Shabnam Hashmi, Managing Trustee and Executive Secretary of Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD), member of the National Integration Council of India's Ministry of Home Affairs and a Council Member of the National Literacy Mission reports on the situation in Orissa:
Visit To OrissaBy Shabnam Hashmi
06 September, 2008
I went to Orissa for two days as part of a delegation. We were not allowed to enter Kandhamal. We met a large number of victims in Bhubaneshwar, met the governor and the local civil society members as well as priests of various churches.
Visit to Kandhamal next week depends on the fact whether the Govt will permit us to go there or not. VHP’s Togadia has been allowed to go and add more fuel to the fire.
This account is based on the testimonies of:
8 priests and over 300 families who hid in thick forests without water and food, with small hungry children, with thousands of mosquitoes and other insects and who walked over 280 kilometers to reach Bhubaneshwar with just the set of clothes that they were wearing. It took them 5 days to reach the city.
It is not safe to give the names or addresses of those who testified before us as even now VHP and the other Sangh organisations are still attacking the villages , burning houses, shops and churches, catching people, tonsuring them, forcing them to sign that they have become Hindus.
It is an Indian tradition to talk with respect about those who have departed from this world. Pray that their soul may rest in peace.
Swami Laxmananda Saraswati was killed on August 23rd, 2008 at the VHP ashram in Jalespata, Kandhamal, Orissa. A large number of organisations across India condemned the attack and his killing.
While condemning every violent act and his killing there is a need to look at his work and message before making him a martyr.
The swami came to Kandhamal in 1969. He travelled from village to village initially contacting the business community, organising poojas and bhajans, which very soon turned into inflammatory messages against the local Christian community. Initially in 1970es the attacks came on smaller villages. The first organised attack came in 1987. People from 6-7 villages were collected together to attack a village which had a large Christian population. Under his leadership 16 churches were burnt down in 1986-87. There were 56 cases registered for this but Swami was not arrested. Not even under the ‘secular’ governments. The sheer fact that none of the political parties touched him, due to their deep concern for the ‘Hindu’ vote, he got emboldened and his campaigns became more aggressive and vicious.
While Christians were attacked using the bogey of conversion, the VHP and the swami spearheaded the campaign to forcibly convert local animistic Tribals and Christian Tribals into Hindus, calling it ghar wapsi or reconversion as if the tribals were ever in the Hindu fold.
On January 22, 1999 Graham Stains and his two young sons were burnt to death by a Sangh sponsored mob in Keonjhar district of Orissa. Same year in September another Christian priest was killed in the village Jamudhi , also in Keonjhar district.
After Graham Stains was murdered by the Sangh goons instead of condemning the murder the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked for a national debate on conversion and within a week of that VHP printed and distributed over 5 million pamphlets full of vicious propaganda against the Christian minority. Similarly when the whole drama of the Shabri Kumbh was going on in the dang district of Gujarat where also Christians have been under attack since 1998, the VHP distributed vicious Cds against Christians. The distribution of the CDs was challenged by us in the Supreme Court through a PIL. Under the garb of doing educational and development work the sangh has opened Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams and Ekal Vidyalaya throughout the tribal belts in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Orissa. The VHP alone has over one lakh workers in Orissa. There are approximately 6000 RSS shakhas.
On December 24, 2007 violence broke out over Christmas celebrations in Kandhamal district. Attackers from VHP/ RSS came with axes, rods etc. hundreds of houses, Christian institutions, businesses, and properties were attacked and raised to the ground in the violence that continued for over a month. For years the administration has ignored the hate campaigns and the violence against the Christians. The VHP has not only been in the fore front of these violent attacks but has sowed the seeds of hatred by distributing highly provocative material against the Christian community.
Swami Laxmananda Saraswati was killed on August 23rd, 2008 allegedly by Maoists. VHP declared a bandh on August 25, 2008. His body was taken in a procession travelling close to 150 kilometers accompanied by a VHP mob and the police and administration. It stopped in front of many churches, raising highly abusive and provocative slogans, attacking the churches, Christian institutions breaking glasses, furniture, attacking people, while the police looked on including the highest officers of the state and the district.
After the December 2007 violence many organisations had come together and worked for relief and fought legal battles for the victims. Such organisations and individuals were especially targeted. Janvikas office was attacked thrice. All five organisations fighting for Dalit human rights were attacked: Janvikas, Gramiya Progoti, Pobara, Pollishree, Ajka. Tribal leaders heading the Dalit Adivasi Vikas Initiative, Phulbani Action Group and Forum for Peace and Justice were attacked. All shops were attacked. The initial number of attackers was 200-300 which swelled to 500-600. The mob comprised of mainly he business community led by hard core VHP leaders. AS the mob moved from one village to the second the number increased as local Sangh members kept adding to the mob. Some tribals also joined the attackers. Dasrath Pradhan died on the spot and Trinath Digal, who had taken out his goats for grazing was chased and his head was smashed with a stone. He died. Vikram Naik was attacked. He died after 3 days. Parikrit Naik was attacked on 25th. He managed to run and hide in the forest. After two days in the forest he decided to escape to safety. He was caught again and attacked, hacked into two and burnt.
People were taken out from their homes and huddled together and forced to sign the papers that they are becoming Hindus or face the consequences.
In Mondosore village around 10am on August 24th people from nearby villages gathered with knives, swords, weapons and collected near a temple about 1km away from the village. They were shouting provocative and abusive slogans against the Christians and inciting people to attack them. The mob blocked all the routes for going out from the village by felling huge logs and tree trunks on the roads. A huge mob gathered by now near the Shiv temple. The priest and nuns from the church ran to the jungle but they came back at 7pm once it was dark. Some people advised them to leave so they went to padri village. But the mobs came to know about their hiding places and they had to leave again, this time splitting in two groups and changing their hiding places but with no luck. No place was safe. The people who gave them shelter, including local tribals, their lives were threatened. The priest was escorted by a local man with a knife to the forest after crossing a stream. During the night about 60 women and children came to the same forest to hide and the nuns from the church also found their way to the forest hiding place. There was a hut nearby where everyone crowded in but there was no place even to sit. Around midnight the church bell started ringing. This was a signal that things were not right. The whole group moved to another area near the village but still under cover. They could see the village shops on fire, they could hear small bombs, shouting & screaming. More people came towards the forest to escape the attack. Through them came the news of shops belonging to Christians being burnt and one person was killed by the attackers.
Around 6am the priest, 4 nuns and two orphan children decided to move to another place. They started walking, climbing mountains. Till 3 pm they walked for10kilometers and not reaching anywhere. Then they decided to rather die than get lost in the forest. When they came out they were near village Koroda. The people stared at them and they thought the end was near when a person on a motorcycle came and stopped near them. He was well built and there was a thin person at the back. The motorcyclist was a Hindu while the pillion rider a Christian. He took turns to transport them to a safer place in turns from where they managed to reach Bhubaneshwar.
Another priest from the Phulbani headquarters expecting trouble after the swami’s killing transferred all the records to his Hindu friends’ houses. When the procession with the dead body arrived he hid in a nearby house while the others were asked to leave and hide behind the church. Sunday morning mob of 4000 people accompanied the procession. It was 7.30am. DIG, Collector, Police accompanied the procession. The mob broke the wall, smashed everything in the church and the residence. They started throwing stones. It was after some stones hit the police that they started a mild lathi charge. Local youth searched for the priest, nuns and other workers. Around 9am another lot came and started banging he door. Some of the boys who wee hiding came out and they were immediately beaten. The priest hid in a broken toilet. The mob came to the house where they were told he was hiding but never checked the toilet so he was saved. After one hour he came out on the road and asked for shelter in a house. Three houses refused, forth gave him shelter. The mob almost immediately reached there. The owners hid him in the kitchen but their house was attacked and broken down. Mob left only after 9pm. After they left the priest rushed to his house. His land phone was ringing and his assistant was on the line. He was hiding in the forest. Using a ladder the priest jumped behind the church and with the help of the light from the mobile phone found his was into the forest. Tuesday morning they started moving to another place in the forest when they by chance came across a hut belonging to a Hindu woman whom the priest had helped earlier. She and her daughter took them in, prepared food for them and fed them.
27th morning at 4 am they again went back to the church and contacted every taxi service but no one agreed to take them. Then the news came that another father is severely beaten and is being rushed to Bhubaneshwar in an ambulance. The same ambulance brought them to the city along with the patient.
We were able to talk to a few of the hundreds of women, children and men who ran from various villages and hid in the forests for days without food. They were from 15 different villages but the stories were the same. Their houses were attacks by mobs ranging from 300-500 people-all from the surrounding gram panchayats and villages. They came with axes and knives, with diesel, blocked all exit roots so that no one could escape in any vehicle. Burnt down houses, attacked churches, burnt tyres on the roads, beat up people. A young woman said that they have been told very clearly that they will be allowed into the village if and only if they become Hindus. She reached Bhubaneshwar on 31st along with others from the village, walking over 200 kilometres. Many of the victims narrated that the violence broke out with the arrival of the swami’s body in each village. In all instances police was present with the procession.
This account is based only on the testimonies for those who managed to escape and reach Bhubaneshwar. The situation is very serious in Orissa and only a full fact finding team can come out with full details after it is allowed to enter those areas.