I remember those days when the former prime minister of India late Atal Bihari Vajpayee had suggested for a national debate on conversion though our constitution, even then pointing that the practice of religion is a fundamental right. This was when, he was on an official visit to Dang, Gujarat on 10th January, 1999. Here, religious violence were taking place against the Christian minorities in a large scale. The Christians were getting attacked by the people of Sangha Parivar. Few days after his visit to Dang, Graham Stain was killed, on 23rd January 1999, by Bajarang Dal activists at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district. The activists of Sangh Parivar who were largely behind attack in Dang area got rejuvenated when the Bharatiya Janata Party got reelected in Gujarat in 2002. Thereafter, the activists mainly of Bajarang Dal started telling, “Odisha would be our second laboratory”.
Towards the end of the coalition government of Biju Janata Dal – Bharatiya Janata Party, just a few months before state assembly election (2009), on 23rd August 2008, Laxmanananda Saraswati, an activist of VHP, was killed by few cadres of Maoist Party. Within few hours the then VHP president Praveen Togadia reached the district and the dead body of Laxmanananda crisscrossed and traveled the entire district. From the very next day of his killing, anti-Christian communal violence started in the district. The fire of the communal violence engulfed the entire district of Kandhamal within a few hours and continued for two months. Main allegation made by the Sangh Parivar against Christians was ‘conversion’.
This year is the tenth year of that anti-Christian communal violence. I went to Kandhamal a few weeks back to meet those people I had met ten years before. I got stuck at a memorial at Tiangia panchayat on which seven names of those killed in the violence were engraved. I also met Suresh Nayak, the elder brother of one of the seven deceased at his home. He recounted the events insuch a way as if it had happened just a few days before. He said, “They first killed my brother and they were searching for me. I was returning from the police station after informing them about the situation. The mob consisted of about 20 to 30 people. One of them struck me with an axe on my neck. I was bleeding profusely, but managed to run. I had no idea about my family members. I met my wife after three days in an adjacent district, Gajapati.”
Suresh Nayak has started a new business outside Kandhamal. He is staying with his family there and occasionally comes to his old house to look after it. “You can imagine what would be going in my mind when I see them, those killers, in my village who had killed my brother and had attacked me.” “What happened to them…Nothing”…, he posited a rhetorical statement before me.
I even searched for Bikram Nayak’s mother. She had given an interview in my documentary film “the conflict” and had described how her son, Bikram, was killed in front of her. I came to know that she had left her home and had started staying at another place.
PUCL says in the anti-Christian violence of 2008, 38 people died, 3 people went missing, 415 villages got affected, 3262 houses got damaged, 195 churches and prayer halls were burnt or damaged and 25122 people took shelter in various relief camps. Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover in her book ‘Kandhamal Introspection of Initiative for Justice 2007 – 2015’ says 56,000 people became homeless and 2000 Christians forcibly reconverted.
People like Suresh Nayak had filed cases against the perpetrators also. The sources say 3232 such cases were filed against 11,000 people just after the violence. But the district police only registered 827 cases, out of which they closed 315 cases stating ‘lack of evidence’. By the end of 2017, only 362 cases faced trial, out of which the conviction happened in 78 cases only. Out of 30 murder cases conviction happened only in 2 cases. After listening to a petition, the Hounrable Supreme Court directed the state government in 2016 to reopen those 315 cases closed by the local police stating ‘lack of evidence’. The Supreme Court pointed that the religious minority, like Christians, are the citizens of this country and have right to get justice.
Unfortunately, the state government has not proceeded an inch after such a direction. In a separate petition, the Supreme Court had directed to distribute more compensation to the victims. But even this step has failed to bring all the victims back to the district. In the entrance of the district, from north side a rehabilitation colony, Shanti Nagar, welcomes its visitors. 72 Christian families of three villages i.e. Betikola, Kilakia and Jhimangia are staying in this rehabilitation camp. They are unable to return their respective villages. Sunil Mallick of Betikola village, now in Shanti Nagar, describing his experience said, “when we tried to come back to our village and started our cultivation, Hindu villagers left their cattle in our field to graze”. Sunil Mallick and many of his village people had left village in August 2008. They lived in various relief camps before coming to the village. He is an adivasi Christian and had filed case against the perpetrators. But among those 315 cases the local police had closed his case also telling it as ‘lack of evidence’.
Prior to the violence (2008), Betikola village was always on target of Hindu extremist group. Sunil told that there were continuous attacks on Christian people and their pastors by co-Hindu villagers. “Sometimes they were beating our pastor and sometimes also they were burning our prayer halls. This always happened in the presence of Laxmanananda in our village or just after one of his religious programs”, Sunil said.