MUMBAI – “Kandhamal Day” was observed August 25th in Bhubaneshwar, India, recalling a series of riots in eastern India in 2008 that left more than 100 people dead and scores injured, mostly rural Christians from the country’s socially marginalized Dalit and Tribal groups.
The event was organized by civil society organizations “with the intention to build up public opinion [in favor of] justice and peace for marginalized communities in Kandhamal and other areas,” said Father Madan Singh of the Bhubaneshwar Archdiocesan Social Center, who’s also a member of a four-person committee exploring a beatification cause for the Catholic martyrs of Kandhamal.
In August 2008, mobs of militant Hindus set upon a series of Christian villages in the eastern Indian district of Kandhamal, incensed by rumors that Christians had killed a local Hindu holy man. (It later emerged that the holy man had actually been assassinated by Maoist guerillas in the area.)
The victims were largely Dalit, meaning the “untouchables” under the old caste system, and Tribals, meaning members of the country’s indigenous groups.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai stated, “the Church in India stands in prayerful solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Odisha,” referring to the state in which Kandhamal is located.
“It is eight years since the horrific attack on our Khandhamal Christians, and the Indian Church suffers the painful anguish of the orchestrated communal violence,” Gracias said, a member of Pope Francis’ council of nine cardinal advisers. “We continue to seek justice for the survivors and victims.”
There was a minute’s silence at the beginning of the program in honor of Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, who died at 81 last week. Cheenath was in charge of the Bhubaneshwar archdiocese at the time of the violence, and went on to become an outspoken champion of the rights of its victims.
One key theme to surface repeatedly during the day was that although religion served as a pretext for the riots, in reality the forces behind the mayhem, which most speakers believe were allied with Indian’s current right-wing Hindu nationalist government, were actually attempting to consolidate political and economic power by pitting communities against one another.
“The violence on Kandhamal,” as Singh put it, “was violence on the Indian Constitution.”
A summary of the meeting issued after the fact asserted, “In the name of nationalism and patriotic propaganda, fascism is going on throughout India, which is a serious threat to Indian democracy.”
Dhirendra Panda, coordinator of a group called the National Solidarity Forum, said that while the survivors and victims are still waiting for justice after 8 years, perpetrators have yet to be brought before the law. Most of those arrested for direct involvement in the violence have either been acquitted or are out on bail.
Panda noted that meanwhile, some innocent people are still languishing in jail, charging that there have been fabricated cases against several innocent Dalits.
“Kandhamal Day” was observed on a few different days in different parts of the country.
The Odisha Catholic Bishops’ Council (OCBC) have named the day as “Kandhamal Victims’ Day,” to be observed on August 30, 2016, although noted activist Father Ajaya Singh objects to the term “victim” in the title.
“It’s not the right word for us” he told Crux. Singh stressed that “observing the day is important – to secure justice, peace, and harmony in the region. And also to show solidarity and alliance building so that there is no repeat of Kandhamal and of course, to encourage each other.”
India’s Supreme Court issued a verdict on August 2 on an appeal filed by Cheenath shortly before his death to enhance compensation paid to the victims of the violence, with an additional $4,476 to widows of those killed, $10,444 for a destroyed home, $447 for a partially damaged home, and $447 to people injured in the riots.
315 cases related to the riots are to be reopened and 78 acquittals could be reexamined. The court also ordered the strengthening of policing infrastructure in the Kandhamal district, creating new police stations and hiring additional staff.
The state government has created 750 special police officers for the district, and the new post of Superintendent of Police for Kandhamal has been created along with a reserve Inspector General. Forty stations have been upgraded, and physical infrastructure has been strengthened with the building of 100-man barracks in each station in the district.
There was disappointment, however, that the court had not directed any additional money for damaged churches, NGO offices, and public institutions.
Sister Meena Barwa, who was raped amid the violence in 2008, said simply that, “For me, suffering is sign of love. This suffering purifies, elevates, this suffering is going to bring Glory. Because Jesus considers all suffering.”