Police Do Little to Protect Christians in Orissa, India

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BHUBANESWAR, India -- State police in Orissa, India, have been mere spectators as Hindu extremists attack Christians, burn their homes, and destroy their churches in violence entering its 12th day, according to Christians who have fled to the state capital for safety.

Listen to the comments of an Indian Christian worker in contact with believers in Orissa State by clicking on the player above.

Attacks on Christians and their property and institutions began in Orissa's Kandhamal district following the killing of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on August 23.

Maoists claimed responsibility for the murders on Sept. 1, though the statement did nothing to slow Hindu extremist violence that Christian leaders say has claimed more than 100 lives.

Among those who have fled to Bhubaneswar was Father Prabodha Kumar, a Catholic priest who reached the Catholic Archbishop's House in the capital after a seven-day journey from Onjamundi village in Kandhamal. He was among other fearful sojourners at the house whose mobile phones constantly rang with news of more attacks from their relatives, friends and church members in interior villages of Kandhamal.

Fr. Kumar looked deeply troubled after one such phone call yesterday.

"My brother has been forced to 'reconvert' to Hinduism, as he was told that if he did not do so, his house would be destroyed," he said.

Asked why he did not report the abuse to the police, the priest told Compass that if police officers could "witness Christians being brutally attacked," why would they do anything to save his brother?

A few minutes later, Fr. Kumar's phone rang once again. This time, it was about Christians in Kanpada village in Balliguda Block being told to "reconvert" if they did not want their houses to be burned.

Shortly thereafter, another victim at the Archbishop's House received a phone call reporting that at least 19 houses and churches were burned down that morning in Lujurmunda village, under Tikabali police station jurisdiction in Kandhamal.

The victims charge that police have done nothing to protect Christians.

Ravindranath Pradhan, a 45-year-old former soldier for the Indian Army, told Compass that two policemen came to him in his village, Gadragaon - also under the jurisdiction of Tikabali police station in Kandhamal - on August 24 and asked if he had heard the news about Saraswati's killing. The officers told him to be "cautious," but when he said police should protect him and his family, they said they didn't have enough force to do so and left the village.

A little while later, he said, a mob of around 50 Hindu extremists stormed into the village and burned 31 houses belonging to Christians. The mob burned and killed his brother, Rasanand Pradhan, who suffers from paralysis, as he lay on his bed in a room that was set on fire.

"There is a police post in Pasora village, around five kilometers from Gadragaon, but there was not even a single policeman in the village at the time of the attack," the former soldier told Compass.

Ravindranath Pradhan, along with more than 100 Christians - including women, children and babies from his village, walked to reach Bhubaneswar, covering more than 300 kilometers. He walked and used various means of transport, halting in numerous forests, before he was able to reach the state capital on September 2.

"It took us four long days to reach Bhubaneswar," Pradhan said. "We did not eat anything. We survived on water from rivers along the route. We also encountered wild animals in some forests."

Pradhan had severe swelling of his left foot. One of his brothers was recovering in a hospital.

Many Christians from Gadragaon village reached Bhubaneswar on August 28. They were taken by local Christians to a YMCA center, where several other victims also are temporarily residing.

Christian leaders estimate at least 40,000 people have taken refuges in forests, and some 20,000 persons have fled to 10 government relief camps.

Father Mathew Puthyadam of Christ the King Catholic Church in Phulbani town in Kandhamal also blames police for inaction.

At around 8:30 p.m. on August 24, he heard a mob shouting anti-Christian slogans, he said.

"I knew the church was going to be attacked," Fr. Puthyadam said, his voice still trembling with fear. "I escaped to a nearby house when I saw a crowd of around 4,000 people carrying the body of Saraswati coming towards the church. The district collector, the Deputy Inspector General of Police, and several police personnel were also there."

The Saraswati funeral procession stopped outside the church building, with the Hindu extremists carrying the body of Saraswati before its gate. The mob then broke the boundary wall and damaged statues and a cross.

"The collector, the DIG and other policemen witnessed it without doing anything," Puthyadam recalled. "The DIG merely told the crowd, 'Enough, enough, now move on.' It is only when the crowd pelted stones on the police, and some of them got hurt, that the DIG asked his force to use batons to disperse the crowd."

A federal security force also blamed Orissa state police for failing to prevent attacks on Christians.

On Friday , the commandant of the Central Reserve Police Force , Darshan Lal Gola, told The Indian Express newspaper that there was "complete breakdown of the state's law and order machinery." He pointed out that the CRPF rounded up 75 rioters in Deegei village under the Raikia police station, but local police refused to put them behind the bars.

A local human rights activist, Dhirendra Panda, said the state administration and police were afraid of VHP extremists.

"The state government did not conduct an autopsy on Saraswati's body," Panda said. "The body was not even taken to a hospital. Why didn't the government follow the required procedure of law?"

Panda also pointed out that while the Orissa government put a restriction on all political party members and rights activists to visit Kandhamal, it gave police protection to VHP General Secretary Praveen Togadia to visit Saraswati's Ashram on August 25.

"Togadia was escorted by the police," he said.

India's Supreme Court reacted angrily to the Orissa administration's denials yesterday of ongoing attacks, as justices ordered a commitment under oath for Orissa to provide protection to its people and their property.

Acting on Christian leaders' charges that police were colluding with perpetrators and that the state government was a mute spectator, the court asked the Orissa chief secretary to file an affidavit today stating that the administration "will take all steps to protect life and property."

Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices P. Sathasivam and J.M. Panchal had been enraged by a denial from state counsel Jana Ranjan Das that "allegations about continuing communal violence are false."

Thus the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered Orissa state to report on steps taken to stop the wave of anti-Christian violence. The court order came after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered the state to punish those responsible for murder and arson.

In calling for the resignation of the entire state government of Orissa, on Monday , Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said that the death toll from the violence had reached 100 "and more butchered bodies and burnt corpses are being found."

"In Bakingia, two families of seven Christians - Daniel Naik and Michael Naik and their families - were tortured and killed," George said. "Their bodies were found with their heads pulped and smashed, they were recognized by their clothes. Bakingia is about eight kilometers from Raikia police station."

The Orissa government today put a ban on another rally planned by the VHP to take the ashes of Saraswati in public procession from one village to another in Orissa beginning on Sunday , reported the Press Trust of India news agency.

The ban was announced by the state government in hearing of a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa in the Supreme Court of India.

The VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party , a partner of the ruling government led by the Biju Janata Dal party, continue to blame Christians for the killing of Saraswati and four others in spite of the Maoist claim of responsibility for the assassination.

When Compass spoke to VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath, he said the state government was wrongly linking Saraswati's killing to Maoists.

"We know and believe that Christians killed him," he said.

When Compass asked how he could say Christians killed him, he replied, "Christians attacked him on December 24, 2007."

Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal during last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa's population, or 897,861 of the total 3.7 million people.

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