Wrath of the Elephants

Reportage by Will Gerhard
Written Contribution and Photography by John Fredricks.
A village habited by the Hindu nationalists responsible for the 2008 Kandhamal riots sits desolate after a herd of wild elephants trampled it. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks
A village habited by the Hindu nationalists responsible for the 2008 Kandhamal riots sits desolate after a herd of wild elephants trampled it. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks

The Riots

On August 23, 2008, Swami Laxmanananda was murdered in the Kandhamal district of Odisha, India. Local reports show that, at the time of the murder, his bodyguard was not present and police guards fled when the assailants entered the building.

Police arrested seven Maoist men on the charge that they organized the murder of this Hindu leader. During this time, Sangh Parivar, an offshoot group of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), blamed the area’s Christian population for the murder, saying it was an international conspiracy organized by the church.

Christianity was then banned in Kandhamal by the local government, an order enforced with chaotic violence by the RSS. Christians were commanded to denounce their faith and follow Hinduism. Many of those that didn’t were arrested, buried or burned alive, or publicly slaughtered by extremist Hindu groups over a three-month period of terror and unrest.

A brick marks the location of a now-abandoned village which used to house the Hindu nationalists responsible for killing over 100 Christians and demolishing over 600 Christian homes during the 2008 Kandhamal riots. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks
A brick marks the location of a now-abandoned village which used to house the Hindu nationalists responsible for killing over 100 Christians and demolishing over 600 Christian homes during the 2008 Kandhamal riots. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks

Multiple survivors recall hearing mobs of Hindu Nationalists chant ”Christian dharmo chalibo nahi”—Christian religion will not remain—while they traveled in murderous groups to small Christian villages tucked deep into the pockets Odisha’s vast mountainous region.

Human rights groups estimate that, by the time the Indian government took control of the situation, there were over 100 Christians dead, 300 churches destroyed, 600 homes demolished, and 56,000 people left homeless.

A bus passes an elephant awareness sign in the Kandhamal area of Odisha, India. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks
A bus passes an elephant awareness sign in the Kandhamal area of Odisha, India. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks

Exactly one year later, on the same time that the day the Hindu nationalists began their path of destruction, the persecutors faced a different kind of danger.

A story exists in local Christian circles that, after the riots, a herd of wild elephants migrated through Kandhamal as they do every year. This year, though, the animals arrived abnormally early and destroyed the villages of figures responsible for the riots the previous year.

Kandhamal District Chief Krishen Kumar reported that it was “unclear why this herd of elephants migrated from the Lakheri sanctuary in a neighboring district” and that “Wildlife officials were camping at the site of the attacks and trying to find out why the elephants had come out of their sanctuary.”

A man leans against the wall of a church that was rebuilt after being destroyed by Hindu nationalists during the 2008 Kandhamal riots. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks
A man leans against the wall of a church that was rebuilt after being destroyed by Hindu nationalists during the 2008 Kandhamal riots. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks

The Aftermath

Prakash, the Christian leader in Odisha, comes down from his roof and welcomes guests into his house. He offers them tea, bread, and a word of prayer. He leans back in his chair and reminisces. In 2007, he brought 40 orphaned children into his home, a common measure among pastors in areas ravaged by disaster in India. By 2008, radical locals wanted to kill him.

“I was bound to leave my housing by evening,” he recounts. “I left everything. I went to the forest with the children. By 7:30 they burned down my house.”

The next two days were spent deep in the wilderness of the jungle, the next two months were spent in a relief camp, or rehabilitation home site. In this scenario, Christian non-government organizations (NGO’s) send representatives to set up tents and give the newly homeless people food and supplies to sustain them for the time being. This is the process by which many of the aforementioned 56,000 that became homeless were given shelter following the riots.

A shine dedicated to Swami Laxmanananda sits within a walled area in Kandhamal, India. His murder triggered three months of violence against the minority Christian population in the area. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks
A shine dedicated to Swami Laxmanananda sits within a walled area in Kandhamal, India. His murder triggered three months of violence against the minority Christian population in the area. Kandhamal, Odisha, India. 2018. Photo: John Fredricks

Reports gathered by local officials indicate that the homes of RSS and BJP members were completely wiped out as elephants stormed through their communities. Some Christian homes were damaged, in other villages, but no Christians died. In the end, records show that at least 5 members of the RSS were killed during the elephants’ migration. The animals were later referred to as the “Christian Elephants,” and the story of this event has gained notoriety throughout India and around the world.

John Fredricks is an award winning photojournalist based in Los Angeles. His work appears everywhere from National Geographic Adventure to Time Magazine. Passionate about social and humanitarian issues, he wants to impact his generation through a visual medium and put the spotlight on issues around the world. He has launched himself into locations and situations where his life and health were likely in danger in order to use his gift and skill in photography to share the truth. His camera is only an extension of the genuine love and care John feels for those around him.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates

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