By Justine Gitanjali Senapati
As I track recent Indian news on my social media and news portals, I come across stories about how India shuts down the valiant efforts of nongovernmental organizations that work for the most marginalized people and religious minority communities in India.
According to the January Human Rights News Bulletin from the Indian Social Institute, the Indian government canceled the licenses that allow several nonprofit organizations, including the Navsarjan Trust and Act Now for Harmony and Democracy, to receive funding from overseas. These are the two of the most respected organizations in India, working on issues that affect the Dalits and religious minorities.
The government claimed that the groups are conducting undesirable activities aimed disrupting “harmony” among regional groups, castes or communities. The state tries to belittle rights-based nongovernmental organizations.
The action is neither a stray nor an isolated incident. I am quite alarmed to know gory details of the suppression and repression of religious minorities, especially in the recent report submitted for United Nations review by the Christian Collective, a national coalition supporting Christians, peace and harmony. It is titled “Minorities on the Margins: Freedom of Religion or Belief of the Christian Communities in India.”
The report references perhaps the biggest attack on the Christian community in India in 300 years, violence that occurred in my native district of Kandhamal in the eastern state of Odisha in 2007 and in 2008. Nearly 100 people were killed. More than half of the minority Christian population was internally displaced; nearly 56,000 fled and took refuge in the hills, mountains and temporary relief camps. Almost 400 churches, institutions and health centers were destroyed, along with 6,500 houses. Women and children, including nuns, were among the worst affected by the violence.
The report submitted by the Christian Collective pointed out the continuing violence directed at women in India: “In recent years, while the Christian community in India, as a whole, has come under attack from Hindu fundamentalist groups, Christian women are specially targeted and are vulnerable to violent attacks on them due to their intersectional identities as Christians and as women. There is an increasing number of rapes and sexual assaults on Catholic nuns and Christian women.”
A violent attack against Christian communities in Kandhamal started with the August 2008 killing of a fanatic Hindu leader whom Maoist guerrillas saw as creating social unrest for decades. He was residing just 5 kilometers from my house.
As the news of death spread, my only brother rushed to the spot of the murder to express his sympathy to villagers. By that time, Hindu extremists were spreading lies that Christians had murdered the leader, and people with weapons surrounded my brother. Fortunately, he escaped with the help of sympathetic villagers, but he remained traumatized for several months.
My entire family, including my mother, sisters and their young children, went into hiding in the cold, windy, rainy forests, along with other Christian people.
That year, as the candidates’ mistress for my religious community, I was entrusted with 40 young girls, 15 to 17 years old, who aspired to become nuns. I escaped with them to the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, nearly seven hours away by train, for their safety and security.
I vividly remember the painful meeting in Andhra Pradesh with Sr. Meena Barwa, a member of the Handmaids of Mary, an indigenous congregation of Odisha. Just four days earlier, she had been attacked and raped during the violence. As I looked at her wounded body, I couldn’t control my tears. We just embraced each other for a silent, heartbreaking moment, and I felt I was embracing the wounded Christ. Both of us wept. Her face disfigured, her head wounded and her entire body hurt, Meena tried to continue. But I stopped her; it was too hard to hear.
While I shivered with pain mixed with anger, Sr. Meena shared her experience and then said: “As I was assaulted,” she said, “I felt being crucified for the sake of Christ and there is nobody to stand for me at that time.”
Though people of my country at times worship women as goddesses, they do not hesitate to commit or ignore heinous crimes to a woman in the name of God. Police personnel watched as religious fanatics attacked Sr. Meena.
The report includes the attack on Sr. Meena. It said she was “paraded semi-naked in the presence of a mob. A priest who was with her and tried to protect her was severely assaulted. The trial with regard to this case is yet to be completed even after eight years.”
Only three people have been convicted of charges, and only one convicted of rape, according to the report. The prosecution of 24 others is still pending because of the slow pace and mishandling of the case.
Justice has served too few of those attacked.
Indian Currents reported in September 2016 that there were 3,232 complaints of violence lodged at the police stations, although police accepted and registered only 827 cases. Police still closed 215 of the 827 registered cases, citing lack of evidences. Of 30 murders, there were convictions only in two cases.
The conviction rate for those accused in the registered cases is only 5.27 percent. But if we take into consideration the 3,232 complaints, the conviction rate falls below 2 percent.
In August 2016, the Supreme Court of India asked the state government to reopen 315 cases of arson, looting, killings and assaults that had been closed. Fr. Ajaya Kumar Singh, a Catholic priest of the Cuttack Bhubaneswar archdiocese, who was one of the pioneer working with the victims/survivors says, “I do not have hope that the state administration would really work at the direction of the Supreme Court, as it was indifferent to the plight of the victims and survivors — if not complicit in the anti-Christian violence.”
The state government also opposed compensation sought for nongovernmental organizations damaged during the violence, saying that there is no history of providing compensation.
While hundreds of witnesses turn away from the courts because of intimidation, fear and monetary gain, Sr. Meena remains a symbol of hope and inspiration. She continues her journey for justice with firmness and dogged spirit. I have met with her on several occasions and I admire her courage in fighting for justice without vengeance, so that others can be inspired.
In my country, indigenous Christian communities continue to struggle for justice, peace and dignity despite hardships, poverty and harassment at the hands of the state government and religious Hindu fanatics. It is a struggle for dignity as much as for one’s belief in the truth.
[Sr. Justine Gitanjali Senapati is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph (Annecy). Since 2014, she has served at the United Nations as the representative for the Congregations of St. Joseph, which includes 30 global independent congregations. This appeared in Global Sisters Report on February 13, 2017]