December 25 2007: Seven churches, Catholic, Protestant, Pentacostal, Independent … burned in Barakhama village, Kandhamal district, central Orissa. December 23, 2007: Hindutva (Hindu supremacist ideology) affiliated Adivasi (tribal) organisations organised a march, rallying, "Stop Christianity. Kill Christians." A Dalit (formerly "untouchable" groups) Christian leader testified, "We went to the local police and informed them of the situation. They assured us that things would be under control. On December 24, in the daytime, we heard voices of Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Shiv Sena people, chanting, ‘Hindu, Hindu, Bhai, Bhai’; ‘RSS Zindabad’; ‘Lakshmanananda Zindabad.’ They shut down shops. That night they felled trees to block roads, severed power and phone lines. On the 25th, we went to the inspector-in-charge of police again. On the 25th, at 2.30, about 200 of us sat down to Christmas prayer at our church, and around 4 p.m. we heard the mob approach."
The mob, about 4,000 persons, many bearing symbolic tilaks (religious mark on forehead), belonged to various Sangh Parivar (Hindu nationalist, militant) groups, named above, inciting local Hindus into rioting. Estimates state 20 per cent of the mob comprised people from Barkahama, 80 per cent from surrounding Baliguda, Raikia, Phulbani, as far away as Beherampur. "They broke the door to our church. We ran. We fell and kept running." Women and men were intimidated and assaulted. Cries rent the air. "Christians must become Hindu or die. Kill them. Kill them. Kill them. Gita not Bible. Destroy their faith."
The crowd carried rods, trishuls, swords. They used guns, a first in Orissa. Predominantly middle class caste Hindus participated in looting, destroying and torching property. Handmade bombs started the fires. Breakage was systematic. Women and men hid for days in forests, later seeking shelter in Baliguda town relief camp, returning to decimated Barakhama on January 2. Engulfed in soot and sorrow, people attempted to function amid charred remnants. A woman said, "Everything burns down and we are left with nothing. How little our lives are made (of). How alone we are, so far away from everything."
In Baliguda, in one church, furniture was dragged out, lit into a grotesque sculpture. The private violated in public, made spectacle. A Catholic church burnt, opposite the street the fire station witnessed the incident, but did not intervene. A cow, dragged from a shed, set afire, was beaten to death, identified as "Christian."
Targeted: Bammunigaon, Bodagan, Daringbari, Goborkutty, Jhinjirguda, Kamapada, Kulpakia, Mandipanka, Nuagaon, Phulbani, Pobingia, Sindrigaon, Ulipadaro villages. Convents, presbytery, hostels, a minor seminary, vocational training centre. Organisational offices, as that of World Vision. Two churches in Chakapad. Christian religious services were not permitted in Phulbani. A Hindutva mob surrounded Tikabali police station, two jeeps were torched.
Independent investigators charge that the violence was planned, that the police had prior knowledge of Hindutva groups’ intent to riot. The pertinent district collector and superintendent of police have been transferred, not discharged. A Judicial Review Commission (JRC) chaired by a former (not sitting) judge has been appointed by the government of Orissa to investigate the riots. Its power or legitimacy is in question. The Central government did not appoint an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation, even as it is apparent that the very administration that failed to contain the riots and delayed deploying adequate forces, and whose officials at the district level may have been involved in its execution, cannot administer justice.
Hindutva activists have lobbied the JRC to organise its terms of reference premised on the claim that an attack on Lakshmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu proselytiser, by Christians in Bammunigaon started the riots. This timeline is falsified. Sources state Hindutva groups planned Christmas day strikes, organised vandalism of Christmas symbols, and incited rioting. Christians in one area responded with reciprocal, not proportionate, violence. Dominant rationale reduces this to majority vs minority communalism. Rather than focus on systematic targeting of Christians, their overwhelmingly peaceful submission to Hindutva’s violence, and vast structural injustices and differences in relations of power between majority and minority, the scrutiny appears to be focused on the failure of all Christian groups to simply submit to dominance.
The Kandhamal riots were not unexpected. Saraswati has been overseeing Hinduisation there since 1969. Adivasis, Dalits, Christians, Muslims are targeted through social and economic boycotts, forced conversions to Hinduism, and other violences. The Orissa Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1960, deployed against Muslims; Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, against Christians. In 1999, Mayurbhanj Catholic priest Arul Das was murdered, followed by destruction of Kandhamal churches. In 2004, Raikia Catholic Church was vandalised, eight Christian homes burnt. In 2005, converting 200 Adivasi Christians to Hinduism in Malkangiri, Saraswati stated, "How will we … make India a completely Hindu country? This is our aim and this is what we want to do." In 2006, celebrating RSS architect Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar’s centenary, presided by Saraswati, seven yagnas (sacrifices) were held, culminating at Chakapad in Kandhamal, attended by 30,000 Adivasis. Between July-December 2007, Hindutva rallies across Kandhamal raised anti-Christian sentiments.
Hindutva leaders rumour, "Phulbani-Kandhamal is a most important Christian area in Orissa with rampant and forced conversions." The Christian population in Kandhamal district is 117,950, Hindus number 527,757. Sangh leaders claim, "By VHP data there are 927 churches in Phulbani district built on illegally taken land." Church leaders respond there are 521 churches. Orissa Christians number 897,861, 2.4 percent of the state’s population. Constitutionally authorised, the Hindu Right inflates conversions to Christianity. This circulates in retaliatory capacity even among progressive communities, who fixate on conversions as contributing to the communalisation of society, debilitating to the majority status of Hindus. Muslims are seen as "infiltrating" from Bangladesh, looting livelihood opportunities, dislocating the "Oriya/Indian nation," non-Hinduised Adivasis and Dalits as "unruly."
Hindutva legitimates violence as patriotic response. The Sangh uses local militarism (Kandhamal) as consort to state controlled militarization (Kashipur, Kalinganagar). Hindu cultural dominance organises Hindu nationalism. Orissa amalgamated as a Hindu state between 1866-1936. The absence of structural reforms and assertion of Hindu elites define post-colonial governance. The Sangh has proliferated into 10,000-14,000 villages, operating 35-40 major organisations, with a massive base of a few million. A Balasore district Shiv Sena unit formed the first Hindu "suicide squad." The Hindu nationalist BJP-BJD coalition yields power. The Hindu Suraksha Samiti organises against Muslims. Revolting slogans, "Mussalman ka ek hi sthan, Pakistan ya kabristan (For Muslims there is one place, Pakistan or the grave)," perforate neighbourhoods.
In Kandhamal, Hindu militant groups, neighbours, police, chief minister, Central government acted with egregious impunity. People remain missing, death counts inaccurate. The police refuses Christians seeking to file first information reports. The Baliguda relief camp is skeletal. Despite continuing tensions, police presence has abated. Confidence building steps are absent. Relief, compensation, reparation are incommensurate with the extent of social, psychological, and economic losses of communities. Political parties, focused on politicking the issue, fail to respond to immediate and long-term needs of people.
Angana Chatterji is associate professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at California Institute of Integral Studies.