendations in a preventive and injunctive capacity. Despite the scope of its findings, the report did not summon reflection or action on part of the state or central government.

The mass atrocities of December 2007 and August 2008 in Kandhamal, Odisha, devastated the Christian community and sent shock waves through the  body politic. These episodes of violence primarily impacted economically marginalised Adivasi and Dalit Christian communities.

In 2007, the attacks began on December 25 (Christmas) and continued for several days. Mobs destroyed dozens of Christian churches and hundreds of Christian homes. Following the violence of 2007, majoritarian discourse named Christians as “conversion terrorists,” and numbers and rates of conversion to Christianity were inflated. That Adivasis and Dalits elect to convert to Christianity in India to escape the malignant stronghold of caste oppression, is suppressed. In January 2008, majoritarian activists reportedly claimed that they had succeeded in (forcibly) converting more than ten thousand Christians to Hinduism in Odisha in 2007.

The next episode of Hindu nationalist violence targeting the Christian community took place in Kandhamal district during August 24-26 and continued through October 28. Predominantly middle-class and middle-caste Hindu crowds participated in the violence, perpetrating rape, mutilation, and murder, and engaged in looting and the destruction and torching of property with rods, tridents, swords, kerosene, crude bombs, and guns.

It is approximated that 75 to 123 people were killed and more than 18,000 persons were injured. Approximately 4,901 homes were partly or wholly destroyed. More than 264 churches were decimated. Approximately 25,000 to 40,000 persons were displaced from around 450 villag­es. Thousands sought refuge in near­by forests and makeshift relief camps.

The political actions and inactions of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) Government facilitated the reach of Hindu nationalists during the violence. The delayed and inadequate response of the Government of Odisha and Government of India enabled the violence to continue for as long as it did. The extent of the violence and coordination of attacks across the mountainous terrain of Kandhamal corroborated that the violence was planned, premeditated, and that, in various instances, the police had prior knowledge of Hindutva groups’ operational plan.

The Government of Odisha carried out misinformation campaigns and ethnicised the violence, failing to hold Hindu nationalists accountable. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and BJD coalition government at the state level aided in cementing institutional support for Hindutva. Odisha 2007 and 2008 rendered visible how Christians, many of Adivasi and Dalit descent, and majoritar­ian Hindus have been divided by the very social and historical proximities that have shaped them.

Justice Denied

In response to widespread targeting during instances of massified violence, the Indian government has routinely utilised ad hoc commissions of inquiry with recommendatory powers. Affected communities have been excluded from conversations regarding accountability, negating the possibility of configuring durable mechanisms to interrupt the climate of impunity, abuse, and mistrust.

In Odisha, the 2007-Justice Panigrahi commission submitted its report in 2015. The report of the Justice Mohapatra commission, following 2008, was submitted by Justice Naidu in December 2015, after the passing of Justice Mohapatra in 2012.

The Commissions following the violence of Delhi 1984, Gujarat 2002, and Odisha 2007 and 2008 have been reportedly compro­mised by alleged political interference and inefficiency. They failed to assess liability, “who did what to whom,” and expose systemic and collective vulnerabilities and their pernicious effects for minority communities and victimised-survivors of sexualised violence.

These recommendatory bodies were not truth com­missions, and differed sharply in form and consequence from transitional and transformative justice approaches. These commissions were not concerned with estab­lishing the legitimacy and ethics of the state system itself or the obligation to secure justice through implementing the right to effective remedy. (Conflicted Democracies, P 106-107.)

The four substantive components of the right to a remedy; the right to justice, right to truth, right to reparations, and guarantee of non-recurrence, affirm the obligations of states to prevent violations and respond to violations when they do occur, through investigations, prosecutions, appropriate punishment, and reparations and psychosocial restitution for victims.

The failures of the state following 2007 and 2008 contributed significantly to the expansion of the Hindu Right in Odisha and beyond, and to the precariousness of vulnerable and minority communities today.

The unchecked spread of majoritarianism in India through the decades during which Hindu nationalists were not in elected office created political and legal contexts whereby the project of Hinduising India can now occupy centre stage in government.

Majoritarian State

The Hindu Right’s popular victory in the 2014 and 2019 elections expanded the power captured by the  Narendra Modi-led BJP.

Inherently Brahmanical, hetero-patriarchal, the government led by Modi incorporates four features: populism, nationalism, authoritarianism and majoritarianism. This illiberal dispensation evidences a disregard for social facts, democratic debate and reasoned dissent, secular institutions, and the rule of law. Asser­tions that internal and external enemies are an imminent danger to the nation, the targeting of dissent as ‘anti-national,’ and minoritisation and Islamophobia fracture the fault lines of an already conflicted democracy.

Seizing land rights of the targeted-Other, occupying spaces significant to them, intensifying social and economic boycott of minorities, and effectuating violence and social death are practices utilised by majoritarian nationalists. Corresponding actions inflicted on minority/marginalised communities, enacted by government, judiciary, state forces and mobs fracture identity and community, material culture, psychosocial well-being, livelihood, and belonging.

Impunity laws, exemplified by the Odisha Freedom of Religion Act (1967) and the Odisha Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act (1960), assisted in criminalising Christian and Muslim peoples in Odisha. Prohibiting cow and cattle slaughter and forcible conversion to Hinduism continue as prevalent strategies used by the Hindu Right. As of 2011, Odisha’s population numbered 39.9 million. Odisha Christians numbered 1,161,708 per the Census of 2011, 2.8 percent of the state’s population (2.4 percent in 2001). Odisha Muslims numbered 9,11,670, 2.2 percent of the state’s population (2.1 percent in 2001). These figures indicate marginal growth since 2001, contradicting the discourse popularised by Hindu nationalists.

“Citizenship” laws today aim to determine who may be accorded  political and civil rights, and target minority communities, especially Muslims. They are akin to the Nuremberg Laws instituted in September 1935 in Nazi Germany. Correspondingly, the Indian government commenced a siege on Kashmir in August 2019, countermanding it’s autonomy. The partisan state unfolds in varying registers, constitutive of states of exception without-end. The rage and arrogance that fuels the Hindu Right draws lifeblood from the heinous annals of history, weaponising religion and demonising difference.

Following the 2014 elections, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh reportedly witnessed “the highest growth since 1925,” with 56,859 shakhas (branches) reportedly operational across India in 2016. In February 2018, RSS leader Mohan Bhagat stated that, if called upon, the organisation was positioned to mobilize an army within three days.

In Odisha, the BJP secured 10 seats in the 2014 Assembly elections. In 2017, there were 91 incidents of recorded communal violence in Odisha. In 2019, the BJP secured 23 seats in the Odisha Assembly elections.

In October 2019, the policy-making unit of the RSS announced that its  annual meeting would be held in Odisha, to further cement the BJP’s position in the state. The same year, the RSS recorded 2,000 shakhas in Odisha and 5,130 Ekal Vidyalaya schools with 125,107 students.

The Hindu Right’s anti-minority rhetoric and violence are matched by the popularisation of revisionist history. The legacy of prolific dissent persists across India, challenging the abject and unconstitutional actions of the majoritarian state and the Hindu Right that target minorities and their allies.


What does it mean to be a woman, minority, Other, and marginalised in India today? Are these states of being inevitably consonant with structural and pervasive subjugation? How do affected communities, especially victim-survivors among them, negotiate a life of dignity after events of acute violence and dispossession and navigate seemingly inscrutable processes to secure justice? How do they submit to and heal from an inheritance of suffering?

It is twelve years since the violence of 2008 in Odisha. I honour women survivors of 2008 whom I met in January 2009. Their testimony reveals the depth of their wounds. Words overflow onto each other, describing lucidly the incomprehensible. Speech bears witness to the brutality of the upheaval, and the perverted violence it imposed. Their words haunt and call for remembrance. (Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present, Pp 357-358):


“In the first days of the riots about 60 people surrounded the body. About 80 people surrounded the body. Five hundred people surrounded the body. His body was aflame. They [Hindutva workers] asked I become Hindu. The body took a long time to die. Some Hindus aided our escape. He was marked from before. They say they must kill us, so we cannot tell what they have done. They killed Christians, buried them, then placed stones over the bodies to stop ‘resurrection.’ At night, I can still hear – become Hindu, become Hindu, become Hindu. They beat him with a crowbar. Another hacked him. People were afraid to give us shelter but still did. They asked him to become Hindu. They hit me. My husband was axed. Torched. I saw him buried. They desecrated his body. After this what life is possible? I have seen his killers. His … was decapitated. They torched her. They were neighbours. Blood everywhere. The police do not arrest the people. Bits of bone. It is hard to get the medical report. We cannot live at home. They killed his mother. We have lost our identity, our ration cards, identification papers, our bodies, our selves. Who are we now?”


Angana P. Chatterji focuses her work on issues of political conflict, majoritarian nationalism, religion in the public sphere, and reparatory justice and cultural survival. Dr. Chatterji’s publications include: Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India (2019, co-editor); Conflicted Democracies and Gendered Violence: The Right to Heal (2016, lead author); Kashmir: The Case for Freedom (2011, co-author); Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present (2009); and the report, BURIED EVIDENCE: Unknown, Unmarked and Mass Graves in Kashmir (2009, lead author).



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