India: Fact-Finding Mission Suggests Christmas Violence was Preplanned
Extremists exploited conflict between two communities to launch attacks in Orissa.
NEW DELHI (Compass Direct News) — Emerging facts indicate that India’s largest spate of anti-Christian violence, which has rendered thousands homeless in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, was preplanned.
Three months before the series of attacks began on Christmas Eve in the mountainous district of Kandhamal, a newspaper had warned that tensions were brewing between the Christian and non-Christian tribal communities over governmental affirmative action.
Anticipating attacks during the Christmas week, local Christians had on December 22 urged district authorities to provide police protection. Their pleas went unheeded.
“It is beyond doubt that the violence was premeditated, preplanned, and the work of a well-disciplined group to ensure simultaneous eruptions across the district within hours of the first incident, and to sustain it for five days despite the presence of the highest police officers in the region,” said Christian leader and human rights activist Dr. John Dayal, who returned from a fact-finding visit to Kandhamal.
“The great human tragedy and violence against Christians was waiting to happen,” Dayal told Compass. “It was part of a great conspiracy, and the guilty are identified and known. The tragedy will repeat again unless urgent steps are taken.”
Beginning with a December 24 attack on a Catholic church in Brahmani village, the violence continued until Wednesday (January 2). According to a memorandum submitted to the National Human Rights Commission on Monday, Christian leaders said that around nine people had been killed, close to 90 churches burned, about 600 houses torched or vandalized, and 5,000 people affected.
“This was the first time that such a large number of Christian villagers were displaced and had to live in refugee camps after their houses were burnt,” said Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council. “This is the first time in history since the Independence [in 1947] that an estimated 3,000 Christian men, women and children are forced to live in two refugee camps, eating boiled rice not fit for human consumption because of the quantity of sand and grit, and living in the cold without toilets, precious little medical care and no woolens.”
On September 22, The Hindu newspaper had reported, “A volatile tension is brewing between Kui tribals and Pana harijans (Dalits) in Kandhamal district.”
It is estimated that Christians make up 16 percent of the 650,000 people in Kandhamal district. More than 60 percent of the Christians belong to the Pana community, who are classified as Scheduled Castes or Dalits. They are demanding recognition as a tribal community, claiming they too speak the local language of Kui – a demand that is being opposed by the Kui tribals, as it would increase the number of candidates for the reserved jobs.
According to the Indian Constitution, only non-Hindu Dalits can benefit from the affirmative action in government jobs and educational institutions. Therefore, after conversion, a Dalit Hindu loses the privileges.
The newspaper quoted a leader of the Kui Samaj Coordination Committee as saying that if the government accepted Pana communities as tribal people, “it would lead to violent clashes between the two communities.”
According to The Frontline fortnightly (January 18 issue), Kui tribals called for a 36-hour strike (total shut-down) starting December 24 to oppose the demand of the Pana Dalits.
Appeal for Protection
On December 22, representatives of a local Christian organization, Christian Janakalyan Samaj (People’s Welfare Society), had met with the district collector (administrative head) and the superintendent of police informing him of possible tensions due to the call for strike by the Kui community, reported The Indian Express newspaper on December 28.
The fear of the local Christians came true.
On December 24, as the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Brahmani village was pitching a tent for Christmas celebrations, a mob led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) launched a fierce attack on Christians and their shops to protest the Christmas celebrations they had planned.
Local Christians say VHP leader Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a prominent opponent of Christians for more than a decade, was behind the attack. Saraswati told media on December 25 that the reason for the violence was conversions by area Christians.
The Orissa state government transferred both district collector and the police superintendent for failing to prevent the violence.
At the same time, an influential member of the politburo, Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, linked the Orissa violence to the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat state.
“Encouraged after Gujarat elections, the communal (extremist) forces are targeting Orissa to make it their laboratory,” the Press Trust of India reported Yechury as saying.
Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state from the Hindu nationalist BJP, is widely known for persecuting minorities, including the Christian community.
Modi allegedly allowed Hindu extremists to organize a large-scale violence in 2002 in which more than 2,000 Muslims were reportedly killed. The BJP has won twice in state assembly elections supposedly due to the consequent division among voters along the religious lines. The result of the 2007 election in Gujarat was declared on December 23.
“We think this sort of development should be nipped in the bud,” added Yechury.
The day of the election result, (on December 23), unidentified Hindu extremists beat a pastor until he fell unconscious and then tonsured him for his faith in the same district (Kandhamal).
According to the Global Council of Indian Christian, the attack took place in Marsa Paada village, Mannipada area when extremists celebrating the electoral victory of Modi pulled pastor Junas Digal from a bus as he returned home after Sunday worship. They paraded him on the road and harassed him mercilessly.
The state government has set up a judicial commission, headed by Judge (retired) Basudev Panigrahi to probe the series of attacks in Orissa, but Christians want an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which they believe will be more independent and neutral.
Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal, and the BJP. State assembly elections are due next year.
Orissa’s 36 million population includes fewer than 900,000 Christians.
Copyright © 2008 Compass Direct