ucanews.com reporter, BhubaneswarUpdated: July 11, 2016 11:47 AM GMT
In this image locals prepare bodies for funeral services after six people were killed by police during an operation against Maoist rebels in eastern Indian Odisha state. (Photo supplied by Revered Krushna Chanda Behera)
Religious leaders say that the recent killing of Christians by police during an offensive against Maoist rebels in eastern Indian Odisha state is part of a strategy to terrorize the Christian community.
Six people were killed, three of them Christians, when police opened fire in Odisha state to counter an attack by Maoist insurgents.
"It is a well planned strategy to create terror among poor villages" in the hilly district of Kandhamal, said human rights activist Father Ajay Kumar Singh, a Catholic priest based in the state capital Bhubaneswar.
State police told media that they had received a tip that insurgents would pass that way on July 8 evening. During the subsequent firefight, a pick-up van carrying 12 villagers was caught in the middle causing the three deaths. Media reports quoted police saying that it was quite dark and there was a heavy downpour.
Father Singh said the villagers were returning after visiting Balliguda town to receive their wages from a local contractor. The dead include two women and a 15-month-old child. Several are in a hospital with bullet wounds.
The priest said the autopsy reports show that the bullet wounds resulted from close-range fire coming from a single direction. "Therefore it's a plain lie to say the villagers were caught in cross-fire," he said.
"Police did not get close enough to verify if they were villagers or Maoists," the priest said. "They just shot and killed," he said. "It is a conspiracy to create terror and keep the Dalit community afraid."
Most of the state's Christians belong to the Dalit community. Dalits, often the target of oppression and persecution, belong to the former untouchable castes within the Hindu caste system. At least half of India's 25 million Christians are of Dalit origin.
"The intelligence agencies as well as the state administration have succumbed to caste-communal forces," Father Singh said. "They feed rumors of the presence of insurgents to ensure the continued presence of security forces in the area."
A year ago two people were shot and killed in the same area while three tribal people were killed in Kalahandi district in November in a police operation to counter alleged Maoist activities.
Father Santhosh Digal, public relations officer of the Cuttuck-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese, said he cannot believe the story put forward by the police.
"They are killing people in the name of security," he said adding that the dead Christians are not Catholics but from Pentecostal groups. "They are poor, defenseless people."
Political parties have joined local people in calling for a general strike to protest the violence, telling the police to stop false stories of Maoist encroachments.
Kandhamal district witnessed the worst anti-Christian violence in the history of India nine years ago. It claimed some 100 lives and displaced more than 50,000 people.
During a seven-week period of violence, armed Hindu extremists raided Christian homes, convents and churches. They butchered men, raped women and set fire to their dwelling places forcing hundreds to flee.
"The terror continues. Now they are using the state apparatus. That is the only difference," said Father Singh.