Namrata, a young Christian villager who was injured in an attack by a Hindu mob
The mob appeared an hour after sunset, armed with axes, clubs and paraffin. The carnage that followed would have been much worse if the Christians of Gadragaon, a remote village in northeast India, had not been warned by text message: “The Hindus are coming to kill you.”
The alert gave most enough time to flee to the jungle, where 114 of them would hide for a week, drinking rainwater and foraging for food.
But the warning did not come early enough for those unable to run. “They doused him with petrol and taunted him; we could hear him screaming,” said Ravindra Nath Prahan, 45, of his paralysed brother, Rasananda, 35, who was burnt alive by Hindu fanatics. “I could have tried to save him. But we had to save ourselves.”
The attack on Gadragaon, by a mob that chanted “Hail Mother India” as they razed the village, was among the first of the grim litany of atrocities committed against minority Christians in the state of Orissa over the past two weeks. The Vatican has called the wave of violence “a sin against God and humanity”.
Times Archive, 1867: The famine in Orissa
Famines are not necessary in India; it is a popular falacy to say they are caused by want of water
A nun has been gang-raped; a worker at a church-run orphanage burnt alive. In the Kandhamal district, the site of the worst attacks, Kamalini Naik, who was seven months pregnant, was ordered to denounce Christianity and convert to Hinduism by a baying mob. When she refused, she and her one-year-old son were “cut into pieces”, witnesses said.
So far 36 deaths have been recorded by the Catholic Church – compared with 16 by the state authorities, which have been accused of being complicit in the tragedy.
With the worst violence occurring in remote regions, there are fears that the toll is much higher. “It is hard to tell. The mobs are burning their victims,” said Father Ajay Singh, who is trying to keep a list of the dead in the office of the Archbishop in Bhubaneswar, the state capital.
Of the estimated 50,000 Christians forced to flee, most have little to go back to: more than 3,000 homes and 115 churches have been destroyed.
The villagers of Gadragaon watched from their hiding places as their possessions were looted, their cornfields and banana gardens spoiled and their goats slaughtered. Then they walked for more than 200 kilometres (125 miles), most of them barefoot, through the jungle to reach a makeshift sanctuary at a dilapidated YMCA hall.
“They said that we must convert if we want to return. We can never go back,” Ravindra Prahan said. A mountain of a man who served in the Indian Army, he now wears the shell-shocked expression of a wounded veteran.
Many are similarly scarred. Namrata, 8, one of more than 8,000 refugees held at a camp in Raikia, was badly burnt when Hindu fanatics torched her family’s house. She has bad dreams and says she is too frightened ever to go home.
Hindu extremists claimed the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to the murder of a local Hindu leader. Others believe they were orchestrated – as the purge began trees were felled to block roads across the region to prevent Christians from escaping.
On Thursday India’s Supreme Court ordered the Orissa government to answer charges that local police had stood by – an accusation also made by paramilitary forces drafted in from other parts of the country.
Orissa has a dark history of intolerance. Last Christmas 95 churches were razed and at least five Christians murdered. At the time, the unrest – far surpassed in the past two weeks – was branded the worst anti-Christian violence in India since Independence.
The roots of the current misery have festered for generations. Despite being enormously rich in mineral resources, Orissa is one of the sub-continent’s poorest regions. Its low-caste Hindus and tribal populations are among the world’s most impoverished people.
It is from these groups that most Christian converts have come – attracted by the opportunity to study at church-run schools and the chance to leave the lowest rungs of Hinduism’s rigid caste system.
“There is resentment among some Hindus that the Church has reached out to these people, for whom nothing was being done,” said Father Prabodha Pradhan, one of the many Christians in Orissa who now owe their lives to Hindus who hid them as they were hunted by fanatics. “Some feel threatened.” However, the state’s Christians make up only 2.4 per cent of the population – in line with the figure for India as a whole.
Other movements are also recruiting among Orissa’s poor – notably, the Naxalites, a fierce cadre of atheist Maoist militants whose influence now extends across half of India.
Compared to the AK47-toting communist guerrillas, however, Orissa’s Christians have made soft targets. “We don’t fight. We are not many,” Father Prabodha said.
There are now fears that the attacks directed against Christians in Orissa may be replicated against other religious minorities across India as far-right Hindu groups seek to mobilise support ahead of general elections that must be held before May.
The latest violence was triggered by the murder on August 23 of Swami Lakhmananda Saraswati, a local figurehead of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an extremist Hindu organisation. Ignoring a claim of responsibility from the Naxalites for the assassination, the VHP immediately accused Christians.
Some suggest that the VHP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu fundamentalist group that holds sway over India’s largest opposition party, the BJP, have exploited Saraswati’s death to achieve a long-stated mission: to make Orissa “a poster state for Hindutva (Hindu-ness)”.
Religion and caste
– India’s Constitution is secular. Hindus account for 80 per cent of the country’s billion-plus population, while Muslims account for about 13 per cent
– The most recent Indian census, in 2001, states that 2.3 per cent of the population is Christian, but converts often claim to be Hindus to retain government privileges reserved for Hinduism’s lower castes
– Most Indian Christians are Dalits, at the bottom of the caste system, who were once known as untouchables
– Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children were burnt to death when their car was set alight by a Hindu mob who went on the rampage in Orissa state in 1999
– Over Christmas last year, 55 churches and 600 houses were set alight in Orissa, as part of a vicious anti-Christian campaign
– 35 major incidents of violence against Christians were recorded in the state of Madhya Pradesh alone between January and August this year
– Last March a United Nations freedom-of-religion investigator gave warning that the scarcity of prosecutions and “political exploitation of communal tensions” put India at risk of more religious violence
Sources: www.cia.gov; Times Archive; Human Rights Watch
September 6, 2008
Rhys Blakely in Bhubaneswar
Source: The Times