By Ajaya K. Singh reporting from Orissa, special to Worthy News
KANDHAMAL, INDIA (Worthy News)-- An Indian court on Thursday, September 24, acquitted a prominent legislator and another suspect in the killing of a Catholic Christian in a trial that underscored concerns over sectarian violence in the Indian state of Orissa.
Hindus Manoj Pradhan, who was recently elected to the Orissa assembly, and Mantu Nayak were detained following last year's murder of Kantheswar Digal, a Catholic from Orissa's troubled Kandhamal District.
Digal, a cook at a Catholic parish and local entrepreneur, was among over 100 people who died in anti-Christian violence, which erupted mainly Kandhamal District following the killing of a Hindu religious leader in August, 2008.
Although Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for murdering Swami Laxmanananda, Hindu militants blamed Christians for the attack.
As violence spread, Digal reportedly fled his native village with his wife and only son, Rajendra Digal, 28, and travelled to Orissa's capital Bhubaneswar.
He attempted to return on September 24, but the bus was stopped about one kilometer outside Bhubaneswar, said Rejendra Digal. He said his 60-year-old farther was dragged “in full view of passengers” by a group of “Hindu radicals”, allegedly led by legislator Pradhan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Hindu Peoples’ Party.
However the court apparently did not found evidence that Pradhan was involved in the killing. Rajendra Digal seemed surprised, saying his crying elderly father tried in vain to escape his attackers, who slashed his leg so he could not run away.
The Hindu militants allegedly took his father to a nearby forest while looting and razing his house and grocery store in his native village of Sankarakhole.
They then took away all eight goats and feasted the whole night, Rajendra Digal said. "The attackers forced the [local] Christians to be Hindus and join the feast...", before taking away his father. Local police and authorities did not search for his missing father, he added. Officials were not immediately available to comment.
Rajendra Digal said his father's naked disfigured body was eventually found, after 12 days, some 40 kilometers outside the village. “They had charred his face with acid, his private organs had been chopped off”, he said, his voice trembling.
"I have heard my father was not killed instantly. The fanatics had all the rituals and he was sacrificed."
He stressed he hopes the case will be appealed. "I cannot understand as the attackers are known and there are witnesses, who say that they have seen him being dragged out of the public bus. Yet, they are acquitted."
In a separate trial, a fast track court also acquitted five others accused of setting Christian homes on fire in the Tikabali area on August 26 last year, three days after the killing of Hindu leader Saraswati.
With the acquittal of seven persons Thursday, September 24, the total number of people released rose to 95 while 24 persons were convicted for attacks against Christians, trial observers said.
It comes amid reports that five families have been forced to flee their homes after testifying against Hindus suspected of involvement in burning a Christian woman alive in a house while another non-Christian tribal leader was killed for defending the Christians.
Local Christians have demanded police protection of the witnesses and "strong prosecution" of those involved in the violence. "Without these, justice will be derailed," warned Paul Pradhan, 48, a civil society activist and tribal leader.
Christians comprise a minority of just over two percent of the country's predominantly Hindu population of nearly 1.2 billion people.
Radical Hindu groups linked to the Orissa violence have however condemned the reported spread of Christianity among Dalits, the 'lowest caste' in India's ancient system of Hinduism. They also oppose Christian mission activities. (With reporting and editing by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).