This year there was international outrage when a frail 84-year-old Jesuit priest with Parkinson’s disease, Stan Swamy, died after being held in an Indian jail in inhumane conditions, on flimsy charges. When he was eventually moved to hospital, he tested positive for Covid and went on to suffer a cardiac arrest. He had devotedly served the poor and defended their rights for decades and his ordeal was a reminder of the particular vulnerability of Christians.
This was especially relevant to the Christians of Kandhamal, who are largely Adivasis (tribal peoples) or Dalits (those most excluded by the caste system). The survivors are now scattered. Estimates vary but it seems likely that about 100 people were murdered, thousands injured, dozens of women raped, 300 churches of various denominations destroyed and 50,000 or more displaced, some of whom later died of hunger or snakebite. Amidst the current spate of smaller-scale, sometimes deadly, attacks on minorities in certain states, threats and acts of discrimination, it is a chilling reminder of vulnerability, especially since the Hindutva movement which organised the violence in Odisha thirteen years ago now holds power nationally.
The film, directed by KP Sasi, includes footage of what happened and interviews with survivors. It is powerful, sometimes harrowing, often moving and insightful about the struggles for power, opportunities and resources which can fuel religious persecution. Throughout history, Christians are among those who have been sucked into inflicting terrible harm on one another and people of other faiths, sometimes citing Scripture or tradition to justify what goes so decisively against the spirit of the Gospel. Especially when people are swept away by the sentiments of a crowd or search for a scapegoat, they can let go of their usual moral codes and inhibitions against harming others.
Yet, as this documentary illustrates, other factors, including political ambition and social prejudice can also play a part. Understanding the cynical reasons why leaders and influential public figures may go along with attacks on minorities can be helpful when seeking greater protection for those at risk. The state of Orissa (as Odisha was previously known) was founded as a result of the work of Madhusudan Das. From a reasonably well-off background but with a strong social conscience, he was drawn to the teachings of Jesus and converted to Christianity. By the mid-twentieth century, more people from deprived communities were becoming Christians and the far-right was seeking to stir up interreligious division for its own purposes, as well as creating paramilitary networks. Churches were repeatedly accused of using unfair means to convert people.
Yet freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion were key aspects of the Indian Constitution. What is more, Adivasis (who were often brought up as animists) and Dalits were drawn to Christianity because it touched on their own needs and concerns, offering them a sense of love and recognition of worth.
As the film showed, spreading smears and sowing mistrust against vulnerable minorities was a tactic at which some hardliners showed great skill, paving the way for the horrors of 2007 and 2008. The shock, fear, pain and loss of those who found themselves at the receiving end, while the authorities refused to protect them, comes across vividly, along with the agonising dilemmas of those threatened with death if they did not convert to Hinduism.
The compassion and courage of those Hindus who sheltered Christians, at the risk of their own lives, is movingly portrayed – an important reminder that whole faith communities should never be blamed for the misdeeds of some of their members. The aftermath is also shown, as community organisations, human rights activists and opposition politicians sought to help the survivors and called for justice, while those in charge continued to fail the victims.
Persuading governments to take account of ethical considerations in their foreign policies is another, which can help to build a better and safer world for all. This is not about overseas interference or pretending to be perfect but rather about not shoring up grossly unacceptable practices, whether unleashing religious hatred in India against Christians and Muslims or placing Uyghurs in concentration camps in China.
The closeness of the UK government to that of India (along with some opposition MPs), as well as the influence of pro-Hindutva organisations in the UK, is a problem.
Christians in much of India today face fear and uncertainty, along with many others.
Yet hatred and the abuse of power, horrific though the results can be, cannot finally prevail against faith, love and justice. Indians on the receiving end of persecution, along with the people of goodwill seeking to respect their neighbours’ dignity and keep them safe, deserve international attention and support.
‘Voices From the Ruins – Kandhamal in Search of Justice’, a documentary about large-scale violence against Christians in Odisha in 2007 and 2008, is now available free online, with English subtitles https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9T5fmc05to
Savitri Hensman is a social activist