Anti-Christian violence poses problems for India's secular claims

By Ecumenical News International
August 21, 2009

Carnage aimed at a tiny Christian minority in the remote Kandhamal area of India's Orissa state raises questions about the claim of the world's second most populous country to be a secular state.

That is the contention of the author of the update of Kandhamal - a blot on Indian secularism, a book by Ecumenical News International India correspondent Anto Akkara.

The book, presented at the Press Club of India on 19 August 2009, highlights an area the author calls "the Ground Zero of anti-Christian violence in Orissa", a state in northeast India.

"The state of affairs in Kandhamal a year after raises question whether it is a part of the Secular Indian Republic. The impunity and lawlessness in Kandhamal make it a blot on the nation," lamented Akkara, at the release of a new edition of his book that was first published in April.

Kandhamal went up in flames on 23 August 2008 with many Christians losing their lives and homes. They told the author that if they return to the area they were driven from, they will have to recant their faith and turn to Hinduism.

Ecumenical leaders in Orissa, led by the Roman Catholic Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Bhubaneswar, Orissa's capital, have called for a national day of peace and harmony to mark the anniversary.

Akkara says, however, some Hindu extremist groups are planning a "victory day" on the anniversary and church leaders are demanding complete security and protection for religious minorities.

The violence was triggered by the assassination of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, the leader of Hindu nationalist groups in Orissa. Maoist groups claimed responsibility for his killing, saying they were punishing the Hindu leader for mixing religion with politics.

However, Hindu extremist groups blamed the murder on Christians and began targeting them with what judicial authorities have suggested was orchestrated violence that lasted for weeks.

More than 90 Christians were killed and more than 50,000 were displaced. In addition, more than 5000 Christian homes and 250 churches and Christian institutions were looted and torched in actions described by some as ethnic cleansing.

Coinciding with the release of the updated book, social activists, as well as church and media personnel came together at a function in the Indian capital to revisit Kandhamal, marking the first anniversary of what they described as an "anti-Christian pogrom".

The updated book was released by former Indian diplomat KP Fabian, president of Indo-Global Social Service Society.

The book cautions that, "Despite winning a massive secular mandate, the Orissa government seems to be succumbing meekly to the fundamentalists instead of tackling them head on".

Akkara says the Kandhamal administration in July "transplanted" 50 Christian families from Beticola to Nandapur - 17 kilometres away - and allotted them plots of government land. This was because extremists in Beticola would not let the Christians return unless they became Hindus and withdrew the cases they had filed regarding destruction of their houses and the church.

"The Hindus are not allowing the Christians to enter their village homes unless the latter convert to Hinduism. Hence, most of them are living on rent in slums in towns like Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack and languishing there. They prefer to live as Christians in slums rather than going back to their homes as Hindus," Akkara explained.

At the book launch, some of the victims of Kandhamal violence were clearly upset in recounting the violence they encountered. One of them, Kantalata Nayak, a mother of two children, described vividly how her husband was brutally killed.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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