Bhubaneswar (AsiaNews) – More than 5,000 Christian Dalits and Adivasis took to the streets yesterday in Raikia, in Odisha’s Kandhamal District, demanding justice and a return to peace and harmony, seven years after Hindu fundamentalists massacred Christians in 2008.
Shouting slogans like `We Want Peace, Not Violence’, `Stop Atrocities on Minorities and Women’, `Do Not Divide People in the name of Religion and Caste, and `We Demand Appropriate Compensation’ (pictured), protesters walked for about two kilometres.
Organised by the Kandhamal Nyaya Shanti O Sadbhabana Samaj, an organisation representing pogrom victims and survivors, the event saw the participation of several political leaders,
Former Union Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar in an Indian Congress-led government was present as were Brinda Karat, a Member of the Rajya Sabha for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Kavita Krishnan, a former MP for the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
Speaking at the event, Mr Aiyar insisted on not forgetting what happened. Officials from India’s Communist parties slammed the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for punishing the innocent instead of bringing to justice the guilty.
The death of Laxamananda Saraswati, a leader of the Hindu ultra-nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), who was killed on 23 August 2008 by a Maoist group, sparked the violence in Odisha (Orissa).
Even though the insurgents claimed responsibility for the assassination, Hindu radicals blamed Christians. The guru had criticised lay Christians and clergy alike for helping tribals and dalits and had accused them of proselytising among these groups.
Aiyar described what he saw in those days of violence. "As a minister of the central government, I was visiting this beautiful land before the violence. Now that I am back here, I feel deep pain.”
“People of different religion and caste lived here. Then suddenly, many were killed, displaced; their homes and churches destroyed, women raped and molested. Even now many survivors cannot return home."
The survivors’ association wrote a letter to Indian President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, citing figures for the attacks. The 2008 pogroms forced 56,000 people to flee their homes, leaving them exposed to looting and fire. Some 6,500 houses were affected this way in some 600 villages.
According to the government, 38 were killed and two women raped. But many more people suffered loss of limbs and permanent, debilitating injuries.
However, according to data collected by the Church and social activists, some 350 churches as well as 35 convents, schools, hostels and welfare facilities were destroyed. At least 91 people, including the disabled, elderly, children, both women and men, died.
The association estimates that at least 10,000 children were forced to quit schools. Many children also ended up in the hands of people traffickers, sold as sex slaves or hired out as domestic workers at the mercy of abusive employers, unable to take the latter to justice because they had to earn a living for their families.
Many others suffered as well, like Fr Thomas Chellan, director of the Divyiajyoti Pastoral Centre, was beaten, and Sister Meena Barwa, who at the time of the attack was with her uncle, Mgr John Barwa SVD, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, was raped.
Unlike them, Fr Bernard Digal died in hospital after months of suffering. He was honoured at the ceremony inaugurating the first monument erected in honour of the martyrs of the anti-Christian pogroms.
"What the Sangh Parivar* has done in Kandhamal has to be seen as terrorism. If this is not terrorism what else is it?’ said Kavita Krishnan.
In his view, the "BJP is not a representative of the Hindu religion. It represents the politics of hate in the name of religion”.
What is more, “let me remind the government here that instead of providing justice for the victims and survivors of Kandhamal, you are grabbing and punishing innocent people.”
Dibakar Parichha, a lawyer, called on the government to identify and prosecute those who are threatening witnesses and members of the Christian community.
According to a survey, assets worth Rs 90 crores (US$ 13 million) were damaged in the communal violence and compensation given so far was only Rs 70 lakhs (US$ 100,000).
Human rights activist Ajaya Kumar Singh, a Kandhamal Nyaya Shanti O Sadbhabana Samaj, said that peace is not the absence of violence; living a life free from fear and insecurity is. Even seven years after Kandhamal’s communal violence, this has not yet come about. Nevertheless, “We still have a right to equality, freedom and justice. These rights are universal, indivisible and inalienable,” he said.
* The Sangh Parivar (family of unions) is loose family of Hindu-nationalist groups.