By Elise Harris
Though it has been almost a decade since a spat of violence left nearly 100 Christians dead in the Indian state of Odisha, it’s still foggy as to whether or not things have improved.
Themina Arora, a lawyer in India who has helped with rehabilitation efforts since the 2008 attacks, says that while there has been no large-scale outbreak of violence, targeted attacks against both Muslims and Christians are still happening on a regular basis.
“What we continue to see (is) physical violence, sexual assault, rapes, murders, desecration of churches and a lot of threats and intimidations,” she told CNA.
Arora said 121 incidents were recorded from January through November 2015 – but she is far from having received all the reports.
She expects the number to go up before the year is over, because “Christmastime unfortunately gets a little violent,” since people are out on the street and more visible.
Arora was in Rome last week participating in a Dec. 10-12 conference titled “Under Caesar’s Sword: An International Conference on Christian Response to Persecution.”
She participated in a panel discussion Dec. 12, during which she referred to the 2008 Odisha attacks as “the worst in independent India.”
Following the August 2008 murder of Swami Lakshmanananda, leader of the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization Vishna Hindu Parishad, Hindu fundamentalists attacked the Christian minority in Kandhamal district of Odisha, whom they blamed for the murder.
In the months that followed, nearly 100 Christians were killed for refusing to convert to Hinduism and 56,000 people were displaced, taking refuge in forests where they were susceptible to starvation and deadly insect bites. Some 6,500 houses and 395 churches were destroyed, and about 10,000 people have still not returned due to fear of reprisals.
Arora recounted how in talking with the victims firsthand, she found out that some had converted to Christianity and were targeted for it. She also heard tales of people who lost everything; wallets stolen, homes destroyed, families attacked, yet when it came to their faith would say, “of course we’re Christian.”
She told CNA that the process of recovery “has been very slow,” and that as a lawyer she is still working to win compensation for those who lost their homes and property, as well as to make convictions in the cases of murder.
While there has been no widespread attack on the level seen in Odisha in 2008, pockets of violence remain a common phenomenon in India.
Concern has particularly arisen over a spike in the number of attacks against Christians and Muslims since the May 2014 election of Narendra Modi as prime minister.
After Modi took office the country saw a sharp rise in the number of attacks carried out against people and property, most of them perpetrated by the radical Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, also referred to as the RSS, or the “the Sangh.”
The group, which has been described as “fundamentalist” and “violent,” sits on the right-wing and has no official, legal registration in India. However they maintain strong ties with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi has been criticized for his silence regarding the attacks, which have continued to take place against the Christian and Muslim minorities, as well as their property.
A part from a tweet or two, Modi has been silent largely silent, despite numerous calls for him to utter some sort of condemnation. As a full-time worker with the group, many are concerned that Modi is giving them a free pass.
Concern has also been voiced that police are dismissive of the cases that are brought to them, though Arora says this is true regardless of whether the case is one involving persecution or robbery or some other crime.
Police in India, she said, are “generally reluctant” to file complaints since they must be accompanied by an official investigation, which can be difficult to carry out and mean extra work and headaches.
Of the cases she has seen which have gone through, Arora said the forensic evidence that was gathered, such as the DNA testing of bones and the forensic evidence of the bones collected after bodies had been burned, “had not been properly done, so it came back with inconclusive results.”
Additionally, she said that the names and ages of witnesses had not been properly recorded, which meant that their testimonies couldn’t be disputed in court.
“So those were real struggles and I think to that extent the situation still stands” for many of the victims of Odisha, she said, explaining that Muslim victims could say something similar, and that in many of their cases, the evidence “was not robust enough to result in convictions.”
Since mob violence makes it more difficult to find the concrete evidence of the exact persons involved, Arora said she understands “the complexities” involved, but affirmed that even so, police ought to be “more diligent overall” in ensuring a rule of law.
Due to the long process and high costs that arise from the investigations and paying a lawyer, churches with limited resources are finding it difficult to advance their cases when incidents occur, Arora noted, explaining that this is also an area of concern she is trying to work with.
Part of the problem with hostilities against Christians and Muslims, she said, is that the law “isn’t being used properly,” and that when certain communities decide to waive their rights, “they begin to get watered down.”
She recounted a few cases of churches being shut down for either a few days or for several months due to a misinterpretation of the law. However, after intervening in the cases, she was able to help re-open the churches within a matter of days.
Arora said that she has seen several recent success stories which have been a source of encouragement, and suggested that in some cases the law could actually be on the side of those facing persecution, but it simply isn’t being properly used.