By UCA News
By John Dayal
(UCA News) — Christians in India, and the country’s civil society, are bemused at the June 22 papal meeting with visiting Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Pattnaik. The chief minister is the second important Indian political figure after Prime Minister Narendra Modi to have been granted a papal meeting in the Vatican.
Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had sought permission from the government of India, as is the official protocol, to go to the Vatican, but permission was denied. Banerjee, in the eyes of the people, had impeccable credentials to be allowed a trip to Rome and the Vatican.
She had known Mother Teresa in life in Calcutta, now Kolkata. And although a minister in the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, she has had good relations with Christians and other religious minorities in her state.
Pattnaik has several prominent Christians as members of his Biju Janata Dal but the record of his state and his government has been terrible as far as the community, consisting mostly of tribal people and Dalits, is concerned.
Major incidents of anti-Christian violence at the turn of the century and then in 2007-08 have earned Odisha global notoriety. The international community was reluctant thereafter to invest in the state.
It is widely believed in the state’s Christian circles that Pattnaik wanted to call on Pope Francis to send a signal to international companies that his government would keep tight control on hate campaigns and violence against religious communities.
Pattnaik, however, has not really distanced himself from Modi or the BJP. On national issues, his party votes with the BJP. He is expected to vote for Modi’s nominee Draupadi Murmu, a tribal leader from Odisha, in the forthcoming presidential election.
But after his one experience of running a coalition government with the BJP in the state, Pattnaik has not allowed it to consolidate itself.
In the last two years, Pattnaik has spent much government money on a “heritage corridor” to improve public infrastructure attached to the 12th-century Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri city. The project will cost the exchequer 8,000 million Indian rupees (US$125 million), according to various estimates.
He also gave a few million rupees to the Muslim community for mosque repairs and infrastructure. The Catholic Church in Odisha is said to have been given less than 100 million rupees to add to the facilities at some churches in the big cities.
The chief minister, however, has refused to give any money for the repair or construction of new churches or infrastructure in the district of Kandhamal, which was the scene of ever-increasing violence since 1964, finally exploding in 2007-08. The violence was masterminded by Hindu nationalists, as the chief minister himself admitted in his state’s legislature.
Aug. 25 is commemorated every year as Kandhamal Day in this forest-clad plateau district. In 2008, the Christian community there, consisting of Kondh tribal people and Pano Dalits, was the target of a mass attack in the aftermath of the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, a vice-president of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) who was shot dead in his ashram by a militant Maoist group.
The initial fury of killings and arson lasted several days, its residual fires several weeks, touching several other regions. By the time the savagery subsided, more than 56,000 people had been displaced, half of them spending up to a year in refugee camps organized by the government and civil groups.
A hundred or more people were hacked to death or burned alive. Forty women were raped or molested, among them a Catholic nun who was gang-raped. Several cases of forced conversion to Hinduism were also reported. Christians were reportedly expelled from over 400 villages, with some 5,600 houses and 395 or so big and small churches destroyed.
I have met women who gave birth to children in the forests where tigers can be heard and bears and elephants are routinely sighted. The trauma and displacement, which lasted more than a year, disrupted the education of 12,000 children.
The district magistrate banned Christian relief organizations from helping the victims of the violence. Archbishop Raphael Cheenath moved the Supreme Court of India, which ordered that relief be allowed.
Pattnaik’s government left much to be desired. Survivors submitted more than 3,300 complaints to the police. Only 820 or so of these were officially acknowledged and filed as official first information reports, the document which forms the basis of all criminal justice procedures in India. The rest of the complaints were perhaps thrown into the dustbin.
Of the complaints they did register, the police took 518 cases to court for trial. Judgments have been given in 247 cases. The accused persons in many cases were acquitted while the rest of the cases are pending. In cases where the criminals were actually convicted, most were soon out on bail.
But early notoriety for Odisha came in the burning alive of Australian leprosy worker Graham Stuart Staines and his two young sons, Timothy and Philips, in Mayurbhanj in the early hours of Jan. 23, 1999.
The Staines family had medical facilities for patients with Hansen’s disease, which was endemic. Graham, his nurse wife Gladys and their daughter and two sons, all under 15 years, were popular among tribal people. He would often drive to villages in the forest to meet the people.
It was during one such visit, when the father and sons were sleeping in their jeep, that they were surrounded by a mob led by Dara Singh, a leader of the militant Bajrang Dal. They set fire to the vehicle and beat the three back into the flames as they tried to jump out of the jeep, burning them alive.
Dara Singh was sentenced to death, but a high court reduced it to a life term in prison. The death of the three Australians made headlines across the globe. Since then, the state has been on the radar of human rights and freedom of faith agencies in Australia and the West.
Muslims have also been attacked by mobs led by Dara Singh who were targeting cattle traders. One of them was lynched.
Laws to prevent conversions to Christianity and Islam are a major political gambit of the BJP across the nation. States where the party is in control of the provincial governments such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Haryana have recently passed anti-conversion laws.
India’s ruling party is now threatening to bring a still unexplained Common Civil Code to replace the personal laws now governing Muslims, Christians, tribal people and some notified communities.
Civil society groups have been urging the Vatican to use its moral persuasion to see that India’s federal and state governments ensure constitutional guarantees of freedom of faith are not diluted.
Religious minorities, including Christians from Odisha’s Kandhamal, still await justice after a decade and a half.
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.