Religious violence in Odisha

Indian state of Odisha

Religious violence in Odisha is civil unrest and riots in the remote forest region surrounding Kandhamal district in western parts of the Indian state of Odisha.

Kandhamal district contains several tribal reservations where only tribal people can own land. The largest community in Kandhamal is the Kandha tribe. Most Kandha tribal people follow tribal and animistic forms of Hinduism. However, the socio-economic and political landscape of Kandhamal is dominated by its second-largest community, the non-tribal Pana caste. The region is also home to the Maoist guerrillas who are the largest terror group operating inside India and were responsible for several thousand deaths in India in the 2000s. Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda stated groups tend to recruit most of their leaders and cadre insurgents from tribal communities. He reiterated the Maoists's religious position: "We do not believe in any religion or are attached to any religious groups. We are not in favour of any religion."[1]

Major issues in Kandhamal that have led to tensions are claims that "The Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act" is violated. Such claims include forcible occupation of tribal land, fake issuance of tribal certificates, illegal building of places of worship (mostly churches) on tribal land, religious conversions, and exploiting tribals for insurgent activities. This has also resulted in civil unrest and communal tensions earlier in 1986, 1994 and 2001.[2][3][4][5][6]


Historical background of conversions

Franciscan missionary Friar Odoric visited India in the 14th century and wrote about his visit to Puri in a journal which he later published in Europe. In the journal, Odoric wrote in detail about a huge chariot containing idols of Hindu deities from the grand and famous Jagannath temple which is taken out annually in a procession known as the rath yatra. Odoric's account of the ceremony spread throughout Europe and by the 19th century the word juggernaut began to be associated with an unstoppable force of such proportions that is capable of destroying everything in its path.[7] Subsequently, Baptist missionaries came to Odisha in 1822 during the British Empire's colonial rule over India.[8]

After India's independence

The communal disharmony arose even before Indian independence in 1947 on aforementioned issue of religious conversion. Conversions have been legislated by the provisions of the Freedom of Religion Acts (acts replicated in numerous other parts through India). Odisha was the first provinces of independent India to enact legislation in regards to religious conversions. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, mentions that no person shall "convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means".[9][10] Christian missions have been active in Odisha among the tribals and backward Hindu castes from the early years of the twentieth century.Right-wing Hindus have alleged that the increase in the number of Christians in Odisha has been a result of exploitation of illiteracy and impoverishment by the missionaries in contravention of the law, instead of free will.[11]

Conversion controversy

Behind the clashes are long-simmering tensions between equally impoverished groups: the Kandha tribe, who are 80% of the population, and the Pana. Both are original inhabitants of the land. There has been an Indian (Hindu) tradition of untouchability. Dalits, considered lower caste people, are subject to social and economic discrimination. This is outlawed in the Indian constitution. The prejudices remain. Conversion from untouchability has encouraged millions of such people to escape from their circumstances through joining other religions. The Panas have converted to Christianity in large numbers and prospered financially .[12] Over the past several decades, most of the Panas have become Dalit Christians.[13]

Hindu nationalist groups have blamed the violence on the issue of religious conversion. Conversions have been legislated by the provisions of the Freedom of Religion Acts, replicated in some of the states in India. Odisha was the first state of independent India to enact legislation on religious conversions. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, stipulates that 'no person shall "convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means"'.[10][14] Hindus claim the Christian missionaries were converting poor tribal people by feeding them beef, which is taboo in Hinduism.

The missionaries would upgrade the mud houses of the converts into brick-lime. Hindus have further alleged that the increase in the number of Christians in Odisha has been a result of exploitation of illiteracy and impoverishment by the missionaries.[15][16] The Census of India shows that Christian population in Kandhamal grew from around 43,000 in 1981 to 117,950 in 2001.[17]

Staines killing

Graham Staines was an Australian Christian missionary working with the Evangelical Missionary Society of Mayurbhanj, an Australian missionary society that was engaged in the education of poor and illiterate Hindu tribes in Odisha. He also worked among the leprosy patients in the region. On the night of 22 January 1999, he was sleeping in his station wagon when it was set afire. Graham and his two sons, ten-year-old Philip and six-year-old Timothy, were killed.[18][19] Dara Singh, a Hindu fundamentalist from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, was arrested for the crime. On 22 September 2003 a court appointed by the Central Bureau of Investigation sentenced Dara Singh to death and 12 others to life imprisonment for the murders.[20]

Dara Singh, as an active Bajrang Dal follower, was suspected of being involved in a larger conspiracy.[21] However, the Wadhwa Commission ruled out the involvement of any organization in the killings.[22] In May 2005, the Odisha High Court commuted Singh's sentence to life imprisonment.[23]

The murders were widely condemned by religious and civic leaders, politicians, and journalists. The US-based Human Rights Watch accused the then Indian Government of failing to prevent violence against Christians, and of exploiting sectarian tensions for political ends. The organisation said attacks against Christians increased "significantly" since the "Hindu Nationalist" BJP came to power.[24] The murders were widely condemned by religious and civic leaders, politicians, and journalists. The US-based Human Rights Watch accused the then Indian Government of failing to prevent violence against Christians, and of exploiting sectarian tensions for political ends. The organisation said attacks against Christians increased "significantly" since the "Hindu Nationalist" BJP came to power.Then-Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, a leader of BJP, condemned the "ghastly attack" and called for swift action to catch the killers.[25] Published reports stated that church leaders alleged the attacks were carried out at the behest of hardline Hindu organisations. Hindu hardliners accused Christian missionaries of forcibly converting poor and low-caste Hindus and tribals. The convicted killer Dara Singh was treated as a hero by hardline Hindus and reportedly protected by some villagers. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, one of the accused killers, Mahendra Hembram, stated that the killers "were provoked by the "corruption of tribal culture" by the missionaries, who they claimed fed villagers beef and gave women brassieres and sanitary towels."

In her affidavit before the Commission on the death of her husband and two sons, Gladys Staines stated:[26]

"The Lord God is always with me to guide me and help me to try to accomplish the work of Graham, but I sometimes wonder why Graham was killed and also what made his assassins behave in such a brutal manner on the night of 22nd/23rd January 1999. It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband Graham and my two children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed."

December 2007

Incident at Brahmanigaon, Phulbani on 24 December

In December 2007, Christians had installed a Christmas arch across the road in the town of Brahmanigaon, Kandhamal district, having first received a permit from the police and sub-collector to do so. On 24 December 2007 a group of 150–200 Hindus arrived at the town market and demanded that the arch be removed. The protesters argued that the arch along with a tent set up was erected on the very site used by the Hindus to celebrate the Durga Puja festival in October. Protesters then sought to close the weekly market and attempted to close all the shops in the area. The Christian shopkeepers refused to comply with this, leading to an outbreak of violence. More than 20 shops were looted and destroyed. Three persons were killed.[27][28]

Attack on Swami Laxmanananda

The violence escalated after news spread about Hindu monk Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati being attacked by Christian fundamentalist mob en route to the spot of the confrontation.

Saraswati stated that he had left for Brahmanigaon to boost the "morale of the majority community". The National Commission for Minorities, in its report, stated that this was "indicative of his desire to exacerbate communal tensions".[29]

Saraswati's car had been blocked by a bus belonging to Sugriba Singh, Panna leader and BJD Member of Parliament (Lower House). Saraswati supporters confronted them leading to an argument which led to a fight. In his statement the Swami blamed Radhakant Nayak, Congress Member of Parliament (Upper House) and chief of Christian group World Vision which allegedly led to further clashes between Hindus and Christians.[30][31][32]

The authorities imposed a curfew in order to control the situation.[33][34] Concerned with rising violence, after the assault on Saraswati, some Dalit Christian leaders lodged a complaint with the Police for protection.[35]

Intervention by CRPF

By 30 December, rioting was brought under control by the security forces such as the CRPF. The total number of security personnel deployed was about 2,500 police and paramilitary. The total number of people taking shelter in relief camps increased to 1200.[36]

2008 Kandhamal violence

On 1 January 2008 further violence was reported at several places. Police said at least 20 houses and shops were torched at Phiringia, Khajuripada, Gochapada and Brahmanigaon by rioters on Tuesday night (1 January 2008)[37]

According to a fact-finding team of the Odisha state chapter of the All India Christian Council (AICC), the violence in Kandhamal around Christmas time was perpetrated by Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) groups that killed at least more than 50 Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches. Hundreds of displaced Christians were in various relief camps set up by the state government. Jacob Pradhan, general secretary of the Kandhamal district chapter of the Christian Endeavour Union, told Compass that 100 houses belonging to Christians were burnt in Brahmanigaon, Godapur, Barakhama and some other villages on 26 and 27 December. Pradhan, who visited Brahmanigaon and Godapur villages to take stock of the situation, suspected that these houses were torched by sections of "Hinditva Activists" possibly incited by Maoists.[38][39][40]

Murder of Swami Lakshmanananda

On the evening of Saturday, 23 August 2008, the octogenarian Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati was killed in the girl's religious school at his Jalespata ashram in Kandhamal district in Odisha,[41] along with four others; three fellow leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and a boy.[42][43] The attackers, estimated at thirty gunmen, were suspected of being Maoist insurgents. Both the manner of attack and a letter found at the attack provided the basis for this. The government announced a special investigative probe into the attack.[44][45]

The police have arrested Pradesh Kumar Das, from Khadagpur while escaping from the district at Buguda. In another drive, two other persons Vikram Digal and Vikas Digal have been arrested from the house of Lal Digal, a local militant, from Nuasahi at Gunjibadi, Nuagaan. They have admitted to having joined a group of 28 other assailants.[46]

Kandhamal Riots

A Christian girl who was burned during religious violence in Odisha in 2008[47]

On 25–28 August, Hindu mobs angered by the multiple murders of Saraswati and the four others, also allegedly incited by Manoj Pradhan, an elected state legislator from the Bharatiya Janata Party, set fire to many Christian settlements, and at least 45 people were killed.[48] The violence damanged or destroyed an estimated 1,400 Christian homes and more than 80 places of worship.[49] In addition, an estimated 18,500[49] Christians were forced to flee their villages to refugee camps "after their houses were attacked by rampaging mobs." [50]

On 28 August, a letter of denial (denying responsibility for the murder of Saraswati) was received by some media houses suspected to be from a Maoist group.[51] While the letter denied that the Central Committee of the Kotagarha branch of the Maoists had approved the attack, it claimed that some Maoists may have been lured by "nefarious elements" to launch the attack.[51] But the local police force continued to maintain that Maoists were behind the operation[52] Soon after the appearance of the aforementioned letter, "Azad", another leader of the splinter Maoist People's Liberation Guerrilla Army group, claimed responsibility for the murder of Lakshmanananda in another letter. Azad was suspected by the police of leading the attack himself.[53] Finally, on 9 September 2008 the Maoists, who work underground, made an official press release claiming responsibility for the killing of Lakshmanananda.[54] Many Maoist sympathizers of south Odisha had initially denied the role of CPI-Maoist in the murder of VHP leaders that sparked off communal violence in Kandhamnal district. Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader Sabyasachi Panda claimed that they killed Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples at his Jalespeta ashram on 23 August, for his Anti-Maoist hate speech, in the state of Odisha and the tribal Kandhamal region in particular. [55][56] Finally, on 7 October 2008, the Odisha police announced they arrested three Maoists in connection with the murder of the Swami.[57]

On 16 October 2008, in an interview to PTI the IG police Arun Ray told that "Maoists trained certain youths of the tribal community to eliminate Saraswati", the "tribal community" believed by the Hindu Extremist to be a reference to the converted Christians of the region led to the "Fuel in the Fire" in the riots. The plan to eliminate Lakshmanananda was made in 2007, he added. Elaborating the probe by the crime branch, Ray said investigations also showed that a group had collected money from some villages in Kandhamal which was given to the Maoist group to train their youth for the purpose. The police said that they already arrested three persons, including two tribals and others who belong to the extremist Maoist groups and efforts were now on to arrest the other accused.[58][59] [60]

Continued violence

To protest the five killings of Hindus including that of Lakshmananda, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal called for a statewide shutdown on Monday, 25 August 2008. On the same day, rioters attacked a Christian orphanage at Khuntpalli village in Bargarh district. A local Hindu employee was killed when the orphanage was set on fire.[61][62][63][64] The VHP claimed that Hindu people in the area had taken the death of the Swami "very seriously, and now they are going to pay them back."[65] A curfew was imposed in all towns in Kandhamal. Despite this, violence continued in Phulbani, Tumudibandh, Baliguda, Udaygiri, Nuagaon and Tikabali towns. Many others fled into the jungle or into neighbouring districts and states. All nine towns in Kandhamal district were under a curfew, and the police had license to shoot.[66][67] Curfew was also imposed in Jeypore town of Odisha's Koraput district. Five police personnel were injured in mob violence. The state government sought additional paramilitary forces to combat the continuing violence.[68]

On 1 September 2008 the state government of Odisha claimed that the situation was under control. However, several houses and places of worship were burnt in the riots, especially in worst-hit Kandhamal district. 12,539 people were fed in relief camps, 783 people were fed in two relief camps in Rayagada district. In all, 12 companies of para-military forces, 24 platoons of Odisha State Armed Police, two sections of Armed Police Reserve forces and two teams of Special Operation Group (SOG) were deployed to control the riots.[69]

On 4 September 2008 a group of nearly 2500 Hindutva extremists barged into the Tikabali Government High School Relief Camp shouting at the Christian refugees and took away supplies meant for the refugees, while police remained as silent spectators. On the same day, over 300 VHP incited tribal women attacked a relief camp for the Christian riot victims in Tikabali, demanding food, employment and relief for non-Christian population, who they said had been starving following the 12-day-old curfew order clamped by the district administration to contain communal violence.[70]

On 7 September 2008 VHP leader Praveen Togadia announced that an all-India agitation would be launched if the killers of Saraswati were not arrested.[71] The Church and Christian groups in turn demanded dismissal of the state government.

On 15 September 2008, It was reported that there was an attack on two Hindu temples in Odisha's Sundergarh district. One was attacked on the night of 14 September, and the other 2 weeks earlier.[72]

On 30 September 2008, various news sources reported a case of rape of a Christian nun on 25 August. The incident took place at Nuagaon in Kandhamal district.[19] While a police complaint was lodged soon afterwards, no action was taken for over a month, adding to accusations of police misconduct. Police sources later said: "Though the nun had denied the rape allegation during recording of her statement, she later given a written complaint alleging that she was raped by one person from among the mob".[73] During a press conference she said that a group of unidentified persons, dragged her along with Fr Thomas Chellan to the deserted Jana Vikas building. The priest was doused with petrol and beaten up. She reported that the mob paraded her on the streets in the presence of a dozen policemen[74][75][76][77][78][79][80] Eventually, four men were arrested for the attack, and a senior police office suspended over the delayed investigation. After the complaint was launched, police had a medical examination of the nun carried out, which showed she had been raped.[81] Police sent the clothes of the said nun to the state forensic laboratory for further verification.[82] Police arrested nine people in connection with the crime while the nun in case was in hiding for fear of reprisals. The Crime branch took charge of the probe following a government decision after the medical report.[83]

On 22 October 2008, the Supreme Court of India, rejected an appeal by the Archbishop of Cuttack, Raphael Cheenath, for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the incident and asked the victim to look at an identity parade of those accused to identify the culprit with the help of the state police itself.[74][75][84][85] Reuters reported the nun's media conference under the headline '40 men gang-raped me, says nun'; though she had made no such statement.[86]

At the time of the Kandhamal riots in 2008, the ruling government of Odisha, headed by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, was a coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). In the 147-member state assembly the BJD-BJP combine had 93 members, 32 of whom are from the BJP. Some BJP legislators blamed the government for not providing adequate protection to Saraswati, despite other attempts on his life. They called for withdrawing support from the government, which would lead to its collapse.

In the runup to the 2009 elections, Patnaik broke his ties with the BJP, saying that the alliance in the state had to be broken because it became impossible for him to stay with the BJP after the Kandhanmal riots which "horrified the entire world". [87]

In November 2009, after winning the elections again, this time without the support of the BJP and therefore free from political compulsions, re-elected chief minister of Odisha Naveen Patnaik, claimed that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were involved in the Kandhamal violence in which at least 38 people were killed.[88][89]

On 4 September 2008, the Supreme Court of India issued an order on a petition filed by Catholic Archbishop Raphael Cheenath seeking a CBI enquiry and dismissal of the state government. The order refused to dismiss the Odisha state government but asked it to report on steps taken to stop the wave of communal rioting that had claimed at least 16 lives. In his petition, the Archbishop claimed that VHP leader Pravin Togadia carried out a procession with Saraswati's ashes after his cremation, an act that clearly inflamed further communal tension and rioting. The Supreme Court, in its order, asked the state government to file an affidavit explaining the circumstances under which this procession was allowed.[90][91]

However, it later emerged that Saraswati was never cremated in the first place (as a Hindu sannyasi, the holy man had already symbolically cast his physical body into fire while alive by wearing saffron robes, and set the soul free). As is the tradition of sannyasis, Saraswati was not cremated but instead buried and entombed after death. Since no cremation ever took place, Togadia replied that there was no question of "ashes" being proposed to be carried in any procession at all, and therefore the claims of "asthi kalash yatra" (carrying of the ashes) were untrue. He also alleged that Archbishop Raphael Cheenath had therefore "lied under oath to the apex court", because no such procession ever took place.[92]

Total damage

More than 18,000 were injured and 50,000 displaced. Another report said that around 11,000 people were still living in relief camps, as of October 2008.[93] Some tribals even fled away to border districts in neighbouring states.[94] 310 villages were affected[95] with 4,640 homes, 252 churches, and 13 educational institutes torched during attacks.[76] Multiple Hindu temples and an unknown number of Hindus were also killed during the riots, excluding the five Hindu sadhus (including Saraswati) who were killed in the beginning itself.[72]

On 14 October 2008, Cuttack Archbishop Raphael Cheenath moved the Supreme Court seeking Rs 30 million as compensation to rebuild the demolished and vandalized churches in the riot-hit areas. He also sought Rs 550,000 for the kin of those killed in the riots and compensation of Rs 60,000 to those whose houses were damaged or torched.[96]

On 6 November 2008, Dhanu Pradhana, a VHP activist, was murdered in Kandhamal. He was shot when he was at a school in Kumbharigaon.[97] The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader of Eastern Odisha, Prabhat Panigrahi, was killed by Maoist insurgents in late March 2009.[98] Hindus have also been attacked by members of their own faith, for having Christian relatives. One woman, who is herself a Hindu, says she was gang-raped by her grandparents' neighbors due to her uncle's refusal to renounce his Christian beliefs.[99]


 India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Odisha violence a "shame" and offered all help from the Centre to end the communal clashes and restore normalcy. He said he would speak to Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik to urge him to take all necessary steps to end the violence. [100] [101]

The church network - including the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the Evangelical Fellowship of India and the National Council of Churches in India - organized for all Christian institutions to remain closed on 29 August 2008 in protest.

  Vatican City On Wednesday, 27 August 2008, Pope Benedict XVI condemned the violence and expressed solidarity with the priests, nuns, and laypeople being victimized.[102] He "firmly condemned" the violence and called upon Indian religious and civil authorities "to work together to restore peaceful co-existence and harmony between the different religious communities." In doing so he said: "I learnt with great sorrow the information concerning the violence against the Christian community in Orissa which broke out after the reprehensible assassination of the Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.[103] This led to derisive remarks in the press about the Italian origins of Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic, whose United Progressive Alliance rules India."

Human Rights Watch, a US-based outfit, expressed extreme dismay at the mob violence against Christians instigated by the VHP. The organization also expressed concern at the state government's lack of action following the Christmas 2007 violence.[104]

 Italy's Foreign Ministry called on India's ambassador to demand 'incisive action' to prevent further attacks against Christians.[105]

The National Human Rights Commission of India(NHRC) sought a report from the Odisha government on the ongoing religious violence in the state. [106]

 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) a controversial federal agency advising the US administration has demanded the Indian authorities take immediate steps to quell the violence and order a probe to find out the perpetrators of the attacks.

"The continuing attacks targeting Christians represent the second major outbreak of religious violence in Orissa since December which underlines the pressing need for Indian government to develop preventive strategies," USCIRF said. "State governments must be held accountable for violence and other unlawful acts that occur in their state" Commission Chair Felice D Gaer said in a statement. USCIRF called on the US State Department to urge the central government and its Human Rights and Minority Commissions to continue their investigations, issue reports on the status of their investigations, and take further appropriate measures to address the situation, including ensuring that perpetrators of the violence are brought to account. [107]

 European Union expressed concern over the violence against Christians in Odisha and hoped that the ruling government would bring the perpetrators to justice.[108]

In a press release made on 21 September, The National Commission for Minorities blamed the Sangh Parivar and Bajrang Dal for the communal violence in states of Karnataka and Odisha. Shafi Qureshi, member of the NCM team stated that the NCM teams had determined activists of Bajrang Dal were involved in these attacks in both in state of Odisha and Karnataka. Condemning the attack on churches in Kandhamal and other areas of Odisha and in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Chikmagalur and Mangalore in Karnataka, the Commission stressed the need for immediate confidence building measures to allay the fear from the minds of the minorities in both states of Odisha and Karnataka. [109]

November 2008. In the UK House of Lords, Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford urged the Indian government to prosecute those responsible for the attacks. Graham Dow, the Bishop of Carlisle added that anti-conversion laws in seven states have entailed threats of fines and imprisonment for clerics if they baptise Dalit people.[110]

Arrests and convictions

On 29 June 2010, a fast-track court set up after the Kandhamal riots found Manoj Pradhan, a Bharatiya Janata Party politician and a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Odisha, guilty of murder of Parikhita Digal, a Christian from Budedi village who was killed by the mob on 27 August 2008.[111] Manoj Pradhan who was nominated by the BJP while imprisoned pending trial,[112] was sentenced to seven years rigorous imprisonment. However, pending his appeal, he was granted bail by the High court on 6 July.[113] A number of others have also been sentenced in riot-related cases. On 9 September 2010, another judge found Pradhan guilty in the murder of Bikram Nayak from Budedipada on 26 August 2008.[48]

See also


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