Orissa: Killing Christians
To Stop Tribals and Dalits
from developing and achieving dignity
by P. Augustine Kanjamala, SVD
An expert sociologist talks about the motives
behind the ongoing waves of violence against Christians—conversion
to Christianity, education and emancipation allow Tribals and Dalits
to escape slave-like conditions. Hindu fundamentalism is against the
search for greater justice and wants to stop ongoing social
(AsiaNews) – Fr Augustine Kanjamala, a Verbite clergyman who
teaches at the University of Mumbai, appeals to the Churches of the
world to “express their protest to the government of India” which has
remained “inactive” with regards to anti-Christian violence. He openly
charges the Orissa state government for its increasingly explicit
collusion with the pogrom currently underway against the community of
faithful. According to Father Kanjamala a plan to cleanse Orissa of its
Christian population has been in the making for years, especially in the
district of Kandhamal (where most of the atrocities have taken place)
where Christians now constitute around 5 per cent of the population.
Conversions by, development for and emancipation of Tribals and Dalits
are confronted by Hindutva conservatism.
“On 24 December 2007, while the Christians were getting ready to
celebrate the birth of Lord Jesus Christ, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a
member of a Hindu fundamentalist organization (Vishwa Hindu Parishad)
and his supporters attacked and destroyed many churches and prayer
centres. A large number of Christians were injured and made homeless in
the communally sensitive district of Kandhmal, in Orissa state, eastern
Exactly eight months later, on 23 August 2008 when the same seer and
the Hindu community were preparing to celebrate the birthday of Lord
Krishna (Janmashtami) in Jalespata ashram (monastery), he and four of
his disciples were gunned down by tribal revolutionary Maoists.
That it was a premeditated attack is evident from the fact that he
was warned in advance and that government authorities were aware of it.
A local TV Channel reported that the murderers left a note on the spot
of the murder that this was a revenge killing for the last December
attack on the Christians.
Hindus were quick to accuse the Church of masterminding the murder of
their revered religious leader, who was in his 80s, rather than accept
the government’s view that the attack had a Maoist colour.
A meeting of Hindu leaders took place on the following day in
Rourkela, also known as Steel City, where a decision for an immediate
and violent retaliation was taken. The total success of the dawn to dusk
strike in Orissa on 25 August is clear evidence of the shocking
reaction. The simultaneous unleashing of violent attacks on 35 Christian
centres in Orissa on the evening of 25 August further confirms that the
plan was organized.
All bomb attacks were directed at Christians and their institutions.
The rampaging mob, seeking revenge for the Guru’s murder, destroyed the
pastoral centre of the archdiocese of Bhuvaneshwar with a bomb. A priest
and a nun working there were beaten up, stripped and paraded naked in
order to humiliate them. Four other priests were severely beaten—one
suffered severe burns and is now in critical conditions in Burla Medical
College, in the district of Sambalpur.
The mob also ransacked a church-run orphanage near Burgarh, and the
caretaker, Ms Rajni Maji, was set ablaze and burned to death.
A large number of churches, prayer centres, convents, hospitals,
dispensaries and vehicles were attacked and torched. Some nuns received
warned by mobile phone and either ran into the jungle or escaped by jeep
to the neighbouring state of Chattisgarh.
A few lay people lost their lives while thousands ran for theirs into
the forests; more than 200 houses were set on fire.
The radical Hindu mobs defied the curfew and forced everyone and
everything to shut down, bringing life to a stand still and the state
virtually to its knees. The official death toll of 20 reported by the
controlled media is totally false.
With 40 per cent of the population made up of Tribals and Dalits
(outcasts) Orissa is one of the most underdeveloped states in the
The Kandhamal district, which has seen high levels of anti-Christian
violence in the last decade, is also where a significant number of
Christian conversions have taken place in the same period. As Dalits who
embrace Christianity achieve socio-economic progress, many Tribals have
followed them in that path in recent times. Thus while Orissa's
Christian population is less than 2 per cent, the Christian population
in the district doubled in the last decade to reach the 5 per cent mark.
In January 1999, the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two
young sons were burned to death by a mob led by one Dara Singh
(convicted in 2003).
Objecting to missionary activities, the murdered Hindu sage recently
said: “The sooner Christians return to the Hindu fold the better it
would be for the country.”
Orissa was the first state in the country that passed legislation
against religious conversion in 1967, followed later by other states.
While Christian missionaries firmly assert that serving the poor and
the marginalized is their missionary vocation, the anti-conversion law
is based on the view that these services are inducements and fraudulent
means to abet conversions.
Another factor also generates opposition to Christians. It is
becoming increasingly clear that where Christian missionaries operate,
important social changes take place. People develop, acting and living
with greater dignity. Thus, as a result of education, even basic
education, Tribals and Dalits are no longer willing to be used as cheap
labour in farming. Their sense of dignity and their education have given
them the courage to protest against their exploitation and oppression.
In addition to such changes over the past two generations, Tribals
are now moving in great numbers to the big cities. In Mumbai alone there
are some 100,000 young Tribals or Adivasi from Orissa, all working in
domestic service or small industrial plants. It is obvious that these
changes are transforming Orissa’s socio-economic structure.
Radical Hindus’ political programme
The total breakdown of law and order in the state has created the
impression that state authorities are conniving with Hindu
fundamentalists under political compulsion. The state of Orissa is ruled
by a coalition government, supported by the Hindu fundamentalist
Bharatiya Janatha Party. There are fears that Orissa might go the way of
Gujarat and turn into a Hindu laboratory and a land of massacres.
On behalf of Christians, particularly Catholics, Archbishop Raphael
Cheenath of Bhuvaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, strongly condemned the
dastardly acts and violent killings, including that of Swami
Laxmanananda, and has appealed to everyone for peace and harmony.
A Christian delegation led by Archbishop Vincent Concessao met the
Home minister in New Delhi, giving him a memorandum.
The court cases against the culprits of last December attacks,
including police officials and state ministers who failed to act, are
presently underway. This partly explains the coolness of the state’s
governmental machinery to the current events.
In order to protest and express solidarity with the suffering
Christians of Orissa all Catholic schools in the country will remain
closed on Friday, 29 August. But we shall not forget to show our
appreciation for the police officials who acted promptly to help
missionaries and some church institutions. Likewise many Hindus and
other people of good will expressed their sympathy and support.
We urge Christians around the world to protest to the government of
India. We believe that India will be eager to protect its image as a
secular and democratic nation in the international community of nations
by promptly taking those steps that promote religious freedom and
At the time of writing this article (28 August) the situation remains
highly volatile so much so the government extended the curfew to nine
towns. Security forces are also expected to arrive in the area from the
* Rev Dr Augustine Kanjamala, SVD, holds a doctorate in the
sociology of religion. He was the Director of the Ishvani Kendra
(Missiological Institute), in Pune. He was secretary of the
Commission for Evangelisation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of
India. He is currently director of the Institute of Indian Culture,
which is associated with the University of Mumbai.
PIME - 08/28/2008 15:49