By John Dayal
New Delhi: Sister M. is how we identify her. Ten years after she was gang-raped at the start of the targeted violence against Christian Tribals and Dalits in the Kandhamal district of Odisha state the Catholic nun of the Congregation of the Handmaids of Mary is still called to court to give evidence, and perhaps identify another man the police have arrested.
She is one of several women who were raped in that violence by mobs that attacked Christian houses after Hindu political leader Lakshmananda Saraswati, who was also a local religious Swamy, was murdered by extreme left-wing militants on August 23, 2008. Sister M, now 39, is the only one who was bold enough to complain to the police and to persist in the tortuous trial procedure that made her the target of jeering mobs outside, and very hostile defense lawyers in the court.
Despite the hostile environment in the court, she identified five from the men the police had arrested. Four others who were named are still eluding arrest. The leader of the mob was sentenced to 10 years in prison, two others were jailed for a three-year term, and two were let off for want of conclusive evidence. The case will not be closed until the police arrest the remaining four. And that means Sr. M will have to relive her trauma every time the police arrest a suspect and bring him for her to identify.
There is little closure too for the rest of the 60,000 thousand or so Christians of Kandhamal who survived the violence as the mobs destroyed over 6,000 houses, 320 church buildings, big and small, in over 450 villages in the thickly forested plateau. It was the forest that helped save lives. The death toll was an estimated 120, with government acknowledging less than 50 as dead in the violence.
The government sheltered about 30,000 of the displaced in refugee camps for up to a year, with armed police protecting them. The rest lived in the forest until it was safe to return home. Not all could. Civil society groups estimate about 6,000 are not able to return to their villages to rebuild homes and lives. They have been warned they can return only if they give up their Christian faith and become Hindus.
The government has tried to rehabilitate a few of them in hastily out up shelters at the edge of the forest. Church groups have helped the people build small houses. But with their fields and animals are gone, the families now survive on what they can earn as manual labor in the bazaars several miles away.
The church moved the Supreme Court of India to get the provincial government to help build houses. But the government flatly refused to assist the rebuilding of institutions and churches destroyed in the violence.
There has been little effort at rebuilding lives. Thousands of children have had to give up their studies. Many young men are unemployed or have had to migrate to other parts of India in each of work.
The bright spot in the dismal scenario is the strength of the faith of the simple Tribals and Dalits. At every anniversary of the violence, they gather in their thousands in the district headquarters town of Phulbani, to pray, and to resolve to continue their struggle for justice.
The State of Odisha, as it is now called, is one of the most seriously affected by extreme Hindu violence against religious minorities. In fact, on the eve of the violence, in 2007, U.S. Ambassador to India David Mulford had told the State Department that “the Indian government cannot control “fundamentalist organizations such as the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the VHP” (Vishva Hindu Parishad, world Hindu council). About the same time, Human Rights Watch warned, “Right-wing Hindu organizations such as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have been promoting anti-Christian propaganda in Orissa [Odisha].”
The RSS and its associated groups make no bones about their opposition to Christian presence among the Tribals and Dalits of the country. Seven Indian states have strict laws against proselytization, with pastors liable to several years in prison if it is a force of fraud is discovered in the conversion. Hindu extremists use this to harass all try to stop all evangelistic activity in several vulnerable states.
Another national law makes it unitive for Dalits to become Christians. They can lose political and economic benefits given them as Hindu Dalits, making it impossible to exercise their constitutional right to profess a religion of their choice. Those who do convert, do not proclaim their faith publicly and live a life of what can be described as underground Christians.