“On 24 December 2007, while the Christians were getting ready to celebrate the birth of Lord Jesus Christ, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a member of a Hindu fundamentalist organization (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and his supporters attacked and destroyed many churches and prayer centres. A large number of Christians were injured and made homeless in the communally sensitive district of Kandhmal, in Orissa state, eastern India.
Exactly eight months later, on 23 August 2008 when the same seer and the Hindu community were preparing to celebrate the birthday of Lord Krishna (Janmashtami) in Jalespata ashram (monastery), he and four of his disciples were gunned down by tribal revolutionary Maoists.
That it was a premeditated attack is evident from the fact that he was warned in advance and that government authorities were aware of it. A local TV Channel reported that the murderers left a note on the spot of the murder that this was a revenge killing for the last December attack on the Christians.
Hindus were quick to accuse the Church of masterminding the murder of their revered religious leader, who was in his 80s, rather than accept the government’s view that the attack had a Maoist colour.
A meeting of Hindu leaders took place on the following day in Rourkela, also known as Steel City, where a decision for an immediate and violent retaliation was taken. The total success of the dawn to dusk strike in Orissa on 25 August is clear evidence of the shocking reaction. The simultaneous unleashing of violent attacks on 35 Christian centres in Orissa on the evening of 25 August further confirms that the plan was organized.
All bomb attacks were directed at Christians and their institutions. The rampaging mob, seeking revenge for the Guru’s murder, destroyed the pastoral centre of the archdiocese of Bhuvaneshwar with a bomb. A priest and a nun working there were beaten up, stripped and paraded naked in order to humiliate them. Four other priests were severely beaten—one suffered severe burns and is now in critical conditions in Burla Medical College, in the district of Sambalpur.
The mob also ransacked a church-run orphanage near Burgarh, and the caretaker, Ms Rajni Maji, was set ablaze and burned to death.
A large number of churches, prayer centres, convents, hospitals, dispensaries and vehicles were attacked and torched. Some nuns received warned by mobile phone and either ran into the jungle or escaped by jeep to the neighbouring state of Chattisgarh.
A few lay people lost their lives while thousands ran for theirs into the forests; more than 200 houses were set on fire.
The radical Hindu mobs defied the curfew and forced everyone and everything to shut down, bringing life to a stand still and the state virtually to its knees. The official death toll of 20 reported by the controlled media is totally false.
With 40 per cent of the population made up of Tribals and Dalits (outcasts) Orissa is one of the most underdeveloped states in the country.
The Kandhamal district, which has seen high levels of anti-Christian violence in the last decade, is also where a significant number of Christian conversions have taken place in the same period. As Dalits who embrace Christianity achieve socio-economic progress, many Tribals have followed them in that path in recent times. Thus while Orissa's Christian population is less than 2 per cent, the Christian population in the district doubled in the last decade to reach the 5 per cent mark.
In January 1999, the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burned to death by a mob led by one Dara Singh (convicted in 2003).
Objecting to missionary activities, the murdered Hindu sage recently said: “The sooner Christians return to the Hindu fold the better it would be for the country.”
Orissa was the first state in the country that passed legislation against religious conversion in 1967, followed later by other states.
While Christian missionaries firmly assert that serving the poor and the marginalized is their missionary vocation, the anti-conversion law is based on the view that these services are inducements and fraudulent means to abet conversions.
Another factor also generates opposition to Christians. It is becoming increasingly clear that where Christian missionaries operate, important social changes take place. People develop, acting and living with greater dignity. Thus, as a result of education, even basic education, Tribals and Dalits are no longer willing to be used as cheap labour in farming. Their sense of dignity and their education have given them the courage to protest against their exploitation and oppression.
In addition to such changes over the past two generations, Tribals are now moving in great numbers to the big cities. In Mumbai alone there are some 100,000 young Tribals or Adivasi from Orissa, all working in domestic service or small industrial plants. It is obvious that these changes are transforming Orissa’s socio-economic structure.
Radical Hindus’ political programme
The total breakdown of law and order in the state has created the impression that state authorities are conniving with Hindu fundamentalists under political compulsion. The state of Orissa is ruled by a coalition government, supported by the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janatha Party. There are fears that Orissa might go the way of Gujarat and turn into a Hindu laboratory and a land of massacres.
On behalf of Christians, particularly Catholics, Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Bhuvaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, strongly condemned the dastardly acts and violent killings, including that of Swami Laxmanananda, and has appealed to everyone for peace and harmony.
A Christian delegation led by Archbishop Vincent Concessao met the Home minister in New Delhi, giving him a memorandum.
The court cases against the culprits of last December attacks, including police officials and state ministers who failed to act, are presently underway. This partly explains the coolness of the state’s governmental machinery to the current events.
In order to protest and express solidarity with the suffering Christians of Orissa all Catholic schools in the country will remain closed on Friday, 29 August. But we shall not forget to show our appreciation for the police officials who acted promptly to help missionaries and some church institutions. Likewise many Hindus and other people of good will expressed their sympathy and support.
We urge Christians around the world to protest to the government of India. We believe that India will be eager to protect its image as a secular and democratic nation in the international community of nations by promptly taking those steps that promote religious freedom and harmony.
At the time of writing this article (28 August) the situation remains highly volatile so much so the government extended the curfew to nine towns. Security forces are also expected to arrive in the area from the Union capital.”
* Rev Dr Augustine Kanjamala, SVD, holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion. He was the Director of the Ishvani Kendra (Missiological Institute), in Pune. He was secretary of the Commission for Evangelisation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. He is currently director of the Institute of Indian Culture, which is associated with the University of Mumbai.