The events in Kandhamal in 2008 shook the entire country. The large number of tribal and Dalit Christians in this remote district of the then Orissa (now Odisha) state were subjected to months, even years of displacement, dispossession , death for a few and ‘forced conversion’ for those who remained, by the saffron forces which termed it ‘ghar wapsi’ or homecoming.
For Anto Akkara, a veteran journalist, writing on Kandhamal it has been a passion bordering on obsession for a number of years. When he first went to report on the violence triggered with the death of an elderly Hindu monk Swami Lakshmananda of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in his tiny ashram in Jalespata on 23rd August 2008, on Janmashtami (birthday of Sri Krishna) night, what he saw there became almost a personal crusade, and he ended up writing two books on the issue before the present one under review. He was also conferred with the Titus Bradma Award for Journalism, in Manila , Philippines, in 2013. [i]
The body of the slain Swamy was carried, despite prohibitory orders being in place, in a crisscross route across the district, for two days in a procession organized by Hindu fundamentalist leaders. Wherever the procession reached, the local population were motivated to organize themselves into lynch mobs and selectively attack the homes of the Christians. But as Akkara points out, these attacks were not the same as the communal conflagrations seen earlier in India, for instance, in Nellie, Assam 1983, Delhi 1984, or Mumbai 1992 or Gujarat 2002.
There, the victims were targeted for killing based on their religious or ethnic identity. Here, the objective of the mobs was not killing. It was to force the Christians on pain of death and rape ‘to give up your faith so that you can live in this Hindu country.’ Many have left their homes and lands, never to return, because the condition for return was to undergo a ‘conversion ceremony’ and live as Hindus, or forgo their homes and property. Many of them were third generation Christian, and not first-time converts to Christianity. The violence did not abate for months. The survivors lived in refugee camps, and government rehabilitation was hardly available. Few of the victims got closure as the police complaints filed were not adequately investigated and thus did not stand up in court. There was widespread intimidation of witnesses and falsification of evidence.
Anto Akkara travelled to Kanshamal dozens of times and produced two earlier documentations of the processes – and lapses – of rehabilitation and the injustices heaped on the survivors. He records that he was prompted to do this by the remark of a District collector during a 2008 Christmas gathering of the survivors in a camp where he was present, that he was not convinced by the accounts of the victims, who were telling “cooked-up stories.”
In this book Akkara highlights three important issues, in three parts. The first is, the events around the Kandhamal conflagration; the second records the ‘travesty of justice’ that transpired in the murder trial of the Swamy, making scapegoats of 7 innocent men totally unconnected with each other and the killing. It was delivered after two fast-track court judges were transferred when they appeared to be unconvinced by prosecution arguments, and was delivered by a third judge who took just a few short weeks to do the needful. The judgement – carried as Appendix 1 in the book – has been ripped apart by a number of legal experts who say that it will never stand scrutiny if it comes before the High Court – where the appeal has been pending since 2013 with no signs of moving forward – judicial delay, another systemic fault which deepens the victimisation. The convicts languish in jail meanwhile.
In Part 3 of the book, Akkara makes startling connections between the violence and the national-level plans of the BJP and sangh Parivar. He claims that the real reason for the violence against Christians was to force the hand of the Congress-led UPA government, with Sonia Gandhi as Congess President, to dismiss the state government as a response to the violence, and for the BJP to ride to power in Orissa in subsequent state elections on a sympathy wave. However, intelligence reports had already alerted the Centre to these plans intentions, and it did not rise to the bait and the existing Biju Janata Dal government stayed. But this Machiavellian scheme had still brought immense harm to thousands upon thousands of innocent people; institutions and communities had been destroyed.
In the final section, called Satyameva Jayate – Truth always Triumphs – he carries three appendices, the Judgement; Outline of the Brief Facts of the Case and the ‘Beticola Church Resolution’ in an alleged church Minute Book, which formed a key part of the evidence and purported to show how members of the church in Beticola met and ‘officially documented in writing’, their resolve to “offer sacrifice at the altar of the Lord, for His pleasure, within three coming 3 months, the Satanic activities (activists) that stand opposed to the expansion of the Work in all the Abbey circles of our Parish.” The resolution also gives the date to “execute the said decision No 1” (on) the 23rd day of August 2008. (!) This crucial piece of evidence was found to be forged, according to Santhosh Kumar Patnaik, Addl SP, Crime Branch, Cuttack, in his deposition to the Justice Naidu Commission on 25th June 2015[ii]. This the learned judge Tosh cites this as part of the evidence in his judgement dated 30th Sept 2013.
But the structure of the book and its presentation has serious flaws. Though it meticulously collects evidence, its presentation and arrangement and its sequencing are back to front. The writer lets the cat out of the bag in the very first instance by revealing in his Preface the details of his discovery of the conspiracy, of the saffron truth factory, but somehow fails to satisfactorily connect the production of the ‘Parker’ books with the events in Kandhamal. The discussion is scattered across the book and only after going back and forth is the reader able to get the whole picture. Even then, there are some hazy parts : since the seven people presently convicted did not do it, and since Maoists’ claims were not followed up and investigated, then who or how did the killing actually happen? The author offers no direct answer. The answer he hints at still begs the Maoists’ claim to have carried out the killing.
If the tone and language were less polemical and more analytical, the reader would find it easier to make the connections and get a more reasoned idea of the injustice. There could have been more systematic discussion of the way evidence had been cooked up.
Overall, however, the contents of the book are extremely disturbing to anyone concerned with the health of democracy and the rule of law anywhere in the world. How officials, the judicial system, the politicians and even the common people conspire to violate and enjoy impunity, and what is worse, make the innocent a scapegoat for these social crimes! Still, a ray of hope shines in the accounts of the people who were pulled into the pogroms and are now facing the consequences. They appear to have seen the downside of the emotional reactions they had shown, and say that such events are unlikely to happen again as they had learnt their lessons. We owe the author thanks for bringing out this work.
Cynthia Stephen is an independent writer and researcher
[i] instituted in the name of a Dutch Carmelite priest martyred for press freedom in Dachau, Germany in 1942, after being captured with a letter asking publishers of newspapers not to publish official Nazi propaganda.
[ii] The State government of Orissa appointed Justice Sarat Chandra Mohapatra to probe the killing of Swami Laxmananda and the subsequent riots in Kandhamal, but he passed away in 2012 before completing the report. Then Justice Naidu was appointed to conduct the enquiry and he submitted his report to the government on 22nd Dec 2015