The attacks against and murder of poor Christians in Orissa last year provided a "catacomb experience" for the Indian Church, says Anto Akkara, who produced the first book on the anti-Christian violence in the eastern Indian state. The Catholic journalist and author recently launched an updated version of his book "Kandhamal: A blot on Indian secularism," which he originally released in April.
Kandhamal district in Orissa was the center of four months of anti-Christian violence that began on Aug. 24, 2008, a day after Maoists shot and killed Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in the district. The first anniversary of his murder, however, passed uneventfully there.
Akkara, who visited the region several times to document the stories of victims, said the determination of poor and illiterate people to hold onto their faith and their readiness to die for it reminded him of the plight of the early Christian community of Rome, which buried its martyrs in the catacombs.
In the following interview, Akkara, who also holds a law degree, speaks about the reasons for the violence and the lessons it holds for the Indian Church.
UCA News: What inspired you to write the book?
ANTO AKKARA: I went to Kandhamal last Christmas and visited some camps of the victims. The fear of further attacks forced people to live in camps.
The scenes of ill-clad Christians shivering in the winter cold, queuing up for food on Christmas night and sitting aimlessly before their plastic tents made me think of my role as a journalist.
I came across horrible stories about how people were hunted like mad dogs and their dear ones slaughtered before their eyes. Although most were poor and ill-educated, they were not fickle in their faith. Their stories inspired me.
Kandhamal was too far away for the national media. The camps and villages are at least 12 hours' road journey from the nearest airport or railway station. Much of what came out in the media was factually wrong.
The government did nothing as Hindus took Swami Saraswati's body on a zigzag route to inflame communal passion. The government's apathy was the prime reason for the continuing violence. Police were inactive and criminals enjoyed impunity from the law. I wanted to cut the lies the administration wanted to promote. I wanted to tell the world the kind of a nation we live in.
Why do you write that Kandhamal is the "graveyard" of Indian secularism?
Kandhamal is a freehold land for the Sangh Parivar (the association of groups that want to make India a Hindu nation). Criminals who promote a "Hindu nation" ideology enjoy complete impunity. No law can book them, no one questions them. Kandhamal cannot be part of India, because no Indian laws are applied there. The government does not want to act, for political reasons.
The Kandhamal killings were deliberate -- thought out and planned. Victims were given a deadline to change their religion. When the deadline passed ... they were given a last chance to disown their faith. On refusal, the victims were tortured and killed sadistically. Some were chopped into pieces. This is different from mob violence. And yet, the law does not act.
In one case, a woman whose husband was murdered caught the murderer by the collar and asked the police to arrest him, but the state police said they could not arrest him because officially he was "untraceable." Later, some federal paramilitary forces patrolling the area intervened and arrested the person.
Government officials in Kandhamal told me the state home ministry had clearly instructed them not to arrest anyone. There is an element of helplessness among some officials.
Some say even federal government action was inadequate to contain the violence.
The federal government didn't do much. It only paid lip service. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the violence was a national shame. He also promised to give compensations to victims. They are giving that. He had promised a delegation of the World Council of Churches that the government would give money to rebuild churches destroyed, but nothing was done.
Did you face obstacles in collecting your data?
I already had contacts in the area, because I had been following stories from there for some time. The government officials were quite supportive. Some are now my personal friends, and I know they are committed to enforce the law but unable (to do so) because of structural problems. They wholeheartedly supported me.
The biggest hurdle came from some Church people, who were quite reluctant to part with information. They had copies of documents but were reluctant to share them with me.
One source for the book was Subhash Chauhan, the state leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, world Hindu council). He kept telling me a pastor was arrested for murdering Swami Saraswati but has not given me that pastor's name -- because no such pastor was arrested.
A question lingers in people's mind: Why is there so much hatred for Christians?
The swami was an excellent leader. He knew the strength and weakness of Christians. There was a social issue, which he manipulated to advance his ideology.
A majority of people in the district are of the Kandho tribe. Dalit (formerly "untouchables" in the Indian caste system) groups account for some 10 percent, but among them the majority, say 90 percent, are Christians. Over the years dalit have become educationally and economically advanced, maybe because of the Church's help. But in the process, rightly or wrongly, Christians came to be associated with dalit. This gave rise to social issues of class superiority.
The swami knew the problems and capitalized on them. He used hate propaganda and had his own schools and centers. He said directly in many of his speeches: "Attack Christians. They are our enemies."
Why do you say Orissa gave the Indian Church a 'catacomb experience'?
You should see the heroism of the poor people in defending their faith, even as far as laying down their lives. Take the case of Kumaro Kanhar. Fanatics attacked the 47-year-old man on Aug. 27, 2008, destroyed all his possessions and gave him a month to convert. Exactly on Sept. 28 they returned. Angry that he had not become a Hindu they set his house on fire and beat him up. He somehow reached Bhubaneswar (the state capital). "I'm ready to give up everything. But I will not give up my faith," he told me.
There were several such cases.
A pastor's widow told me how her husband was beheaded while he sat in a chair refusing to part with his Bible.
One woman, sitting alone in her tent in a refugee camp on Christmas night, told me that it was her best Christmas, because she could celebrate in "my heart" the birth of "the one born in the manger."
There are hundreds of such stories about how Christians, including women and children, were tortured simply because they refused to abandon their faith and desecrate Christian symbols. If people were ready to give up their religion, there would not have been so many deaths and so much destruction.
How did it affect your faith?
I'm going to write another book on the real stories of those people's faith. I would say this is the finest moment of Christianity.
There have been many riots in India, but this riot was different. Here people were given time to change religion and people made a deliberate choice to accept death, misery, poverty and pain for their faith. There is a misconception that only the educated can exercise the freedom of faith. The poor of Orissa challenge that concept.
How can the Church help these Christians?
The Church can do a lot of things. First, it has to put its own house in order. It should be more inclusive and not give an impression that it works only for an exclusive group. However, this is not the time for a postmortem of the Church; it is the time for fire fighting.
The pressing issue is to make the government implement the rule of law in Kandhamal.
The Church should campaign with secular and civil groups. As long as criminals enjoy impunity, all attempts to rebuild churches and houses in Kandhamal are useless. They will come again to destroy or take away all that belongs to Christians.
Is there anything the Church should do urgently?
First, make proper documentation of what happened. We still have a problem with the list of people killed. When we go to court, our evidence should be solid and backed by facts. We should have the power of truth. We do not even know how many have left Orissa or how many are living in slums.
The second urgent need is to take our cases to court in a thoroughly professional way. The Church is already fighting hundreds of legal cases, but the quality of some affidavits is poor.