A lot of us may not know where Kandhamal is – or even what it is. A simple Google search will reveal that it’s a district in Odisha, created in 1994. You would also be told that it is famous for its local turmeric, known as Kandhamal haldi.
We do not, however, remember Kandhamal for its haldi. Remembering Kandhamal is difficult and painful – also because it is a mirror in which we see our true face as a nation. It tells us that we have failed our own, we have failed to become one people.
The road we have taken a as a nation dotted with milestones – Jabalpur, Bhiwandi, Meerut, Aligarh, Jamshedpur, Bhagalpur, Hashimpura, Nellie, Delhi, Gujarat, Kokrajhar, Muzaffarnagar, Atali and then again Delhi. Milestones, big and small. Bloodstained. The size of the milestone depends on the number of the murdered, mutilated and displaced.
How big and heavy is the milestone called Kandhamal?
In 2007 and 2008, Christians were attacked in Kandhamal. It was the biggest organised attack against Christians in the last three centuries, and can be called a pogrom. In this massacre, more than 395 churches and places of worship were destroyed. Nearly 6,500 houses were damaged. Several educational, social service and health institutions were looted. More than 75,000 people were displaced. Several cases of forced conversion to Hinduism were reported. About 40 women were reportedly raped and sexually assaulted. Over 100 people were murdered.
This a necessary count.
This attack was also called a reaction. The same action-reaction theory which is often thrown at the massacred, the mutilated, the humiliated. At Muslims, Sikhs and Christians alike.
A preacher, Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, was murdered. It was promptly declared a murder executed after a conspiracy, a Christian conspiracy. After the murder, a long yatra was announced with the body of Lakshmananda. Then leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad Parvin Togadia arrived. The funeral procession crossed all areas populated by Christians. And then blood flowed.
The pogrom is dismissed as a reaction to the murder of a pious man. Whether his intentions were religious preaching or not we do not know, but his mission was very clear. He is on the record declaring, “The actual intention of the Europe, US, the Pope and Sonia Gandhi was to convert the entire region into the independent Christian land. God has sent me from Himalaya and it was stalled. That is why their campaign was to drive away swamiji and create a Christian land. As long as I am alive I shall not let you do that”.
So, it is evident that Lakshmananda was not actually a religious preacher. He was an anti-Christian hate peddler. It becomes easy, then, to blame his killing on Christians. Who else would kill him but those against whom he was working, is the simple theory. Believed even by the court when it convicted seven men and gave them life term.
They are out on bail now, after 10 years of struggle. The judgment needed to be revised after Maoists owned up to the murder – but that has still not been done.
All of that is inconsequential in India. This is a land where crimes are manufactured by the investigative agencies, a land where ‘criminals’ are invented.
That aside, we do need to ask why a murder should be avenged by murdering another 100 people and plundering a whole population? A very simple question, but one that we do not ask.
We thought that it was normal for the bodies of those burnt in the fire in a coach S6 of the Sabarmati Express to be taken around in a procession in Ahmedabad; that a strike call by the so-called Hindu organisations was also normal; and the mass attack on Muslims was only to be expected. For if Hindus die in a fire in a train, who else but Muslims should be blamed for it? And who else but Muslims should pay for it? We did not need an investigation. The then liberal Prime Minister asked angrily, “Who was the first to light the fire?” The answer was assumed.
It is the acceptance of this theory that led to the pogrom in Kandhamal. Also because we never ask how a person whose mission it is to spread hate is accepted and venerated as pious.
These are the questions we need to keep asking. August 25 is an occasion to repeat these questions.
The National Solidarity Forum, representing 70 national and regional organisations, has issued a statement and appeal on the anniversary of the violence:
“During the communal violence in Kandhamal, there have been more than 3,300 complaints, but only 820 odd FIRs were registered. The rest of the complaints were not even registered. Among these complaints, only 518 cases were charge sheeted. The remaining cases were treated as false reports. And out of these 518 cases, 247 cases disposed off. The rest of the cases are pending before the sessions and magistrate’s courts. And among those cases which have been disposed off, many are already acquitted.
According to study conducted by Supreme Court Adv Vrinda Grover and Law Prof Saumya Uma, it is reported that the conviction rate is as low as 5.13% of the charge sheeted cases. If you take complaints as a yardstick of justice process, it is just around 1% only.
None of the criminals responsible for destruction are in jail today. The murderers, rapists, looters and destroyers are today running scot free. However, seven innocent persons were in jail for 11 years have come on a bail with fabricated cases.
On August 2, 2016, the Supreme Court led by Justice TS Thakur and Justice Uday Lalit mentioned in their judgement that the quantum and scope for compensation was not satisfactory and found that the court also found it disturbing that the offenders of law were not booked and ordered to review 315 cases of communal violence that were filed. The cases are still not yet reopened even after four years as Supreme Court has not set any deadline. There are houses, churches, institutions and volunteer organisations, whose properties destroyed were never found in the compensation list. There are many yet to receive the house damage compensation despite the SC order. Assets and shops of thousands of people were not listed nor considered.
It is quite a tragedy that even after 12 years; there are hundreds of families are not able to return back to their ancestral villages for fear of losing life. This has huge toll on their lives. The displaced ones within the districts now live in new colonies without access to resources for livelihood and life. The migrants, who left the district for life & livelihood are caught up badly with the pandemic COVID 19. The widows, the relatives of those killed are fighting a court battle as well as survival besides the fear of the fanatics’ threats.”
These are sad and cruel figures.
Kandhamal is not an isolated incident. We should have known that anti-Christian hatred was thriving in Odisha and India; we had already legitimised the murder of Graham Staines and his children. Again an act of reaction, even if bad, but a “natural” reaction to what the murderers believed he engaged in, that is conversion. It was a lie, but how does it matter?
Let us do our duty of remembrance. Remember how it was allowed to happen and how the mass crime was ignored by all our state agencies and political parties. Also how we have not done enough to ensure that Kandhamal is not repeated. Let us read the following, also from the NSF appeal:
“There are reported cases of 122 violence against Christians; of which only 23 FIRs registered until June this year 2020. The latest incident involving murder of a young Christian boy named Somaru Madkami in Odisha to instances of physical assaults, threats and intimidation by family members and villagers alike and social ostracism. The year 2019 witnessed at least 328 incidents of targeted violence against Christians. The victims of these violent attacks included 275 tribal, 55 Dalits, 164 women and 117 children. Out of these, 131 incidents involved dereliction of duty by law enforcement authorities. The attacks on Christians have increased consistently like 292 in 2018, 240 in 2017, 208 in 2016, 177 in 2015 and 147 in 2014. As a matter of fact, according to the World Watch List of 50 countries, India is the 10th most dangerous country in the world to live in for Christians as against 28th in the year 2014.”
Hate is very much alive in India. This is what we need to remember, on August 25.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.