Wednesday, July 29, 2015

‘Kandhamal’ tells the whole story of anti-Christian persecution - CRUX Coverage

Policemen stood guard in front of a Baptist Church during the riots in Kandhamal, India, in August, 2008. (AP Photo) 
BHUBANESWAR, India – Because of the dramatic events that unfolded there, certain places have come to symbolize entire movements or chapters of history. “Gettysburg,” for instance, immediately evokes the American Civil War, just as “Tiananmen Square” is now universal shorthand for non-violent protest.
In similar fashion, in terms of contemporary anti-Christian persecution, “Kandhamal” may be the single word that best captures the whole story.
Kandhamal is a district of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa, where an orgy of violence descended upon the impoverished Christian minority in August, 2008. A series of riots led by radical Hindus left roughly 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced, many forced to hide in nearby forests where more died of hunger and snakebites.
The violence was carried out by mobs adorned with saffron headbands, a sign of right-wing Hindu militancy, and shouting slogans such as Jai shri ram! — victory to the Hindu god Ram — and Jai bajrang bali! — a tribute to another Hindu deity. Attackers wielded rods, tridents, swords, firearms, kerosene, and even acid.
The seven-year anniversary of the outbreak of the carnage falls next month.
To be sure, the 2008 pogrom was hardly an isolated incident. Violence against Christians in Kandhamal continues routinely today, although on a smaller scale.
Two days ago, there were unconfirmed reports that two Christians were shot to death by local police in a border area of the district, near a hilltop where they had gone to try to get a mobile phone signal to call their children, who had moved to a southern state in search of work.
The Rev. Ajaya Kumar Singh, a Catholic priest who heads the Odisha Forum for Social Action, said such violence is common in a place where the social elites are upper-caste Hindus and the Christians are largely lower-class “untouchables” and members of indigenous tribes.
“There’s a double hatred,” Singh said. “Because Christians are from the lowest caste, they’re untouchable, and because they’re Christians they’re seen as anti-national … they’re treated worse than dogs.”
Certainly that was the story of the 2008 riots that rocked the district.
It began with the Aug. 23, 2008, assassination of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, a local Hindu leader who was regarded as a messiah figure by many lower-class Hindu tribal people. Although the full truth about his murder remains elusive, it was initially blamed on Christians, which seemed plausible given that he had explicitly vowed to eliminate the Christian presence in the area.
Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, where Kandhamal is located, said that in some cases, tribals were convinced to assault Christians on the basis of myths deliberately circulated by radical Hindus to stoke anxiety.
In some cases, he said, locals were told that Christians would force them to eat beef, considered a grave sin in Hinduism, given the cow’s status as a sacred animal. Two brothers he met in a remote village, Barwa said, told him they took part in the violence because they’d been persuaded that if they didn’t kill Christians, they’d turn into bats.
Whatever its roots, what happened to Kandhamal’s Christians almost defies belief. Here are six of their stories.
Kanaka Rekha Nayak is a Dalit Christian who watched her husband Parikhit die at the hands of an angry mob shouting praise to Hindu gods. Both she and her husband were converts to Protestantism in a largely Hindu village.
Nayak’s fellow villagers, erstwhile friends and neighbors, burned his body with acid, sliced off his genitals, and then cut open his stomach and ripped out his intestines to wear them around their necks like a trophy.
There’s Rajesh Digal, a Pentecostal pastor who was asked to recant his faith. When he refused, he was beaten severely. He was then asked again if he would renounce his Christianity; when he said no, he was buried in a pit up to his neck for two days. When he asked for water, his tormentors urinated in his mouth.
Given a final chance to repudiate his faith, Digal declined for a third time. At that point, he was beaten to death with clubs, axes, and sticks. To this day, his body has never been found.
Or take the case of Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, a Catholic nun of the Servite order who was in Kandhamal when she and a local priest, the Rev. Thomas Chellen, were dragged into the streets by frenzied attackers shouting “Kill Christians!”
Sister Barwa, the niece of Archbishop Barwa, said her sari blouse was ripped off. She was raped by one of the men in the mob, and then paraded through the streets of the village semi-naked while the mob continued to howl.
At one stage, the attackers insisted that Chellen, the priest, also rape her. He refused and was severely beaten as a result. Both survived the ordeal, and Sister Barwa, now 37, is pursuing a law degree in order to fight for justice for other victims of similar violence.
The Rev. Edward Sequeira is a Catholic priest who had been working in the area for 10 years.
Around lunchtime on Aug. 25, 2008, an angry mob of roughly 500 people showed up at his residence, brandishing axes, shovels, spades, and iron rods. They demanded that he come outside, shouting slogans such as “Kill Jesus Christ!”
Sequeira, a member of the Society of the Divine Word religious order, was assaulted and then tossed back inside his house, which the mob set on fire. Sequeira hid in the bathroom, using toilet water to douse the flames. As he prayed for help, he could hear the screams of Rajni Majh, an orphan girl he had rescued, who was raped and then tied up and burned to death.
He was eventually rescued by police and airlifted to Mumbai for medical treatment. Today he still carries the pain of the ordeal, having gone through several surgeries to treat damage to his throat and lungs.
The Rev. Dushmonth Nayak is a priest from Kandhamal who was in Bhubenswar, the capital city of Odisha, at the time the violence erupted. At one point he received a phone call from his sister, who informed him that she was speaking to him with a knife to her throat.
Hindu assailants, she said, had burst into the home and demanded that she renounce her Christianity, and she had pleaded with them for permission to phone her brother to ask for advice.
“If you live, you will live with Christ,” Nayak recalls saying to her, “and if you die, you will die with Christ.”
Nayak’s sister managed to escape, and today she leads a women’s council in the area.
The Rev. Mrutyunjaya Digal was in Bhubenswar when he caught a glimpse of his brother, Pratap, on television from Kandhamal.
Pratap was one of eight Christian men in his village forced to undergo a Hindu “reconversion” ceremony, which involved having his head shaved, drinking water mixed with cow feces (a Hindu devotion expressing reverence for the cow), and reciting a prayer to the god Ram.
Police look the other way
Local police generally stood by during these rampages, rarely intervening until after the damage was done.
“The police were there when the attacks were happening, and they did nothing,” said Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, now retired, who was in charge of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese at the time.
“I have no doubt that [the police] were in alliance” with the Hindu radicals who instigated the attacks, Cheenath said.
After the fact, some 90 percent of cases filed against the perpetrators never result in convictions, in part because of a lack of police protection for witnesses and in part because of failures in recording the complaints accurately. As a result, most of those who carried out the violence are still walking around their villages as free men, with Christians who survived running into them on a routine basis.
“I feel sad that the legal system of my country has not been able to do its duty,” said Sister Barwa, whose rapist is still at large.
Why Christians?
Although simple hatred of Christians is the main force fueling the violence, it’s not the only one. Singh, the priest who directs a social forum in the area, ticked off at least six others:
  • Class prejudice: Christians in the area come from the lower castes, while the Hindus are upper caste.
  • Nationalism: Christians are often falsely seen as “Western”.
  • Economics: Many Hindus in the area are traders with an interest in maintaining a supply of cheap and exploitable labor, and resist Christian activists inspiring the lower classes to assert their rights.
  • Politics: Hindu-backed parties want to control the region and find that spreading propaganda against the Christian minority delivers votes.
  • Media coverage: Christians have little capacity to project their own voice.
  • Christian churches: They have largely “kept quiet,” according to Singh, and failed to take legal recourse in defense of Christian rights.
Although some observers say things have improved in the past seven years, many Christians are far from confident that all is well.
“There is silence, but no serenity,” said Suranjan Nayak, a local Christian activist.
“The extremists are still holding underground meetings, and they still mutter threats when they pass people in the streets,” he said. “There is no peace in the remote villages. We are not free, [because] I never trust my neighbor like I did before. It’s always in my mind that he can do anything to me at any time.”
Christians also express frustration about the failure of the legal system to hold their attackers accountable. Of the 100 people murdered in August, 2008, there have been only 30 prosecutions and just two convictions.
Meanwhile, seven Christians widely believed by their co-religionists to be innocent languish in prison for the 2008 murder of the swami. Coincidentally, those Christians come from the same Kanhamal village as the two people reportedly shot to death July 26.
Cheenath said he believes Christian churches must be more outspoken in defending minority rights.
“When the RSS can tell 30 lies beautifully,” he said, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the principal organization in India for Hindu radicals, “I don’t see why we can’t speak one truth strongly.”
For her part, Sister Barwa said she hopes the anniversary of Kandhamal’s tragedy next month will be a time for Indians to resolve that religious violence will never happen again.
“Every person in this country should respect the religion of others and the humanity of others,” she said. “Otherwise, what was my suffering, and the suffering of so many other people, really for?”

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Our Comments:

We are grateful that John Allen Jr and his colleagues at CRUX are covering these events especially when Christians even in India seem to have forgotten the tragedy and travesty of justice in Kandhamal. Many have moved on and now speak a language of development while the victims are still denied justice. Hoping that this coverage will encourage Christians to take up the fight for justice more seriously. We appreciate the many who are already involved in it.

Widows tell the tale of India’s new Christian martyrs - CRUX coverage

BHUBANESWAR, India — In the galaxy of contemporary anti-Christian persecution, the martyrs of Kandhamal in India hold a special place, and not just because statistically they died amid the worst outbreak of violence specifically directed at Christians so far in the 21st century.
The manner in which many of these Christians lost their lives, almost all of whom come from the Indian caste once considered “untouchable,” was almost unimaginably grotesque – violence more at home in the Bible or early Christian martyrology, seemingly, than the here-and-now.
On Monday, Crux sat down with five Christian widows who lost their husbands amid the mayhem that broke out in August, 2008, when the assassination of a local Hindu leader was blamed on the Christian minority.
By all accounts, the pogroms were instigated by radical Hindu activists seeking to eliminate the Christian presence from the area.
The interview with the widows took place in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha state (formerly known as Orissa), where the killing occurred, and was organized by the Global Council of Indian Christians, an advocacy and relief group for Christian victims of religious persecution.

These are their stories about their husbands’ murders.

Kanaka Rekha Nayak (Crux Staff Photo/John L. Allen Jr.)
Parikhit Nayak
Parikhit Nayak was killed on Aug. 27, 2008, after spending two days hiding with his wife and their two children in a forest near their village of Tiangia Budedipade. He was a Baptist, and his tribal neighbors wanted to force him to deny his faith and embrace Hinduism.
Weeping as she spoke, his wife, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, 35, recounted the desperation she felt when she saw her husband dragged for almost a mile with a bicycle chain around his neck, as she tried to both be with him and to protect their two-year-old son, Bennie.
“The mob gave him a warning: ‘Convert or be killed,’” Kanaka said. “But he told them that he’d accepted Jesus, and that he would save him.”
The enraged group of Hindus continued hitting and beating him until they saw he wasn’t going to budge. Then, in a scene straight out of a horror film, Kanaka’s tormentors sliced off his genitals, cut open his belly to remove his intestines, and wore them around their necks as a badge of honor.
In the coup de grĂ¢ce, Kanaka said, “They cut my husband into pieces in front of me, covered him in kerosene, and set him on fire.”
After finishing with Parikhit, she said, the mob turned on her, intending to rape her. She escaped by running to a nearby forest, and eventually found herself in the house of people she didn’t know some 10 miles from her husband’s remains.
The next morning, the owners of the house took her to a relief camp called Raika, one of several created during the several violent months that followed the Aug. 23 killing of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati.
It wasn’t until three days later that the police acknowledged the murder and accompanied Kanaka to the place where her husband’s remains had been abandoned. She was allowed to bury him in an already occupied tomb in the cemetery of a nearby Catholic convent, but everyone was so afraid that no priest presided over the interment.
Thanks to the testimony of their daughter, who’s now 12 but was five when her father was murdered, 25 men were identified as responsible for Rekha’s death. Eighteen were criminally charged, but only one is in jail; the others move freely in their village.
Although Kanaka had to leave town after their house was burned, she sometimes returns to the village and runs into the very men who committed the atrocities that claimed her husband’s life.
“Some run away when they see me, some greet me, hoping I’ll dismiss the case against them, and some threaten to kill me or my daughter, so she can’t be used as a witness in the Supreme Court,” she said.
In less than a month, she’ll return yet again, to visit her husband’s grave. She remembered his final words, spoken to his assailants: “Do whatever you want to me, but spare my family!”
Despite the hardship, she’s proud of her husband’s courage to not to deny his faith to save himself.
“My husband is no longer with me, but the Lord has given me the opportunity to share my testimony with others, so that hopefully this doesn’t happen again.”
* * * * *
Asmita Digal (Crux Staff Photo/John L. Allen Jr.)
Rajesh Digal
Rajesh Digal, a pastor of the Free Methodist Church, was intercepted on the night of Aug. 26, 2008 as he was returning home in a truck. He and a younger man had hitched a ride, trying to get home as soon as possible after hearing of the violence taking place in their village of Bokinga.
When the mob searched Digal’s bag, they found his Bible, and as with Parikhit Nayak — and most of the Kandhamal martyrs — they offered to spare his life if he accepted Hinduism.
After he refused, they buried him in a muddy pit up to his neck for two full days, leaving only his head exposed. At one point Digal asked for water, and one of his captors urinated into his mouth.
On the third day, they took him out, but he still refused to repudiate Christianity.
“They kept asking ‘Are you willing to convert?’ and every time he said no,” his 29-year old widow, Asmita Digal, said. “In response, they cut off each of his limbs, one by one.”
Although Asmita managed to escape before the end came, the young man traveling with Digal joined her later that day in a camp and informed her that the Hindu assailants had beaten her husband to death and disposed of his body.
That young man, however, refused to provide testimony to the police out of fear.
Since Digal’s remains were never found – because of what witnesses told her, she believes they burned his body and threw the ashes to a nearby river –the police won’t file murder charges against any of his attackers, permitting only a “missing person” report.
As a result, Asmita hasn’t been able to request the $1,000 compensation the government has agreed to give to the families of people officially recognized as having been murdered during the violence. The money would help her pay rent for a small house where she moved with her two young children.
Asmita said are no Christians in her new village, so the only place of worship she has is a Catholic church in a nearby town.
“My husband gave his life for the Lord,” she said. “It’s caused me great problems for my earthly life, but in spite of everything, I won’t deny Jesus Christ, and my children will grow up knowing him.”
* * * * *
Runima Digal (Crux Staff Photo/John L. Allen Jr.)
Iswar Digal
Iswar Digal was killed Sept. 20, 2008. Together with his wife, Runima, 40, and their four children, they were traveling from a relief camp in Gudyar to the town of Mole Para because Iswar’s father had fallen ill.
They arrived at the family home at night, hoping to avoid being seen. Their efforts, however, were fruitless: Someone had alerted the village of their arrival, and a mob caring machetes, swords, and axes came looking for them.
The family managed to hide in a nearby forest, but when morning came, a group of 15 fundamentalists found them. Iswar fell as he was trying to escape. The attackers took the opportunity to put a towel around his neck, and dragged him to a nearby river.
After beating him repeatedly, they killed Digal by cutting his body into three parts. They threw his remains into the river. The body parts were never recovered.
Runima and her four children managed to find refuge in a relief camp. That same afternoon, a boy who had witnessed the scene, since he, too, was part of the mob, told her what had happened.
The boy, however, refused to testify in court. As a result, only two men were ever imprisoned for Digal’s death, but after two years they were released on bail.
Runima has since left the town to move closer to her parents. When she goes back, she said, she can overhear threatening comments coming from her former attackers as she passes them in village streets: “We will take care of you,” she says they mutter.
“I haven’t denied the Lord, and my faith has made me stronger,” Runima told Crux.
She was born in a Christian family, and when Iswar proposed, she told him she’d marry him only if he got baptized. He did so, and his parents and siblings followed in his footsteps soon after.
* * * * *
Monalisa Nayak (Crux Staff Photo/John L. Allen Jr.)
Gopona Nayak
The situation of Monalisa Nayak, 25, in many ways mirrors that of Runima Digal. Her husband, Gopona Nayak, was killed Aug. 24 in 2008 after he refused to embrace Hinduism. Although she was able to identify 12 of her husband’s murderers, no one else came forward to support her testimony, and so the attackers remain at large.
Unlike Digal, however, Monalisa has no family to go back to, since they banished her after she became a Christian. In fact, they even blamed her misfortune on her decision to convert.
“You had it coming for abandoning your family’s faith,” she said they told her at the time.
She explained that an angry mob grabbed Gopona, her husband, in the forest after they had fled the village. While trying to escape, he fell down a hill into a field submerged in 15 feet of water. The extremists threw stones at him, and when he was badly hurt, they dragged his unconscious body to a local Baptist church.
The attackers then tossed Gopona’s body into the church and doused the structure with kerosene, burning him to death.
Monolisa hid in the forest for at least three more days. Because of heavy rains, by the time she managed to get the police to go to the crime scene, there was no physical evidence left of the assault.
She and her two children now survive on the roughly $1.50 a day she earns as an occasional daily laborer.
* * * * *
Puspanjali Panda (Crux Staff Photo by John L. Allen Jr.)
Divyasingh Digal
Puspanjali Panda, 44, wasn’t able to bury her martyred husband, either. Divyasingh Digal was killed Aug. 26 as he was coming out from a church program. As he was leaving the church, he heard a mob was looking for him, so he took refuge in a nearby house.
Some hours later, the mob caught up to him. They dragged him out to the street and beat him with sticks and slapped him as he continued to struggle to escape. Eventually one knocked him down by throwing a stone at his head.
Having subdued Digal, they then cut off his limbs and dragged him to the shore of a nearby river, abandoning his body after his death.
At midnight, a crowd of Hindu extremists went to the Panda household and threatened to kill Puspanjali, too, if she didn’t convert, but they weren’t able to get in and eventually gave up. They tried again around 5 a.m. to no avail.
Early the next morning, she roamed the town looking for her husband until someone told her to avoid the river because there was a body lying on the ground.
She was able to identify the remains, and went to the police to file the complaint. They took the body to do an autopsy and never returned it to her, which Puspanjali believes was a way of covering up the crime. As a result, she was never able to say goodbye.
“The extremists didn’t allow me to bury my husband,” she said in tears.
Paralyzed by fear, a product of seeing her husband’s killers walking around town with impunity, she moved to her parents’ house. Last year, however, after she refused to convert to Hinduism, her father told her that she and her 17-year-old daughter could no longer live in the family home.
Today, Puspanjali lives at a relief camp with 70 other families that still haven’t been able to return to their villages even seven years after the violence ended.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

SC/ST benefits available to Christians reconverting to Hinduism: Kerala HC

KOCHI: A member of a scheduled caste or tribe (SC/ST) who had converted to Christianity from Hinduism can claim the rights and benefits available to SC/ST members if he reconverts, the Kerala High Court has held.

The court's decision assumes much significance in the backdrop of 'Ghar Wapsi' reconversion campaign introduced by the Hindu right-wing group Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) last year. Earlier this month, VHP had claimed that it had reconverted over 33,000 persons and had 'prevented' over 48,000 conversions.

It was a petition filed by a father and daughter whose forefathers belonged to Hindu Cheramar community that was considered by the court. Those who approached the court were 46-year-old MA Chandraboss of Ramapuram in Kottayam and his 18-year-old daughter Alida. They were born as Christians as Chandraboss' father had converted to Christianity. In 2009, Chandraboss and his family reconverted to Hinduism by undergoing 'Shudhi Karma' under the auspices of Arya Samaj.

Chandraboss' daughter Alida appeared for the common entrance examination this year and sought admission in the SC/ST quota. However, her claim to SC/ST quota was rejected on the basis of an anthropological report by a state government agency named Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies (KIRTADS). An appeal filed before the government against this also came to be dismissed.

At the high court, their counsel G Krishnakumar argued that though they had converted to Christianity, they retained the essential character of the caste to which they belonged and suffered the disabilities and disadvantages of other members of their caste.

Opposing the claim, state government submitted that the petitioners, having born into Christianity and having lived as Christians till their reconversion, are to be treated as Christians and not as a scheduled caste member. It is a conversion of convenience, the government counsel argued.

Ruling in favour of the petitioners, justice K Vinod Chandran held, "The 2nd petitioners (Chandraboss' daughter) definitely was brought up in her father's house, may be as a Christian, but a Christian-Cheramar. There being generally no accepted caste discrimination in Christianity, the identity in the Cheramar community was essentially retained."

The court further said in the judgment, "It is to be noticed that Christianity, as it is generally understood, does not have any caste discrimination and the very fact that the 1st and 2nd petitioners (Chandraboss and his daughter) were all along issued with community certificates as belonging to Christian-Cheramar would indicate that they had their origin in the Hindu-Cheramar community. Considering the question of a Christian convert reconverted to Hinduism, this court in Ponnamma's case (Ponnamma vs Regional Director, 1983) held that the child of parents who (had) converted to Christianity at the time of the birth of the child, could always convert back to Hinduism and claim the rights of the caste of her forefathers once she converts back to Hinduism. The rights of a child born as a Christian, to Schedule Caste parents who converted to Christianity, to reconvert to Hinduism and claim the rights available to a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe, was affirmed by the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court." 
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Bill seeking anti-conversion law tabled in Maharashtra assembly

The Maharashtra assembly on Friday admitted a private member bill by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator Atul Bhatkhalkar, seeking an anti-conversion law in the state.
The bill was tabled amidst pandemonium by ruling party and Opposition members, exchanging allegations and slogans.
Bhatkhalkar, who moved the bill, said, "There are various states including Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat where such a law has been enacted and court rulings in such cases have said that the state is within its rights to make such laws.”
Bhatkhalkar said there were several places even in Maharashtra, where conversions were being carried out forcibly or by offering bribes and so it was essential for the state to enact an anti-conversion law. The bill calls for imprisonment and a penalty against those who convert forcibly. The amount of penalty and the term of the imprisonment had not been specified.
After Bhatkhalkar mooted the bill, fellow legislator and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) city chief Ashish Shelar moved a note of dissent. He said he does not think there are instances in the state where conversion is carried out forcibly.
The bill was, however, taken on record. The BJP, while in the Opposition, was keen on getting an anti-conversion law enacted.

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Remember Kandhamal?

Friday, July 10, 2015

RSS readies to target minority educational institutions

The education wing of the RSS, the Bhartiya Shiksha Mandal (BSM), is planning to file a review petition in the Supreme Court asking it to reconsider the definition of minority institutions. According to the BSM, the management of minority institutions is “misusing” its “privileges” and also shying away from the implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act and other education-related welfare schemes of the government.

The main contention of the BSM does not rest with this. It has also alleged that these institutions have more general students than those belonging to the minority the institution is being run for; while it is only the management that is comprised of minority members, demanding  a redefinition of minority institutions that will emphasize the composition of students and not that of the management as the main criterion of this constitutional status.

“The purpose of giving privileges to minority institutions was to help the students belonging to minority communities,” this purpong secretary Mukul Kantikar.

Kantikar also went on to add, “the beneficiary should be minority. Just because the management is minority, you cannot have minority status”.

The procedure in use for admitting students to government-aided minority educational institutions is dependent on a calculation of the percentage of students belonging to the given minority community in the given area, by state governments. The 2002 Supreme court order makes way for the provision to admit students belonging to other communities in these institutions for want of enough minority students.

It is Article 30(1) of the Indian Constitution that gives minority communities the right to establish and administer their own educational institutions.

The BSM, after having prepared a draft of the National Education Policy, is now contemplating on either intervening as a stakeholder or filing a petition in the aforementioned matter. “The definition of minority status should be reviewed, for which there should either be a Supreme Court intervention or a constitutional amendment. We want to explore both the possibilities”, Kantikar added.