By ICC’s India Correspondent
9/17/2014 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The 2008 anti-Christian riots that swept across Orissa’s Kandhamal district still stand as one of the worst incidents of anti-Christian violence in the history of independent India. The events that took place in 2008 shook the entire nation and continue to produce aftershocks even after six long years. The mayhem that was unleashed literally left thousands in devastation, as the communal violence shattered an entire Christian community.
The trigger that sparked the violence, which commenced on the August 24, was caused by the killing of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader named Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Following almost three months of violence, the National Peoples Tribunal recorded that over 56,000 people were displaced and forced to flee into the forests as mobs of enraged Hindus burned down over 5,600 house and 300 churches and Christian institutions. The Tribunal also estimated that over 100 people were killed in the violence, many Christians being hacked to death by axes and machetes, and several burnt alive by mobs. At least three women were also gang raped during the violence.
The Destruction of K.K. Singh
K.K. Singh was a remote village in Gajapathi district of Orissa, a village that does not exist today because it was completely destroyed in the 2008 for being a Christian village. Mr. Biswasdas Lima, aged 66, was the pastor of a Baptist church in K.K. Singh and he shared his testimony with ICC about the day K.K. Singh was destroyed as the tears ran from his eyes.
On the August 26 at about 6 p.m., a mob of about 300 Hindu radicals stormed into the village with guns and knives, shouting anti-Christian slogans and creating what Lima described as a “war like situation.” Seeing the large mob of Hindu radicals carrying guns and knives, the Christian villagers of K.K. Singh ran into the nearby forest in an effort to save themselves. These Christians were chased by the Hindu radicals, so they ran in different directions to hide themselves in the forest.
The Christians who fled spent the entire night in the forest with nothing to eat or drink. In the morning when they return to the village, to their utter shock, the entire village was reduced to ashes by the Hindu radicals. At this point in the retelling of the events, Lima broke down and told ICC, “Everything that we had, even our clothes and kitchen utensils, was burnt to ashes, all our hopes and future [were] destroyed.”
Again, on August 27, the Hindu radicals returned to K.K. Singh intending to kill Christians knowing that they would likely have returned from the forest. Again, the Christians had to run away into the forests to save their lives from the hands of Hindu radicals. Some of the Christians wanted to retaliate, but Lima, who was a pastor and had authority in the village, urged the Christian villages not to retaliate, saying, “We do not want bloodshed and we need to protect our lives by leaving this place.”
Following Lima’s counsel, the Christians abandoned K.K. Singh leaving behind the burned out structures they used to call their homes. The Christian community of K.K. Singh then spent three months in a government relief camp before relocating to Meliyaputti, a village on the border of Andhra Pradesh, a state neighboring Orissa. This exodus undertaken by the Christians of K.K. Singh forced them hundreds of miles from their home to completely start over from nothing.
“The situation on the ground is very pathetic,” Lima told ICC. “[We are] without the basic amenities like drinking water, sanitation and roads in the newly formed village.” Lima continued, “The government gave [each villager] 35,000 Rupees to build houses, which is not sufficient to even put up a normal structure to live in.”
“Relief and rehabilitation has been extremely tardy, with the authorities failing in their duties to provide assurances of long-term security, as well as resources and opportunities including employment to rebuild their lives,” Dr. John Dayal, a member of National Integration Council (NIC) told ICC in response to questions regarding relief to Christian victim of the 2008 anti-Christin riots.
Loved Ones Lost
In another tragedy, Ms. Laxmi Bardhan, age 45, lost her husband, Kumudha Bardhan, in a brutal murder in the anti-Christin riots on August 25, the day after the riots began. The incident took place in Mukundipur, a village just over ten miles from Rayagada block, in Gajapthi district, which was one of the worst hit villages in 2008 Anti-Christian riots.
More than 200 Hindu radicals invaded Mukundipur on August 25 armed with iron rods, knives and guns. Shortly after invading the village, they started separating out and attacking the village’s Christians. Both Laxmi and her husband were returning from the fields unaware of the hell like situation in their village. Their eldest son, Tikina Bardhan, had already been shot twice in his legs by the radicals, and other Christians in the village were fleeing into the nearby forest.
As Laxmi and Kumudha approached the village, they were surrounded by Hindu radicals. One of the radicals hit Kumudha with an iron rod and he collapsed on the ground bleeding. Laxmi and their daughter try to protect him from the Hindu radicals, but they were also severely injured. Laxmi and her daughter somehow escaped the mob and started running with other Christians to save their lives.
Laxmi recalls the terrible events and told ICC, “I was shocked as I saw my husband fall to the ground in a pool of blood. I was terrified, I did not think that my small children and I would survive.” Later, the Hindu radicals dragged Kumudha to the village church and burned him in front of the church.
Broken Promises and Injustice for All
For many not personally affected by the 2008 anti-Christian riots, the events have become history, but for those who were forced to endure the riots, the scars of the tragedy continue to haunt the many thousands of victims, as they continue grapple with the government and smoldering anti-Christian sentiments for both justice and aid to rebuild their lives.
“Although the government made several promises to the victims of the 2008 riots, even six years after the carnage, the promises remained promises and have never materialized,” Mr. Pramod Raul, a Christian leader from Orissa involved in a relief work, told ICC. “The aid that was promised never reached the victims.”
According to Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), statistics show that out of the 827 First Information Reports filed, charges against the accused were followed through in only 512 cases. Only 75 of those cases have ended in convictions, in which only 477 people were convicted, mostly for smaller or petty offences such as the burning of houses and damaging of property. To date, only nine people have been convicted for their role in the killing of the Christians.
“The victims of 2008 anti-Christian riots have been let down by both the government and the Christian NGOs,” Mr. Rajkumar, an active Christian lawyer and an activists from Orissa, told ICC. “Even after six years, justice for the victims is a distant dream. However, the international community has played a role in bringing the issue into discussions on the international level.”
The failure to effectively prosecute those accused of carrying out violent attacks against the Christian community and the apathy of the state machinery has left victims vulnerable to threats, discrimination and social isolation. The impunity enjoyed by the mobs in Orissa has also emboldened other fundamentalist groups to continue to attack the Christians in Orissa, as well as elsewhere in the country.
The extent of suffering of the Christian community of Orissa continues to be unimaginable. Along with rebuilding physical structures of the houses and churches destroyed in the riots, there is the bigger challenge of rebuilding the lives and communities that were shattered. It has been six years since the anti-Christian riots swept across Orissa and still little of this necessary rebuilding has come to fruition.