As much as we would like to forget it

The first ever large-scale violence against Christians of Kandhamal in northeast state of India, Odisha is an incident which perhaps most of the Indian Christians would like to leave behind and forge ahead as peace-loving community as always been known. Sadly, we have no choice but to observe prayerful Kandhamal Remembrance Week from 25th August to 2nd September to mark the 10th year anniversary of Kandhamal riots.

As we continue to pray for a peaceful India and cordial co-existence among all Indians with our different culture, belief, and habits, let me recall what happened 10 years ago so that it does not occur again.

It is an aftermath of the murder of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati allegedly by Maoists on August 24, 2008, that witnessed the mobs brutally attacking Christians, their homes and churches. More than 100 people were killed and over 50,000 displaced from their homes and villages, driven into the forests and relief camps for fear of their lives. Over 8,000 homes were looted and burnt. Over 300 churches demolished. About 12000 children education disrupted and displaced. 40 women were sexually assaulted.

As a young lawyer, at that time, I found myself being called upon to provide much needed solace to the helpless victims and their families. So, with the assistance of several organizations, the Odisha Legal Aid Centre was established. Though the resources were limited, the dedicated group of lawyers and activists made up for it.

And as we travelled from village to village and relief camp to relief camp the incidents of violence grew more and more horrific - people butchered by mobs and homes set ablaze with people still inside, a pregnant mother running for her life in the forest, delivering a premature baby girl in the forest and cutting the umbilical cord with a stone.

The violence of such magnitude and intensity left us, the small group of lawyers and activists grapple with the question of how to respond to such aggression and hate. Because the immediate and urgent response was the need for relief and rehabilitation. Taking legal action was not something that came naturally.

But as couple of months passed by, our team along with other agencies started on ground work of filing cases, compensation for the victims and assisting the prosecution. We did manage to file over 200 cases before various district courts, the High Court and even before the Supreme Court of India.

The team achieved a key victory by securing the first life imprisonment for members of the mob who had killed Pastor Akbar Digal.  At the same time, let me accept the fact that in spite of our best efforts, our ability to get justice for the victims was much limited.

The Supreme Court in 2016 in Archbishop Cheenath’s judgement[1] awarding enhanced compensation to the victims that "the affidavit filed on behalf of the State disclosed that out of 827 registered cases, 512 cases resulted in filing of charge-sheets while in 315 cases final reports were submitted. In other words, in 315 cases either no offence was found to have been made out or the offenders could not be detected. Such large proportion is quite disturbing. The State could do well in looking into all these 315 cases and see that the offenders are brought to book. Similarly, out of 362 trials which stand completed only 78 have resulted in conviction, which again is a matter of concern. The concerned authorities must see to it that the matters are taken up wherever acquittals were not justified on facts."

The Supreme Court, recognizing the lapse and ordered additional compensation to each victim. However, in spite of these directions being given in 2016, the compensation was not released to the victims until a series of petitions was filed by ADF India allied attorney and Director of the Odisha Legal Aid Center, Mr. Pratap Chhinchani. In March 2018, the state of Odisha finally released an amount of Rs. 13 crores to the district authorities of Kandhamal to disburse to the victims[2]. Finally, ten years after the violence, the victims of Odisha received the compensation due to them.

And at this tenth-year commemoration, there are many pertinent lessons to learn, given the frequency and intensity of sectarian violence we experience here in India. Over the last few years, we have witnessed a sharp increase in the communal and targeted violence.

According to data presented before the Parliament by the Ministry of Home Affairs, communal incidents increased 28 percent over the last three years and 822 “incidents” were recorded in 2017 [3], which led to as many as 111 people being killed and 2,384 others were injured. In violence against the Christian minority community, faith based human right organizations recorded over 800 incidents in the past four years. Out of 29 states in India, at least 16 states regularly witness attacks on Christians. Chhattisgarh topped the list, followed by Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Punjab, Telangana, Uttarakhand and West Bengal are the other states which were susceptible to violence against Christians.

The states of Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh accounted for over 50% of the incidents recorded. The violence of incidents includes ghar wapsi; refusal to grant permission to establish and run places of worship; false accusation of forceful and fraudulent religious conversions:  physical and verbal assault on Church pastors and members; damage and desecration of places of worship and arson; disruption of prayer services and restrictions on religious gatherings.[4]

In the light of this ongoing violence, the observation of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Archbishop Cheenath’s case are relevant. The Court had in its judgment reiterated that, “…..the minorities are as much children of the soil as the majority and the approach has been to ensure that nothing should be done, as might deprive the minorities of a sense of belonging, of a feeling of security, of a consciousness of equality and of the awareness that the conservation of their religion, culture, language and script as also the protection of their educational institutions is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution.

… It can, indeed, be said to be an index of the level of civilization and catholicity of a nation as to how far their minorities feel secure and are not subject to any discrimination or suppression.”

The State has the obligation to act swiftly to stop acts of violence committed in the name of religion, against individuals, groups and places of worship. Overcoming a culture of impunity, wherever it exists, must be a priority and those who commit or are complicit in acts of violence must be brought to justice.

There is an urgent need to take steps to strengthen human rights monitoring mechanisms, including the National Commission for Minorities and the National Human Rights Commission. Implementation of a process of educating and training the rights of religious minorities to police and judicial officials have become essential.

As Christian community, we need to work more closely with other civil society groups to better understand legal processes and basic human rights frameworks.  This will enable Christians to be more resilient to violent religious persecution as they understand how to navigate the human rights framework.

As victims and witness are fearful, vulnerable and alone, the church should stand alongside these victims to follow through of these cases by setting up and supporting legal assistance to the victims.  The church must also, where appropriate, initiate legal action against agencies or individuals who incite violence against religious minorities, by filing complaints with the police.

But, law alone cannot answer the problem of the violence. To address the root of the problem, it is imperative the church and civil society confront the lies that are repeated over and over again against the community with truth. Christians must be encouraged to read Indian history, understand the tactics of radical nationalist groups and use social media to create and share articles, blogs, videos about India’s diversity and composite culture.

Meanwhile, in January 2015, United Christian Forum launched a UCF Toll-Free Helpline number ☎: 1-800-208-4545. One may contact this number in case of any attack on Church, prayer meeting or a convention. Group of Christian lawyers and influential people connected to ADF, CLA, EFI and UCF will come forward for immediate help.

Churches must also continue to work to create opportunities for the body of Christ to work on common events with the public at large on issues that concern the larger common good. Far too often, divisive politics drives Christians into silos. We must resist that temptation and rather embrace our larger and common identities to forge new relationships with our fellow citizens.

[1] WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO.404 OF 2008

[2] https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2018/05/india-compensation-assured-for-widows-of-14-who-died-in-kandhamal-riots/

[3] http://164.100.47.190/loksabhaquestions/annex/14/AU590.pdf

[4] A detailed list of incidents is available at www.speakoutagainsthate.org