By Anto Akkara
My book ‘Shining Faith in Kandhamal’ masked the faces of some people who had given testimonies. The book also used anonymous names even for their villages to ensure that they would not be tracked.
“What have you done? We are not cowards. Show our faces,” those people told me when I showed them the book. “We are ready to suffer any hardship for our faith in Christ. We will not give up our faith,” they added.
A church leader who glanced through the book told me: “Now these people will go back. How can they remain Christians in such an atmosphere?” I told him: “That will not happen. If they could give up everything and even embrace for martyrdom for their faith, they will not falter.”
The Christians of Kandhamal have proved me right. Ten years after they suffered the violence, those Christians have produced the finest witness to Christ in Indian history.
The valiant Christians in the remote jungle tract have proved the skeptics wrong. Hardly anyone has recanted the faith despite 56,000 of them being rendered homeless after 6,000 houses were plundered along with 300 churches in unabated violence that began after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on August 23, 2008.
The Sangh Parivar’s goal in Kandhamal was to force the Christians to renounce their faith and embrace Hinduism. Most Christians, who were sadistically murdered in Kandhamal, had been offered an option to escape death by renouncing their faith.
When they defied the attackers’ diktat, the zealots turned more brutal than Nazi Gestapo. Those who refused to forsake their faith in Christ were put to the sword, chopped into pieces, burnt alive or crushed with the boulder.
While the orgy of violence went on for weeks, the persecution has dragged on for years. Hundreds of Christians still languish outside their villages as they are not prepared to meet the fundamentalists’ precondition to renounce their faith to return.
Even the hundreds who had to undergo the dreadful reconversion ceremonies to escape death joined thousands to live in stinking slums like the sprawling Saliasahi slum in Bhubaneswar to keep their precious faith intact.
Just as the ‘Early Christians’ were hounded out for professing a banned faith under the Roman Empire, Christians in Kandhamal underwent persecution for their faith. However, they brooked no enmity or hostility toward their tormentors. That forgiving witness has melted even their tormentors who have embraced the faith they tried to banish from Kandhamal. Hundreds of others now regret being ‘fooled’ by the anti-Christian propaganda.
When I went to the Kandhamal jungles after th 2007 Christmas attacks, I had no inkling that I was embarking on a life-changing voyage.
I completed the silver jubilee of my visit to the ‘holy land’ of India in early December 2017.
The goal of my 25th visit to Kandhamal – some 350 km southeast of Bhubaneswar — was to launch a Prayer in local Odia language for the release of seven Christians – six of them illiterates including a mentally challenged – languishing in jail for over nine years. They are branded as murderers for a crime they had never committed.
My visits and research had confirmed that the 2007 Christmas nightmare in Kandhamal had been only a ‘rehearsal’ of the bloodbath that unfolded in as a sequel to Swami’s murder. On the Janmashtami night, 81-year old Swami Laxmanananda was murdered along with four others at his Jalespata ashram. Even before sunrise, preparations were complete for the zigzag funeral procession crisscrossing the jungle tract for two days calling for revenge on Christians.
Soon after the Swami’s murder, four Christians including a 13-year old illiterate boy were picked up by saffron foot-soldiers, thrashed and dumped in police stations. It was not the police but Praveen Togadia, VHP leader, who made public the names of these ‘Christian killers.’ That was how the nation was fooled by the ‘Christian conspiracy’.
When the police could not fix the ‘first batch of killers’ who had been detained for 40 days, they were let off with an affidavit: “Due to fear, we had taken shelter in the police station.” Then the investigation team arrested the ‘second batch of killers’ – 7 innocent Christians (all non-Catholics) from the remote Kotagarh area in two batches. On the day the charge sheet was filed in the court, Togadia even demanded that ‘Pope should apologize to Hindus’.
During four years of trial of the accused in the Fast Track Court, hardly any worthwhile evidence was brought before the two judges. Biranchi N Mishra, the judge who had presided over final two years of the trial, was transferred in 2013 before delivering the verdict.
The judge had challenged repeatedly the prosecution prodding why the innocent Christians were in detention and even recorded that the conduct of the Investigating Officer Santosh Kumar Patnaik was ‘deplorable’. Ironically, this Crime Branch officer who manufactured evidence to allege Christian conspiracy was conferred the Police Medal by the government after the judge pulled him up.
The verdict – convicting the seven accused Christians to life imprisonment – was delivered abruptly by a newly appointed third judge in October 2013.
Convinced of a huge fraud, I probed deeper and reached the spartan homes of the innocents in the far-off Kotagarh jungle. Even Hindu neighbors of the convicts questioned how the judicial system could convict their ‘innocent’ neighbors and expressed readiness to be witnesses to prove their innocence in any court.
Surprisingly, two years after this conviction, the same police officers who had ensured the conviction of the innocent Christians told the Justice Naidu Commission of Inquiry that the much trumpeted ‘Christian conspiracy’ theory was baseless. Yet the appeal of the Innocent Christians has been pending in Odisha High Court.
After knitting together the contradictions and absurdities in the conviction verdict, I made secret arrangements to reach the illiterate wives of the innocent Christians to New Delhi and launched www.release7innocents.com – online campaign for the release of the innocents on March 3, 2016. Despite a host of top opposition party leaders and eminent social activists being present at the launch of the campaign, half a dozen news channels walked out minutes before the program started – stunning one and all.
Political conspiracy behind Kandhamal fraud
That media blackout confirmed my findings that big guys in the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi were the key conspirators behind the Kandhamal fraud to defame Christianity and exploit it for political gains.
I had gathered clinching evidence against top saffron leaders including Ajit Kumar Doval, Modi’s mighty advisor holding post of National Security Advisor and Nirmala Sitharaman, presently Defense Minister, for covering up the Kandhamal conspiracy hatched at a national level.
The conviction of the seven innocent Christians is the result of an outlandish Sangh Parivar conspiracy rooted in the slain swami’s boastful claim: “The actual intention of the Europe, US, the Pope and Sonia Gandhi were to convert the entire region into independent Christian land. God has sent me from Himalaya and it was stalled. That is why their campaign was to drive away swamiji and create a Christian land. As long as I am alive I shall not let you do that.”
This claim has been cited as proof in the DVD ‘The Agony of Kandhamal’ – produced by the dubious India Foundation that has masterminded the Kandhamal cover-up with Doval, Sitharaman and BJP general secretary Ram Madhav acting in tandem – to reiterate the Christian conspiracy theory.
Out to capitalise on Swami’s claim that the US, Europe, Pope and Sonia Gandhi had vested interest in Kandhamal, Sangh Parivar meticulously prepared the ground for the supari (contract) killing of the Swami on Janmashtami night.
When Christians are brutalized as a sequel to the Swami’s murder, Sangh Parivar calculated in their wild imagination that western Christian nations and the Pope would pressurize Sonia Gandhi (of Italian Catholic mooring), UPA chairperson, to dismiss the Odisha government in which the BJP was a coalition partner. Then they could go to the 2009 election with the slogan Sonia Gandhi was ‘Papa ki Beti’ (Pope’s daughter to Christianise India).
However, Intelligence agencies got wind of this outlandish conspiracy and cautioned UPA not to step on the Kandhamal landmine. It has been confirmed from UN corridors. Even Togadia himself had confided to a senior journalist that “We tried to do something in Kandhamal but it did not bear fruit.”
Two months after the launch of the online campaign, the investigative book ‘Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?’ (exposing the fraud) was released by Kuldip Nayar, 93-year old patriarch of Indian journalism, along with the alleged ‘first batch of Christians killers’ of the Swami. While a section of the national media reported it, big editors buried the revelations under the carpet despite reporters filing the stories.
Subsequent releases of the book in more than a dozen cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Shillong and Thiruvananthapuram including Bhubaneswar made more headlines.
Prayer for Innocents works miracles
Meanwhile, I launched also a Prayer for the release of Kandhamal’s innocents in Kochi on October 15, 2017. The English prayer I composed has been already translated into Hindi, Malayalam, Nepali, Odia and Tamil.
This Prayer has been working miracles. The response to the online signature campaign for the 7 innocents, I should admit, had been timid. Despite moving around the country to introduce the campaign at big Christian and secular stages, it took six months for the campaign to cross 1,000 signatures, and 20 months to reach 3,000.
But I did not give up. Once the prayer campaign was launched, even big doors started opening one by one, from Christian Council assemblies to big theologates culminating in addressing the biennial assembly of Catholic Bishops Conference of India in Bangalore in early 2018 to launch the Prayer.
As the flame of prayer started spreading, the signature campaign picked up steam. The dismal tally of 3,000 signatures in 20 months went up meteorically to 60,000 in last 10 months. I noticed the Prayer miracle first after I put a Prayer card on the tomb of Sr Rani Maria on her beatification.
Believe it or not, I found next morning on the website I am anchoring www.release7innocents.com that over one thousand more signatures had poured in on the night of November 5. Compare it with the frustrating initial period when I had to wait for six months for the tally to cross four-figure mark.
Along with the Prayer campaign, the secular campaign to expose the Kandhamal fraud started bearing fruit. The shocking Sangh Parivar fraud was conclusively laid out before the nation on December 28 – the feast of Holy Innocents, with the release of the revised edition of the investigative book ‘Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?’ in New Delhi.
The travesty of justice with seven innocents languishing in jail was all over the country with premier news agencies like PTI (Press Trust of India) and UNI (United News of India) sending out dispatches on the book release led by Nayar and leaders of major opposition leaders.
The icing on this Christmas cake for Kandhamal’s voiceless Christians came from ‘The Wire’, the news portal that has shaken up even Parliament with its scoops, with its elaborate story ‘New Book Reignites Questions Over Alleged Cover-Up of Kandhamal Killings’.
Despite heavy odds, leading social activists of Odisha stood by me and so, over three dozen media persons were at the release to hear the true story of Kandhamal on January 4. It ended with 2017 Goldman prize (known as alternative Nobel Prize for environmental action) laureate Prafulla Samantara challenging ‘Is there anyone to challenge this book?’
The Odia media carried news reports endorsing the findings of ‘Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?’. Odia media headlines read ‘Hindu Nationalists’ role in Swami’s murder’, ‘Mockery of judicial system’, ‘People fooled’, ‘Hindus question conviction of innocent Christians’.
With the Prayer for the Kandhamal Innocents being said daily in churches, convents and homes in at least half a dozen languages across the nation, amazing things have been happening in the pursuit of Truth and Justice for Kandhamal. That confirms Jesus promise: “Ask and you will be given.” No wonder, with the national media exposing the Kandhamal fraud, the Gospel assurance of Luke 12: 2 stands fulfilled: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.”
Fear and Faith: When I continued to speak up for Kandhamal after Prime Minister Modi assumed office in May 2014, a deeply charismatic friend gave me a very fraternal advice: “Brother, stop all this and keep quiet.” In fact, many have cautioned me on continuing with the Kandhamal campaign.
My response has to been to quote the command Christ has given in John 18:37: “Bear witness to the truth”. If you know the truth, you must speak the truth. If that is in support of a voiceless people, it is all the better. The Right Hand God, I firmly believe, has been behind the stunning evidence I have gathered and the way they have come in my path, sometimes like manna in the desert.
“Are you not facing any threats?” is the repeated question that has been propping up in over a dozen press conferences and releases across the country. Despite naming BJP and Sangh Parivar stalwarts as Kandhamal conspirators and questioning the judicial farce in keeping seven innocents behind bars to perpetrate a fraud, let me tell you frankly, none has ever threatened, abused, touched me or even come forward to challenge my findings on Kandhamal.
In 2013, after receiving the Blessed Titus Brandsma Award for journalism in Panama, I had several Kandhamal programs in the US. “What about your personal safety?” one of my editors with whom I have been working for two decades emailed me when I returned home.
“Read Romans 8:31,” I responded by googling the famous Pauline quote: “If God is with us, who can be against us.” I think it is this assurance that has inspired thousands of Kandhamal Christians to stand up for their faith like rock and provide the Waterloo experience to the Sangh Parivar.
(Anto Akkara has been a journalist with international media for over a quarter century.)