Revisiting And Looking Beyond The Apocalypse In Orissa
India is a land of unimaginable diversities and infinite varieties. It is a country with at least 18 major languages, over 400 important dialects and over 4000 ethnic communities or castes or endogamous groups. India is a multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-regional civilisation without a parallel. It is a land that is the home to four of the world’s major religions. It welcomed Christianity long before Europe embraced it. St. Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity to the legendary seaport of Muziris on the Kerala coast in AD 52, long before the Vatican was Christianised. On 3rd December,1955, our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru aptly observed in the Lok Sabha,
‘Christianity is as old in India as the religion itself and that, as a religion, it found its roots in India before it went to countries like England, Portugal and Spain…Christianity is as much a religion of the Indian soil as any other religion in India.’
Tolerance of different religions has been an intrinsic and integral part of the Indian tradition. India has always offered sanctuary to refugees escaping religious persecution. Over the years, there has been a tremendous impress of oneness, which has bound all of us together in an indivisible unity, whatever political fate or misfortune may have befallen us. India is the land of Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavir, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananada, Guru Govind Singh and Mother Teresa. Our venerable Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a strong pitch for maintaining communal peace and religious harmony and has emphasised that his government would strongly act against all acts of religious violence. Speaking at the celebration of the elevation to Sainthood of Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia on17th February,2015 in Delhi, Modi proudly proclaimed,
‘The tradition of welcoming all faiths in India is as old as India itself..We believe that there is truth in every religion. This is critical for peace and harmony in the nation.’
However, as long back as 1963, just a year before his death, Nehru sounded a note of caution to the nation when he declared without mincing words,
‘The real danger to India is Hindu right-wing communalism.’
Let me now turn straightaway to the unsavoury tides and currents of events in Orissa. On 22nd January,1999, the honorific Australian Christian missionary Dr.Graham Staines and his two minor sons Timothy and Philip were stealthily trapped whilst they were sleeping in their Willis station wagon at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district in Orissa and burned alive by a barbaric mob led by one Dara Singh, a local leader of an extremist group in Orissa. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister of India, severely condemned the ‘ghastly attack’ and called for a decisive action to catch the killers. In its annual human rights reports for 1999, the United States Department of State castigated India for ‘increasing societal violence against Christians.’ The report listed over 90 incidents of anti-Christian violence, ranging from damage to religious property to violence against Christian pilgrims. By a common judgment and order dated 15th September,2003 and 22nd September,2003, the Sessions Judge, Khurda, convicted Singh to death by hanging for killing Staines and his two sons. On 19th May, 2005, the Orissa High Court commuted Singh’s death sentence to life imprisonment. On 21st January, 2011, the Supreme Court of India in a controversial 76-page judgement upheld the life sentence against Singh. Dismissing the Central Bureau of Investigation’s plea for death penalty to Singh, the Supreme Court endorsed the Orissa High Court’s finding that his crime did not fall under the ‘rarest of rare cases’ category. The Supreme Court lashed out strongly against the practice of conversion and, inter alia, observed,
‘In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while they were sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity.’
However, four days later, on 25th January, 2011, the Supreme Court in a rare, unparalleled volte-face expunged its own comments with regard to conversion from the judgement.
On 24th December, 2007, whilst Christians in Orissa were anxiously gearing up to celebrate Christmas Day, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a fanatical member of a fundamentalist organization and his supporters brutally attacked and destroyed many Christian churches and prayer centres. A large number of Christians were injured and made homeless in the communally sensitive district of Kandhamal. Exactly eight months later, on 23rd August,2008, the Swami was gunned down by tribal revolutionary Maoists. Fundamentalist organisations with vested interests were quick to accuse Christians of masterminding the murder of the Swami. This was followed by the simultaneous unleashing of violent attacks on a large number of churches, prayer centres, convents, hospitals, dispensaries and vehicles in Orissa on the evening of 25th August,2008, reminiscent of Hitler’s attack on Jewish establishments and synagogues in the city of Berlin and other cities in Germany and Austria on the night of 9th November,1938 that came to be infamously known as ‘Krystal Nacht’. The rampaging mobs flagrantly defied the curfew and forced everyone and everything to shut down, bringing life to a standstill and the hapless state virtually to its knees. The violence that followed spread to more than 600 villages in 14 of the 30 districts in the state, resulting in 5,600 Christian houses being burnt and 54,000 Christians being rendered homeless. At least 38 Christian people were murdered, while 18,000 were injured. Human rights groups estimated 100 deaths, including women and children. 295 churches and places of worship were destroyed along with 13 schools and colleges and the offices of 5 non-profit organizations. Thousands of Christians were forced to flee their villages and some 5,000 people were forced to take shelter in hastily assembled relief camps. On 12th October 2008, Pope Benedict XVI criticized the continuing anti-Christian violence in India. On 13th October 2008, the National Integration Council of India called a special meeting chaired by Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister of India, and raised its voice against the rapidly spreading anti-Christian violence in India. On 28th October,2008, the Vatican called upon the memory of Mahatma Gandhi for an end to the religious violence in Orissa. In a written address to Hindus, the Vatican implored Christian and Hindu leaders to foster a belief in non-violence.
The states of Chattisgarh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal and Jammu & Kashmir have witnessed similar ethnic attacks on Christians and Christian churches and other institutions. Several churches have been attacked in Delhi like St. Sebastian Church, which was set on fire on 1st December,2014. A church in Mangalore was attacked on 24th February, 2015. On 13th March, 2015, a 71 year old Catholic nun was gang raped in Ranaghat, West Bengal, pursuant to an attack on a convent school in which the school’s chapel was ransacked and sacred items stolen. The next day, a church building under construction was demolished in Haryana’s Hisar district. St. George Catholic Church in Navi Mumbai was also attacked by masked persons. In the same month, St.Peter & Paul Cathedral of Jabalpur was attacked and more than a dozen people were injured. In April,2015, St. Mary’s Church in Agra was vandalised and statues of Mother Mary and the Infant Jesus were damaged. On 20th June,2015, a nun was sexually assaulted in Raipur, Chattisgarh. A church and it’s pastor and his pregnant wife were attacked by a mob during a Sunday Service in the Kachna area of Raipur and five people were injured when they resisted the miscreants. Citing 85 major incidents of persecution of Christians across 20 states last year, a report by the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF), a reputed minority and human rights NGO, revealed that 2015 saw an unprecedented spurt in ‘intolerance’ against the community. The report stated that on an average India saw one such incident of hate crime against Christians every single day. The CSF in its report claimed that at least seven pastors were killed and 8,000 Christians (including 6,000 women and children) were targeted in 2015.The first six weeks of 2016 have witnessed a fresh outburst of anti-Christian violence in India with nearly 30 incidents of religiously motivated violence against Christians in just over two months. Lamentably, the Christian victims in Orissa are still awaiting justice and rehabilitation.
On 1st February,1986, Pope John Paul II came on an apostolic pilgrimage to India. Shortly after landing in Delhi, he visited Rajghat where he paid his personal tribute to Gandhi in a historic address to the world,
‘The figure of Mahatma Gandhi and the meaning of his life’s work have penetrated the consciousness of humanity..He who lived by non-violence appeared to be defeated by violence. For a brief moment the light seemed to have gone out. Yet his teachings and the example of his life live on in the minds and hearts of millions of men and women. Yes, the light is still shining, and the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi speaks to us still. And today as a pilgrim of peace I have come here to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi, hero of humanity…From this place, which is forever bound to the memory of this extraordinary man, I wish to express to the people of India and of the world my profound conviction that the peace and justice of which contemporary society has such great need will be achieved only along the path which was at the core of his teaching: the supremacy of the spirit and Satyagraha, the “truthforce”, which conquers without violence by the dynamism intrinsic to just action..The power of truth leads us to recognize with Mahatma Gandhi the dignity, equality and fraternal solidarity of all human beings, and it prompts us to reject every form of discrimination. It shows us once again the need for mutual understanding acceptance and collaboration between religious groups in the pluralist society of modern India and throughout the world…From this place, which belongs in a sense to the history of the entire human family, I wish, however, to reaffirm the conviction that with the help of God the construction of a better world, in peace and justice, lies within the reach of human beings. But the leaders of peoples, and all men and women of good will, must believe and act of the belief that the solution lies within the human heart: “from a new heart, peace is born”… Mahatma Gandhi reveals to us his own heart as he repeats today to those who listen: “The law of love governs the world… Truth triumphs over untruth. Love conquers hate”…Mahatma Gandhi taught that if all men and women, whatever the differences between them, cling to the truth, with respect for the unique dignity of every human being, a new world order – a civilization of love – can be achieved. And today we hear him still pleading with the world: “Conquer hate by love, untruth by truth, violence by suffering”.’
On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti on 2nd October, 1951, Nehru said in an emotional speech in Delhi,
‘If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both as the head of the Government and from outside.’
That should be the spirit of every Indian if we are to arrest the most unhealthy drift of events in Orissa and other states. As Indians, we must remember that what sustains us is the thought expressed so evocatively upon an ancient rock edict of our titanic Emperor Ashoka. The words of this edict resonate even today,
‘The faiths of all deserve to be honoured for one reason or another. By honouring them one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others. By acting otherwise, one injures one’s own faith and does disservice to that of others.’
Supreme Court of India