On 25 August 2008, Jagannath Pradhan, a self-identified Adivasi Hindu from Budedipada village in Tiangia panchayat, Odisha, stood in front of the rioting mob and said that if they were going to destroy the houses of his Christian neighbours, they should start with his. In another part of the village, Dasarath Pradhan also stood up against the mob’s diktat, but was eventually killed. Apart from Dasarath, five others — Tirinath Digal, Parikith Nayak, Dibyo Paricha, Bikram Nayak and Father Bernard — were killed in Budedipada village.
Six years later, standing next to Jagannath, Mohesh Nayak remembers hiding in the forests as the mob of 40-50 people went on to kill his brother Bikram in the fields. Manoj Pradhan, who led the mob, was later convicted for the murder, and then elected to the Assembly in 2009 from G Udaygiri on a BJP ticket. He would eventually be released on bail and lose the Assembly election held this year.
At Sulesaru village, Deomali Pradhan is the only member of his Christian family who returns home. The sole reason for coming back is to attend the sessions court at Phulbani and fight for justice. He has renovated only a small part of his house; the rest still provides testament to the violence that tore his community apart.
He recalls how Siddeshwar Pradhan, a man with links to the Sangh Parivar, was killed by the mob, again for the same reason, for protesting against the senseless violence. Siddeshwar’s son Niranjan confirms his father’s saffron links and that the accused, who led the mob, was an RSS member. All the accused were arrested but were later released by the high court on bail.
Deomali also remembers how all 27 families fled Sulesaru when a mob of 60-70 people came to the village on the night of 25 August 2008, two days after the killing of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and four of his supporters. Maoist rebels allegedly killed him on the order of Sabyasachi Panda, who was recently arrested. Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders blamed Christian missionaries for the murders. Once the Maoists took responsibility, the Sangh Parivar claimed that the Christians had paid the Maoists to commit the killings.
The killings started immediately after Lakshmanananda’s death, as the police and local authorities merely looked on. The official death toll was 38, while unofficial estimates pegged it at 93. There was widespread destruction of churches and houses, with an estimated 50,000 people displaced to the jungles and relief camps.
According to Deomali, his neighbour Potishti Nayak, 65, refused to flee along with her family and perished with the flames that engulfed her house. Another neighbour, Akbar Diggal, was found murdered at Totoma church.
On 27 August, people such as Deomali attended a rally held at Phulbani for communal harmony and justice. The rally drew around 4,000 people. At 10 am, the people stood quietly in two lines in front of a temple, waiting for the organisers to give the signal to start the march.
The Indian Reserve Battalion showed up and positioned themselves around the protesters a few moments before the rally moved on quietly, apart from the sloganeering by a handful of people using a dissonant loudspeaker
The residents of Phulbani took a curious interest, looking out of their windows or coming to their porches to watch the marchers pass by. It took around 10 minutes for the protesters to enter the football stadium and settle down.
The speakers were introduced in Odia by the organisers, starting with CPM leader Subhashini Ali, whose line about the Niyamgiri villagers rejecting Vedanta and choosing their right to live on their own terms, drew the loudest applause from the mostly Kondh crowd. The next big response came when the CPI’s Annie Raja exhorted the police cordon at the rally that if even “four or five of these uniforms” had been present in the villages in 2008, then this rally would not have had to take place today.
Later, lawyer-researcher Saumya Uma released her report, Breaking the Shackles: The Unheard Voices of the Women of Kandhamal. It details testimonies of women who lost family members, who were sexually assaulted, who faced conversions and threats, and had to deal with the legal system among other things.
She spoke in Hindi and her words were translated into Odia for the mostly Kondh and Pano crowd.
“We wish the speakers had spoken in Kui or Odia,” says Mohesh Nayak. “What about justice though? They (the attackers) are put behind bars but they come out after three years or so. It doesn’t matter going to the courts.”
Unlike Nayak, Deomali was more positive. “If we don’t speak up now, this will happen again,” he says. He diligently expressed how he agreed with the statement attacking the absent police, and the promise made by Medha Patkar that the memorandum for justice in Kandhamal be delivered to President Pranab Mukherjee.
However, people from many affected communities could not make it to the rally. For instance, in the resettled village of Nonadigiri, about 50 families who were evicted from Beticola said that it cost each person 100 to undertake the journey and they couldn’t afford it. In the past, vehicles had been organised, but not this time. They are Adivasi Christians who had large landholdings, yet both their homes and fields at Beticola lie empty. They recall communal violence and a fractured community from 1985, and the beating of Pastor Lameshwar Kahar in 1999 by the Bajrang Dal after the church had proposed a medical centre in the village.
“They were afraid that the medical centre would be used to convert people to Christianity,” says Kirtichandra Mallick, who had just returned from a funeral at Beticola to his rehabilitated village of Nonadagiri.
In Beriaguda, another village where the people had been rehabilitated, they pooled in money to attend the rally. Their houses were destroyed in 2008 and they lived for six months in tents before they petitioned the collector and met other local villagers and returned home.
Shashibhusan Pradhan, a self-identified Hindu Adivasi and a Kui leader from nearby Uperadandakiya village, was instrumental in establishing peace in the community. The people of Beriaguda, where two destroyed churches dot the landscape, claim that he led the mob in 2008.
“I told the rioters that we should not destroy any homes now; we should do it later,” says Sashibhushan, also called English Bhushan, due to his propensity to start speaking in English in the middle of his Odia-Kui sentences. “I said it because I knew tempers were high and maybe later they would calm down and nothing would happen. But they attacked me instead.”
Shashibhushan has a Christian wife. He claims proudly that his panchayat recently witnessed an arranged marriage between a Christian and a Hindu family. “Years ago, it was the church who said that Christians should not marry Hindus,” he recalls. “But not today.”
He did not attend the Phulbani rally, but would do so next year, though only if he is allowed to speak from the podium.
Others such as Asith Kumar Singh were not even aware of the rally. The 29-year-old engineer, who worked for five years at Vedanta’s Lanjigarh plant, says that “the Adivasis shut down the plant often but never bothered us workers”. He now works with another mining company.
He remembers the violent days but believes in keeping quiet. “My friends were there in the mob… just hundred metres away,” he says, recalling the incidents on 24 August 2008, a day after the killing of Lakshmanananda.
He recalls how they argued among themselves that they can’t destroy Asith’s house because they had been greeting his mother in the morning for years. So they decided among themselves for a compromise. “They called me repeatedly and said that we will spare your house, but you have to come to us so that we can break your arms and legs,” he says. Fortunately, rioting is a fickle business, and the threat was forgotten. But Asith’s family soon fled Phulbani and has never returned.
Similarly, Namrata, whose badly burnt face became one of the images of the Kandhamal riots, is now living in a small town with her family. She was just 10 years old when she was badly burnt in an explosion. Her elder sister quickly came to her aid and took her to the relief camp in the jungle where their family administered first aid. Her family did not attend the Phulbani rally, and she feels safe in her school, hoping to finish her arts course.
“If the people had not listened to the Bajrang Dal leaders, none of this would have happened,” says Jagannath.
Being orphaned at a young age, tending to his family as a youth, Jagannath says he knows the problems of the people. His father was an animist, and even as he refers to himself as a Hindu, he overtly condemns casteism.
“The water in the pond is all the same,” he says. “Why is it different when you put it in different pots?”