At least five Indian villagers, one a five-month old child and two believed to be Pentecostal Christians, were killed July 8 when security personnel deployed in anti-Maoist operations in the Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Odisha opened fire on them.
Preliminary reports said that a car carrying the villagers returning from a local market to their homes came under crossfire between security personnel and Maoists in a nearby forest, which was the site of a police operation.
Officials insisted the shooting was a mistake, though some Christian locals are skeptical because of the history of anti-Christian violence in the area. In 2008, riots driven by militant Hindu nationalism in Kandhamal left 100 Christians dead, thousands injured and homeless, and hundreds of churches and other Christian properties destroyed.
“The local police had information that some Maoists would be passing on the route late in the evening,” said Pinak Mishra, the Superintendent of Police for Kandhamal.
“Along with the Central Reserve Police Force, the security personnel had positioned themselves for an ambush on the rebels. During an exchange of fire between the security personnel, the auto-rickshaw came under the firing line,” Mishra said.
“Since the spot where the exchange of fire took place happens to be an inaccessible pocket and there is no mobile network, we are still not clear about the details of the casualities,” he said. “Our men are in touch with the local villagers. We will surely probe if the people were killed in the firing by security personnel or Maoists.”
“A search operation is in progress after the firing incident,” Mishra said. “We are yet to receive detailed information about the matter.
Father Ajaya Kumar Singh, a Catholic Priest and Director of the Odisha Forum for Social Action in Bhubaneswar, expressed skepticism, noting that the area where the shooting took place is well-known to be dominated by impoverished members of India’s underclasses as well as by Christians.
Singh dismissed claims of specific intelligence of a Maoist presence.
“I feel it is a conspiracy to create terror and to keep the dalits and adivasi as well as minorities under fear,” Singh said, referring to the “untouchables” under the old caste system as well as other low-caste groups, both of which tend to be disproportionately Christian.
During the 2008 riots, he said, “the state government also claimed it was intelligence failures.”
“I believe the intelligence agencies as well as the state administration have succumbed to caste-communal forces, which feed well-calculated rumors of Maoists to ensure a security presence, so they can continue to reign in the area without being challenged.”
Singh suggested that aside from bias against minorities, the police and state government also want to protect business interests in the area.
“For the intelligence agencies, it’s [a matter of] pay and perks, while for the state it is huge business,” he said.