MUMBAI, India – What happened ten years ago in Kandhamal, India, “should never have happened and should never happen again,” according to Archbishop John Barwa.
Kandhamal is a district of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa, where an orgy of violence descended upon the impoverished Christian minority in August 2008.
A series of riots led by radical Hindus left roughly 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced, many forced to hide in nearby forests where more died of hunger and snakebites.
Barwa, the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said the pogrom “will always remain a black spot in the history of the traditionally peace-loving people of Odisha and independent India.”
“What was heartbreaking was that the massacre of the innocents continued unabated for months. The attackers snuffed out human lives, destroyed and demolished churches, homes, schools, hospitals, dispensaries, offices, and centers working for the improvement and development of the poor and marginalized people especially the tribals, dalits, OBC [other backward class] and others. Women and young girls were gang raped and thousands had to flee to the jungles in fear and despair,” the archbishop said in a statement.
Dalits are the former “untouchables” of the Hindu caste system, while India’s Tribal people live outside the caste system, and therefore face discrimination.
Both Tribals and Dalits have long been at the bottom of society in terms of income, literacy, and life opportunities, and, in one of the typical pathologies of poverty, tensions between the two groups are common.
The Christian population of the area is almost entirely Tribal and Dalit, and still suffers discrimination and harassment to this day.
“The Christian community believes in a God who is the God of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. We remember even after ten years how much harm hatred and anger can do to our society. We wish to remember what happened so that it never happens again,” Barwa said.
The riots hit the archbishop close to home: Barwa’s niece, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, a Catholic nun of the Servite order, was in Kandhamal when she and a local priest were dragged into the streets by frenzied attackers shouting, “Kill Christians!”
She was raped by at least one member of the mob before being paraded through the streets to the howls of the crowd.
“Life is full of challenges and blessings for me which I face only to get more blessings and experience miracles. ‘God is able to Provide you with every blessing in abundance’(2 Cor 9-8). This is what I have experienced and will experience the days to come,” Sister Meena told Crux.
However, the nun said her parents and siblings are still suffering because of what happened to her.
“They experienced intense fear and insecurity even after ten years, but they found strength in God. They prayed constantly at home and grew closer to Him,” she said.
“Great is my parents faith in God. They were traumatized, but their answer was only God. They loved me even more… yes,” Sister Meena said.
In August 2016, India’s Supreme Court ordered the state government to re-investigate 315 cases of violence reported during the riots, where police did not follow up on reported crimes, or the perpetrators were not prosecuted.
The 315 cases concerned are instances in which reports were made to the police but were not followed through or did not result in prosecution of the offenders.
Sister Meena’s own case is still ongoing, which she said “bothers” her.
“Many things in my life have changed,” she told Crux.
“I better understand the value of life and value of suffering. Suffering is not really negative for me. It is the process to refine, to make you humble and grow as better human being. Someone said rightly that when you are in darkest that you are able to go the deepest of your own being. And that helps you to understand better the other one too. It’s something beautiful,” the nun continued.
Throughout her ordeal, Sister Meena found solace in her faith.
“I suffered loneliness, I was frustrated, I was terribly frightened, I have so many questions. I was ashamed and humiliated,” she said. “For all these Jesus is the answer and solution. In him I find refuge and consolation. I love reading the Holy Bible and feel consoled and at peace. At times I have felt every cell in my body kneel down before God and sing aloud in praise and worship.”
The Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in collaboration with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) organized a Kandhamal Memorial Holy Mass for Reconciliation for Aug. 25 to pray for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
“Over the past one decade, the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar has remained close to the victims, and has been the prime driving force for the legal processes to seek justice for the victims and relief for those who have suffered,” the archbishop said.