2008 was a year Catholics in the Indian state of Odisha suffered a terrible suppression at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists intent on extinguishing the presence of Christianity. Murders, the burning of buildings and homes, the public rape of Christian women; these atrocities were committed in the state’s Khandamal district to force the faithful of the local Church to convert or leave.
During a recent visit to the headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Ajay Kumar Singh of the Odisha Forum for Social Action advocated for the suppressed Christians of that state. “After 10 years there is hardly any justice for these communities,” said Father Singh.
The Catholic priest declared that the attacks of 2008 were the worst the country has seen in 300 years. “The violence claimed 101 lives, more than 350 churches were destroyed, 7500 houses were reduced to ashes, scores of convents, presbyteries, dispensaries and 13 humanitarian organisations were also attacked and vandalised. The riots spread to 450 villages in Khandamal district alone.”
As time moves on buildings are rebuilt; the news headlines change, memories fade. But what is the state of the Christian community in Odisha and around India 10 years on?
In 2014, six years after the Khandamal attacks, the “secularist” Indian National Congress party was voted out of power, in favour of the nationalist party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Dogged by allegations of citing sectarian violence since 2002 when Hindus and Muslims clashed in the state of Gujarat, the BJP has overseen more than a doubling of incidences of reported attacks against Christians in the three years to 2017 with 147 being reported in 2013, the year before the change of government, to 351 last year. According to Father Singh’s research, physical attacks and harassment against Christians and other minorities are at historically high levels in the country. The number of unreported cases is undocumented.
Fr Singh points to a growing phenomenon in India: decades old laws outlawing the slaughter of cows (animals considered sacred in Hinduism) and the procurement or storage of beef, even within the confines of private, non-Hindu homes have recently been “policed” by vigilante groups, resulting in lynchings or severe beatings for those who contravene them. The so-called “beef lynchings” have been reported not only in Odisha but several states throughout India. Following the figures collected by the human rights defender, 86% of the victims of mob lynching for carrying or eating beef are Muslims. 97% of all incidents occurred over the last three years since the BJP assumed power in 2014.
Though founded on a constitution that allows freedom of religion and acknowledgement of the dignity of all its citizens, the judiciary of India still appears to have a tiered class system and discriminates against Christians and people who belong to lower castes. Most of the Christian population of India are comprised of so-called low castes, thereby compounding their disadvantage when caught in a legal matter, either as complainant or defendant.
In his talk to the pontifical foundation ACN Father Singh stated it is also common that aside from the courts finding in favour of the party with an “Indian origin” religion, the police are less likely to act in cases of violence perpetrated against Christians. The extra judiciary nature of complaints against Christians (fabrications are common), and the ad hoc fashion of investigations leave members of religious minorities without concrete pathways to access justice, and as illiteracy is high among the poor there is little recourse to record instances of injustice. “It is easy for authorities to dismiss complaints of systemic injustice as made up or exaggerated”.
Data collected in the Religious Freedom Report 2016 published by Aid to the Church in Need has indicated that of the 22 countries placed in the ‘Persecution’ category, India is one of six that shows evidence of widespread and serious problems caused by authoritarian states. This is the reality of the Christians of India. A spouse is vulnerable to divorce proceedings and the revoking of parental rights solely on the grounds of conversion after conversion to Christianity. Catholics are not preferred tenants when seeking housing. The list of discriminations is long.
“Freedom of religion needs to be taken care of,” said Father Singh. “These anti-conversion laws are against human rights and human dignity. India was a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It is also a part of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, so it accepts human rights. These cannot be scrapped.”
“I do recognise that Aid to the Church In Need has played a very important role in the aftermath of the violence, we are grateful to you for extending your support and solidarity for the victims’ survival.”
“We wish that those who are martyrs, for those who have been affected by these issues, who have been attacked; there should be international public hearing, so that this issue could be highlighted and a lesson learned from this.”
“I do fear the next violence: it could be horrible. There should be no second Khandamal repeated in India”, concludes Father Singh.