India's Christians Fear Fresh Violence 3 Years After Massacre

As the third anniversary of a mass violence in Orissa state approaches next week, memories of 100 Christians hacked to death and 5,000 houses burned are fresh in the minds of locals, and added to that are now apprehensions of fresh trouble, a Christian activist warned.

The violence in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district erupted after rightwing Hindus blamed local Christians for the assassination of their leader on August 23, 2008. The same group that is believed to be behind the anti-Christian attacks has declared August 23 as the day of “Protection of Religion,” John Dayal, member of the Government of India’s National Integration Council, said Monday.

The act of blaming Christians for the killing, which was allegedly carried out by Maoist guerrillas, led to displacement of over 56,000 Christians, destruction of almost 300 churches, burning of more than 5,600 houses, rape of a Catholic nun and two other women, and molestation of many, Dayal said in a letter to the National Commission for Minorities, a quasi-judicial body tasked to safeguard interests of the minorities.

By calling the anniversary, “Protection of Religion,” rightwing Hindus apparently want to remind Hindus that their faith is in danger from Christians, who they allege, killed a prominent Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

“The memory of that violence has scorched the psyche of our community,” Dayal, Secretary General of the All India Christian Council, said. “Now, the Sangh Parivar [a family of rightwing Hindu groups in India] is saying it will observe the day as ‘Protection of Religion,’ and has distributed handbills across the district and the state.”

Dayal said the Christian community feared there might be trouble and violence “unless the State government takes the most stringent of measures in Kandhamal and other districts.” He said he was writing to request the Commission “to call upon the State government to do its duty by the minority community and reassure them there will be no untoward incident.”

On March 12, the Orissa state unit of the Christian Council had written to the district head of Kandhamal requesting him to preempt the apparent effort to incite violence, but his office gave little assurance.

Christians also complain that the accused in the numerous cases related to the attacks on Christians in Kandhamal have not been prosecuted sufficiently.

According to the Advocacy Department of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, which runs a legal aid cell in Kandhamal, only about 350 accused have been convicted while around 1,600 others have been acquitted, mainly because of shoddy investigation and threats issued to witnesses.

Christians were targeted politically in the late 1990s by rightwing Hindu groups to oppose India’s Grand Old Party, the Indian National Congress, which sees religious minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians, as its vote bank.

India has a population of over 1.2 billion with more than 80 percent being Hindu. Christians are roughly 2.3 percent of the country’s gigantic population.