Hounded Christians in the Kandhamal jungles of India’s eastern Orissa state celebrated Christmas without violence, thanks to security measures finally adopted by the government. More than 8,000 Christian refugees were sheltered in seven relief camps. The Kandhamal district administration deployed over 10,000 security personnel during the Christmas period. Colorful temporary sheds were erected for the Christmas service while the homeless refugees enthusiastically made cribs and decorated the sheds with balloons.
A special Christmas meal was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar and coordinated by two dozen nuns from the Missionaries of Charity congregation.
“It is good that we can celebrate Christmas without fear with so much security,” said Pusara Digal while cleaning chicken on Christmas morning at the damaged Pastoral Center near the Nuagam relief camp.
But the refugee Christian promptly added: “Our worry is, when can we return to our village?” He pointed out that Hindus in several villages are still threatening that “no Christian will be allowed to step into the village unless we become Hindu.”
“How can we go back to our village when those who beat us up, looted and burned our houses are roaming freely?” asked Simon Digal as he helped the Missionaries of Charity nuns with the Christmas dinner.
Simon, who comes from Latinga village, pointed out that all the 107 Christian houses in his village were looted Photo by Anto Akkara and destroyed last August 26.
“Now they are even threatening us that unless we became Hindu, they will not allow us to enter the village,” said Simon.
Christian targets in Kandhamal— which is 300 kilometers southwest of Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital—went up in flames for weeks after the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. The leader of the Hindu nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) was shot dead last August 23.
Though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu groups attributed it to a Christian conspiracy, since the slain leader had vigorously campaigned against Christian conversions.
In the unabated violence, at least 70 Christians have been killed, and more than 6,000 Christian houses (along with over 200 churches and dozens of Christian institutions) have been looted and torched by Hindu fundamentalists in the jungle district, where Christians account for over 20 percent of the population of 500,000 people.
With marauding Hindu groups forcibly converting Christians to Hinduism, more than half of the Christians in Kandhamal fled to jungles, moved to relief camps run by the government, or hid in large urban areas.
AN UNEASY PEACE
Today, an uneasy peace prevails in the Kandhamal district. Government officials have confidently declared that 2009 will be a year of peace, but few Christians are able to move back to their villages, which remain in the grip of Hindu fundamentalist groups that make apostasy a precondition for return.
“We will not accept the persecution of a minority. If the state government is unable to protect them, it should resign,” ruled India’s highest court in January while hearing a petition from Archbishop Raphael Cheenath. “It is the duty of the state government to protect the minority community. You have done so only after 50,000 people of the minority community fled to the jungles,” said the federal judges.
“The fear is very much there and that is what worries us most,” Archbishop Cheenath told CWR on returning to Bhubaneswar in mid-January after a visit to the refugee camps in Kandhamal. In some places, noted Cheenath, even government officials are warning Christians not to return home due to the “volatile situation.” Consider the case of Lalita Digal, who dared to go back to her Dodaballi village from the refugee camp at Nuagam last November 21. She needed to harvest her paddy crop. Two days after she left, her son Prakash Digal (who stayed behind at the refugee camp) was informed that his mother had been killed. “But when we went there, the body was not there,” Prakash said.
The lurking fear of Christians is also illustrated by the case of Jubraj Digal, a politician and Catholic catechist. A week before Christmas, Jubraj was waylaid on December 16 near Ganjamendi. His son managed to flee, but by the time he returned with police, there was no trace of his father. A month after the disappearance of Jubraj, police found his bones hidden in a stream; his body had been burned by the assailants.
Such mysterious “disappearances” explain the discrepancy between the 39 Christians the Orissa government claims have been killed and the Catholic Church’s list of 71 Christians killed in Kandhamal.
It is important for the government to acknowledge a murder because without that official act the dependents left behind have little hope of collecting the 200,000 Rupees ($4,000) to which they are entitled under the law.
“We are trying our best to make sure that relatives of all those who have been killed will be provided the compensation the government has promised,” said Father Dibya Singh Paricha, who is coordinating documentation and legal assistance units for persecuted Christians. “It is a tough challenge. In most cases, the bodies have not been recovered,” said Father Paricha.
The death of a young pastor, Rajesh Digal, illustrates these troubles. He was returning from a Christian meeting in Hyderabad in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state on August 26 when anti- Christian violence in Kandhamal erupted. He was stopped at Bapun by Hindu groups. They checked his bag and found a Bible.
Blows followed and he was made to stand in a deep pit. Soil was then filled up to his neck and he was given a “final choice” to denounce his faith. As the young pastor refused, irate Hindu leaders crushed his head with a huge rock.
“I could not have even a look at his body,” his wife Asmita Digal, who is left with two children, ages five and three, told CWR.
Asmita said the gruesome murder of her husband was reported to her by a Hindu youth who had been traveling with him. The youth had barely survived himself; kerosene had been poured on him but he was saved at the last minute by a senior Hindu who told the thugs that the boy, though he was an associate of the pastor, had not yet become a Christian.
“Since there was much violence going on, I could not travel to that village (120 kilometers away). When my relatives reached there after some days, the body was not there,” said Asmita.
Hindu groups later removed the body and disposed of it secretly. Police never bothered to visit the scene of the crime. The widow has filed a complaint but after many months police continue to stonewall her, refusing to record her husband’s death as a murder.
“I don’t think I will be able to see my native place in the near future,” said a despondent Louis Digal, who is a cook at the archbishop’s house in Bhubaneswar.
“Even Hindus have cautioned me not to go back to my village (at Padangi), as they are planning to kill me,” said Louis. He says that he has been declared a “traitor” for going back to the Church after being “reconverted.”
Ten days after the orgy of violence following the murder of Swami Lakshamananda Saraswati on August 23, Louis took leave from the archbishop’s house to go to Padangi to check on his wife and his torched house.
“A week later, they forced me to undergo a conversion ceremony to become Hindu, and tonsured me publicly along with others,” recounted Louis, who had been the archbishop’s driver for 26 years until his eyesight weakened and he chose to become a cook four years ago.
Unable to overcome the “dreadful experience” of forced conversion, Louis fled for his life with his wife to Bhubaneswar and took her to his elder daughter, who is living in the Kendrapara district.
Though he has collected compensation ($200) to rebuild his burnt house, he has little of hope of doing it. “When they threaten to kill me if I set foot in the village, how can I go and rebuild my house there?”
But unless he starts work on his house, he is unlikely to get the remaining funds government provides to those with fully damaged houses after the foundations for their new houses are complete.
Louis is not the only Kandhamal victim at the archbishop’s house in Bhubaneswar. In fact, all four priests there have seen their houses in Kandhamal burned down and their parents and siblings rendered refugees.