A vehicle burns inside a church in Nuagoan village in the Kandhamal district of the eastern Indian state of Orissa August 25, 2008. Authorities imposed a curfew in parts of an eastern Indian state on Tuesday after two people were burnt to death and more than a dozen churches torched by suspected Hindus angry over the murder of their leader. Picture taken August 25, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer (INDIA) - GM1E48Q1D6F01
Between August 25 and 28, 2008, riots in Odisha’s Kandhamal district— allegedly set off by the murder of Swami Lakshmananda, a revered preacher in the area— left 39 Christians dead, over 395 churches vandalised, 600 villages ransacked; over 5,600 houses were looted and over 54,000 people were left homeless.
The riots set off an investigation that, 10 years on, has yet to reach its conclusion.
What happened in Kandhamal?
On the evening of August 23, 2008, around 20 masked men barged into the quarters of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati in Jalespata village, opening fire as they did so and, once inside the quarters, killing two of the Swami’s associates.
Their target was the Swami, who had settled in the area in 1968 and had established his first ashram in 1969.
The assailants found their target inside a bathroom, and killed him on the spot.
The attack had left five dead, including the Swami and his associates. Although the police blamed Maoists for the murder, locals believed that the attackers were from the local Christian tribes, and they proceeded to retaliate, resulting in the riots.
Who was Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati?
According to reports, Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati had spent over four decades in the district, establishing schools and ashrams and dedicating his life to re-converting what he and the local units of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Sangh Parivar maintained were converted Christians.
Saraswati had decided to become a ‘sanyaasi’ at the age of 25, by which time he had worked as a cook in different places and had been married for eight years. Saraswati had played a role during the anti-cow slaughter agitation of 1966, and had reportedly spent 18 days in Tihar jail.
Who killed the Swami?
The police’s initial reaction was to pin the blame on Maoists, but reports indicate that the police did so because they feared a repeat of violence between the two communities just six months earlier, in December 2007. Kandhamal had been simmering ever since, and the murder of the Swami could, authorities figured, spark large-scale rioting.
The authorities were right, but their assertion failed to stop the impeding violence.
In October 2008, senior Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that the Maoists were “under pressure” from Christians and Dalits to eliminate the preacher. Reports indicate that the Maoists claimed the responsibility because they predicted that the killing would trigger a spate of riots— as they did— which would in turn force minority communities in the area to join forces with the Maoists.
Subsequent investigations charged seven people, all of them Christians, and a Maoist leader for the attack. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.
That said, Ajit Patnaik, lawyer representing the majority community, told Indian Express that they are dissatisfied, and claimed that blaming the Maoists was a “deliberate misdirection that needs to be examined”.
Where do cases on the riots stand?
In 2010, a fast track court convicted the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) sitting MLA Manoj Pradhan for the murder of Bikram Nayak on August 26, 2008.
The court had also slapped a fine of Rs 15,500 on him for inciting communal violence and setting ablaze houses of people belonging to the minority community.
Out of the 827 registered cases, 512 cases resulted in filing of chargesheets.
In 2016, the Supreme Court had asked the state government to re-open investigation into 315 cases, which the police had closed claiming that the offenders could not be found or that no offence was made out.
“… In 315 cases, either no offence was found to have been made out or the offenders could not be detected. Such large proportion is quite disturbing. The State could do well in looking into all these 315 cases and see that the offenders are brought to book…” the Bench observed.
The Bench had also added that out of 362 trials which stand completed, only 78 have resulted in conviction, “which again is a matter of concern”.