How long will we go on killing the dead?
How long will we see the same truth with different eyes?
Is this evening, or a dark, hard, elusive darkness?
Where the God I choose suits one better than a lie?
(Jayanta Mahapatro, on the Gujarat genocide, 2002)
The dictionary definition of ‘violence’ (swift and great force that causes damage and injury; great force, as of feeling; damage or injury; rough, brutal force;) is too literary to encompass the versatile facets of violence human beings inflict on fellow human beings. Violence in relation to religion, simply defined as man’s one-to-one communication with God, comprise spans the entire spectrum of violence in all its manifestations. Religion is an integral part of the social fabric. It reflects the socio-cultural ethos of our society. Today, it is also a sad reflection of man’s hatred towards his fellow-men.
Most sustained hate campaigns against a minority community is almost exclusively linked to the Muslim community. So, from time to time, when one reads about sudden attacks on the Christian community by self-appointed guardians of faith, law, justice and their execution, one is more shocked than surprised because Christians are known to be relatively peaceful, low-profile and essentially pacifist by nature. Even if one were to assume that some Christian groups, specially in some pockets are Orissa, are aggressive and militant, trying to appropriate power, that justify the charge of conversions they are accused of by the Hindutva brigade, this in no way rights the senseless bloodshed and gore that destroys human lives. This hate campaign against Christians in Orissa is not new. In January 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two little boys were burnt alive in Keonjhar. The following month, Catholic nun Jacqueline Mary was gang-raped. In August the same year, Sheikh Rehman, a Muslim merchant, was mutilated and burnt to death. In September, a Catholic priest named Arul Das was murdered. All three incidents took place in Mayurbhanj, historic for being the birthplace of the Chhau form of dance.
The current situation goes back to December 23, 2007 when some Christians living in Brahmanigaon village wanted to erect a Christmas gate in front of a Hindu place of worship. Local Hindus, suspecting the motives of the Christians because one gate already stood at a place where Christmas was celebrated every year, resented this move. But the clashes that came about as a result of this conflict found more Hindus at the receiving end because the village had more Christians than Hindus. When the news reached Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, he set out for Brahmanigaon the very next day. A Christian mob is said to have attacked his car, injuring the Swami and two of his followers seriously. This attack led to further clashes in the district, causing harm to everyone concerned, with houses being burnt, properties destroyed and physical assaults on men, women and children. The attack left 10 dead and hundreds missing.
Though Ram Madhav, a former spokesman of the Rashtriya Swayamwevak Sangh, insists on labeling the December 2007 attack as a backlash, in retaliation of the attack on the Swami, (Local factors led to Kandhamal violence, January 8, 2008) public and educated opinion believes that the attacks were pre-planned with the connivance of the state, after a slow and steady building up of a hate campaign against Christians labeling them ‘conversion terrorists.’ The National Minorities Commission stated it was a premeditated attack. No one has even remotely been held guilty, much less punished or jailed for this brutal killing till date. Nobody has been punished, much less held guilty for the pre-planned, organized killing of Indian citizens. Though Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati was widely implicated in the incitement of those attacks and in stirring anti-Christian hatred in Orissa state, the state authorities never prosecuted him.
What happened on August 23? The Swami’s ashram was celebrating Janmashtami. Around dinnertime, a group of 30-40 armed assailants wearing masks and hoods surrounded the place. According to eyewitnesses, many of them had country made revolvers and around four carried AK-47s. Two of the four home guards on security duty had gone for the dinner break and the other two were on duty. The assailants tied and gagged these two guards, then sought out the Swamiji inside the ashram and gunned him down. The bullets, the police discovered, were from an AK-47. They then warned the guards not to raise an alarm and fled the scene. Strange but true that within minutes of reaching the crime scene, the district authorities issued a statement claiming that the Swami had been killed by suspected Maoists.
Krishnakumar P., reporting from Kandhamal, says that Ashok Sahu, a retired IPS officer, who specializes in left wing extremism, says that the claim by the district authorities is too hasty and convenient to hold much water. “How can blame a particular outfit within minutes of arriving on the crime scene?” he asks. “How is it that there has been no statement yet from the Maoists owning up to the attack? How is it that the five attackers caught and handed over to the police were found to be not Maoists but locals who lived in the region?” Sahu backs up his argument by saying forwarding the following arguments:
(a) If the assailants were Maoists, they would never have spared the home guards on duty and would have certainly killed them both.
(b) The leaflets thrown around the ashram were done in a rather amateurish way.
(c) Among the Maoists, the only ones carrying AK-47 are designated at least as commanders. If four commanders were conducting the attack, the firing would have been so awkward and indiscriminate.
(d) The aim of every Maoist attack is that they expressly wish to remain visible and identifiable. So they would never wear either masks or hoods. As ‘revolutionaries’, they do not care whether they are seen or not.
(e) The possibility of the Swami’s activities having generated animosity of the Maoists towards him is very little because he worked for the welfare of the tribals against forced conversions in the region so why would they consider him a class enemy?
Sahu confesses that a lot of Maoists are converts to Christianity and were involved in the December 2007 violence. “But this attack does not look like their work,” he adds.
If the Maoists did not kill the Swami, who did? Some believe that some Christian militant outfits active in the region may have been responsible. But is it possible for them to gain access to such sophisticated weapons of warfare? One does not know. What one does know is that a citizen’s delegation met President Pratibha Patil demanding that the Indian Government use Article 355 to force the Orissa administration to protect Christians, with 300 villages burnt, 4104 houses destroyed and 50,000 Christians forced to hide in the forests, afraid to come out.
Why did the local Superintendent of Police fail to take any action when he learnt that the Swami received an anonymous call just a week before he was killed and even lodged a formal complaint? Has the State absolved itself of its responsibility to sustain India as a secular state and a democratic republic? The victims of this terrible violence perpetrated by fundamentalist Hindu factions under the convenient excuse of a backlash for the killing of the Swami, turned Chief Minister Navin Patnaik away when he went to visit them much after the killing was over. Many place the blame for not being able to nab the culprits and control the violence against Christians on his alliance with the BJP. The victims had not forgotten that their CM was busy celebrating a decade of his Chief Minister-ship with a lot of pomp and glory in Delhi when, at the same time, in December last year, Kandhamal was burning around Christmas. The state police were called away to the capital to help in the celebrations, keeping the Hindutva goons free to continue their unbridled attack on Christians.
On August 28, Communalism Combat, a magazine, called for an immediate ban on the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for their “involvement in spreading terror across the country.” The demand was made at a press conference addressed by Justice (retd.) B.G. Kolse-Patil, former Director-General of Gujarat Police R.B. Shreekumar, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and Teesta Setalvad, editor, Communalism Combat. They said that a ban on the two organizations was urgent in the wake of the mayhem spread by them in Orissa and revelations of their involvement in terror networks in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. They appealed to the government to constitute an official tribunal comprised of three sitting judges of the Supreme Court to oversee investigations into all terror-related crimes.
A Bureau of Police Research and Development study, a Union Home Ministry body, reported that between 1954 and 1996, almost 16,000 people lost their lives in 21,000 incidents of rioting while over one lakh were injured and only a handful have been held responsible. The story gets repeated, stretching into infinity, in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and now Orissa. More than 20 commissions of inquiry during this time span have studied major riots in the country. Each draw the same conclusion – the police have failed to act on its own and have almost always depended on the political leadership for direction. Miscreants capitalize on the situation by indulging in free-flowing loot and arson. Full-blown mob violence cannot go on unabated unless it is backed by good organization, strong mobilization and official complicity. One shudders to think of the statistics that will show up for the period spanning 1996 and 2008. Never mind the accusing fingers pointed at Maoists and Christian militant outfits, history shows us that the hate campaign against Christians in Orissa has sustained for decades with the destruction of churches, breaking of idols and even the burning of the Holy Bible. Every human being should stand up and condemn all violence in the name of religion in any form.
(This article was published in The Statesman , Day Sunday Supplement as a cover story on September 07 of 2008.)