Warning Signs Unheeded: The Kandhamal Tragedy

India_Sept09_010Kandhamal district is among the poorest and most marginalised in Odhisa (formerly Orissa) state, India. On 25 August 2008, it was the epi-centre of communal attacks against the Christian community in India. Local monitoring groups have estimated that over 90 people were killed with at least 54,000 displaced and over 300 churches destroyed by groups belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that espouses the Hindutva ideology.

Ten years on, attacks on religious minorities and on freedom of expression by groups belonging to the RSS continue. The lack of official condemnation towards acts of intimidation and violence has further empowered these groups. As with recent attacks against religious minorities in India, the carnage that unfolded in Kandhamal was not a one-off isolated incident devoid of a historical narrative.

“As with recent attacks against religious minorities in India, the carnage that unfolded in Kandhamal was not a one-off isolated incident devoid of a historical narrative.” 

Long-standing Hate Campaigns Against Christians

The hostilities and suspicion towards Christianity began to take root as a result of hate campaigns that were perpetrated by groups such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) the nationalist religious arm of the RSS, which hard-line  vice president, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, represented over four decades.

Local monitoring groups have revealed that since the mid-1980s, anti-Christian sentiments had been steadily rising as isolated events across the state. In January 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines, who had worked with leprosy patients for more than 30 years, was burnt to death in Keonjhar district along with his two sons Timothy and Philip.

Testimonies presented in New Delhi at the National People’s Tribunal in August 2010, organised to assist the victims and survivors of the Kandhamal attacks in the search for justice and accountability, reveal that this was in stark contrast to the peaceful co-existence of Hindus and Christians before the hate campaigns began.

Attacks in Kandhamal, 2008

The attacks started on the 25 August 2008 after the hard-line monk, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati was murdered on 23 August along with three of his leaders. Despite a Maoist group claiming responsibility for the killing, the Christian community were single out as the perpetrators of the crime by the RSS. Contrary to the Odhisa government’s assessment that what happened in Kandhamal was an ethnic conflict between two tribal groups, evidence submitted by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), a statutory body working on the protection of religious minorities, unequivocally noted that the violence was communally motivated where people were attacked because of their religion.

Years of Forewarning by Civil Society

Years of forewarning by civil society groups about the risks associated with hate campaigns failed get the state to put in place measures to deter the problem from escalating.

“Years of forewarning by civil society groups about the risks associated with hate campaigns failed get the state to put in place measures to deter the problem from escalating.”

Father Ajay Kumar Singh, a victim survivor of the Kandhamal violence who has been advocating on behalf of the victims, testified before the National People’s Tribunal on Kandhamal. He revealed a chronology of violence had been taking place in Odhisa that included killings of Christian leaders, burning of Christian homes and places of worship, assaults, social and economic boycotts and the rape of a Catholic nun. The late Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, Raphael Cheenath on many occasions had warned state government officials of the hostilities and incidents that were taking place in the 1970s and 80s. Angana Chatterji, Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at California Institute of Integral Studies warned in a 2003 op-ed that “Orissa is Hindutva’s next laboratory.” Her analysis was drawn from her observations of the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre in Gujarat.

What triggered the Kandhamal attacks in 2008?

The violence in 2008 was closely preceded by communal tensions in December 2007, when Christians were attacked during Christmas celebrations. Following the violence, the NCM urged the state government to ‘look into the speeches of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati to determine whether they amount to incitement to violence and take appropriate action.’[The government failed to act on the NCM’s recommendations, as observed by Saumya Uma in her book “Kandhamal: The Law Must Change its Course”, with no evidence of government intervention to cut-off the stream of hate speeches. Impunity towards the Christian populace was reaching boiling point.

One of the key triggers that unleashed the attacks in August 2008, and exacerbated communal tensions, was the funeral procession of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, which was taken through numerous routes and villages and ran the risk of being perceived as an inflammatory act. Considering that the procession was going to be over 170km and liable to arouse strong communal sentiments, the NCM noted that there was ‘little evidence that anyone at the senior levels of the political or the official establishment participated in or attempted to influence the decision making process in such a vital matter.’

Calls for accountability and governance

As duty bearers, the state has a legal duty to prevent violence from taking place and to protect its citizens. In the Fundamental Rights chapter of the Indian Constitution, the state must protect the rights of its citizen to life, livelihood, health, property and against discriminatory practices; under Article 355, the central government is duty bound to protect every state against internal disturbance and ensure that governance is in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. This has been reiterated in the Indian courts (in the case of Bhajan Kaur v Delhi Administration AIHC 1996 Del 5644); governments must be held accountable for creating conditions where no person or community should be deprived of their life and liberty.

“As duty bearers, the state has a legal duty to prevent violence from taking place and to protect its citizens.”

If the perpetrators behind the Kandhamal attacks are not held to account, and if the RSS continues to have a favoured political position, the deep legacy of hate and impunity of the 2008 attacks in Kandhamal will not go away.

The lack of official condemnation towards acts of intimidation and violence must be challenged, and the right to FoRB, which is so clearly defined in international law and under Article 25 of India’s constitution, must become a reality.

By CSW’s South Asia Team Leader

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