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Remembering ‘Early Christians’ from 21st century India

The road is now clear for the beatification process for 35 Catholic martyrs from Kandhamal who embraced martyrdom in 2008
 Children at a refugee camp in 2008 after fleeing Christian persecution in Kandhamal

Children at a refugee camp in 2008 after fleeing Christian persecution in Kandhamal.(Photo: AFP)

Published: November 03, 2023 11:54 AM GMT
Updated: December 01, 2023 04:54 AM GMT

The obscure jungle district of Kandhamal in eastern Odisha – one of the least developed among 760 districts in India – is now known all over the world. The credit goes to the poor valiant Christians who embraced martyrdom like the ‘Early Christians.’

The Vatican on Oct. 18 granted the Nihil Obstat (no objection) to initiate “the process of beatification for the Servant of God Kantheswar Digal and Companions, known as Martyrs of Kandhamal."

The roads are now clear for Archbishop John Barwa of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese that covers Kandhamal to start the canonization process for 35 Catholic martyrs of Kandhamal. 

Encounters with the relatives and thousands of living victims of the 2008 persecution changed the course of my life, having visited Kandhamal, the ‘Holy Land of India,’  35 times over the last 15 years. 

How did Kandhamal achieve this unique status in the annals of Christian history?

In August 2008, the sprawling district, around 250 kilometers southwest of Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, witnessed the worst-ever anti-Christian violence in modern Indian history following the mysterious murder of 81-year-old Hindu monk, Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, in his monastery in Kandhamal.

Touting the murder as a ‘Christian conspiracy,’ the body of the slain swami was taken across Kandhamal for two days.

The Sangh Parivar, an umbrella of hardline Hindu groups spawned by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, declared that Christianity was ‘banned’ in Kandhamal. So, Christians were ordered to recant their faith in Christ. 

The valiant Christians who defied were burnt alive, buried alive and chopped into pieces. 

Nearly 100 Christians were killed while over 300 churches and 6,000 houses were plundered, which rendered 56,000 homeless.

St. Stephen of Kandhamal

Young evangelical pastor Rajesh Digal was returning from a convention in Hyderabad. His bus to Kandhamal was stopped on Aug. 26 by a mob that was on the lookout for Christians. 

“Are you a Christian?” they questioned Rajesh. During a search, they found the Bible in his bag. 

“Christianity is banned in Kandhamal because you Christians killed our swami,” they told him and threatened him to forsake his faith. 

“I have the fundamental right to be a Christian in this country. I will not come for reconversion [to Hinduism],” Rajesh shot back.

They dragged him to a nearby pit and made him stand in it. The soil was filled up to his neck and he was given the ‘final chance’ to recant his faith. 

When Rajesh refused, they crushed his head with a boulder and he embraced martyrdom like St. Stephen. 

Tunguru Mallick, a Hindu youth, who was accompanying Rajesh, recounted this tragedy to the pastor’s wife, Asmita. 

“Since the violence was widespread during those days, I could not go to the area. The body was not there when our relatives went there after three days. They went to the police who refused to file a murder case,” Asmita recalled.

She shared her dreadful ordeal with me when I first met her in Bangalore at a gathering of a dozen widows of Kandhamal, organized by the Global Council of Indian Christians led by Sajan George. 

The name of pastor Rajesh had not figured in the list of 32 Christians killed, presented by the Odisha government to the Supreme Court, the top court in the country.

Moved by the ‘injustice’ several widows shared with me, I went to Kandhamal during Christmas in 2008.

Deputy Collector Dr. Vineel Krishna came to oversee the Christmas celebration in a refugee camp at Nuagam where they were treated like beggars. 

"Glad to find the government organizing a Christmas celebration for the refugees. But I have a serious concern. The police have not registered murder cases," I told him.

“These are cooked-up stories,” the deputy collector told me bluntly. 

During the discussions, Krishna was adamant about not registering murder cases against the culprits.

By doing this, police had saved the butchers of Kandhamal from prosecution besides denying the dependent families compensation.

So, I decided to expose this cover-up to whitewash the Christian massacre. 

I made three quick trips to Kandhamal to write a book.

When Kandhamal a blot on Indian Secularism was released in the national capital New Delhi on April 9, 2009, by veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, the Indian media took note of the ‘uncomfortable questions’ raised by the book.

Within three weeks, an embarrassed Odisha government acknowledged in the Supreme Court six more murders, including that of Pastor Rajesh and four others graphically described in the investigative book Who Killed Swami Lakshmanananda? and visualized in the documentary ‘Innocents Imprisoned’ released on the 10th anniversary of Kandhamal.

With this mission accomplished, I could have stopped there.  But destiny has something in store as earlier testimonies reverberated in my ears in the 16th year. 

“I was worried if I would get a funeral as I could hear jackals howling and feared that they would eat me. I was extremely thirsty and I had to drink my urine with my hands while lying there.” This testimony of martyred Father Bernard Digal, procurator of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, was shared with me at Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai before his death.

The dozens of testimonies inspired me to title my chronicle of Kandhamal’s incredible witness as Early Christians of the 21st Century. It was released by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Vatican prefect for Evangelization of Peoples, in February 2013. 

The book has been published in Indian languages like Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil, besides French.

I was asked to address a Catholic gathering in central India during Lent in 2002. When I finished, an enthused senior nun heading her congregation’s national training house approached me and requested: “We have several novices from Kandhamal. Could you come and address us.”

When I went there, I had another thrilling “Kandhamal revelation.” Of the 29 novices, 28 were from Kandhamal! 

The boys and girls who fled to the jungles with their parents and lived in refugee camps to escape the nauseating humiliation are today nuns, priests and pastors. 

Indeed, Kandhamal has proved right what Church historian Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity."

In the Good News of Kandhamal released in New Delhi to mark the 15th anniversary on Aug. 23, I have illustrated how Kandhamal is no more a tragedy but Good News for the Christian world to rejoice, as the mighty Hindu nationalists could not force a single Christian to recant the faith in Christ. 

On the contrary, hundreds of Hindus, including Sangh Parivar leaders who tried to banish Christianity from Kandhamal, embraced the faith.

I am happy with the Vatican for its historic decision to open the path of sainthood to the martyrs of Kandhamal and for reminding each Christian that the "early Christian history is being repeated" in the remote jungles of eastern India.

AntoAkkara is a journalist with international media for 33 years. For his "stellar advocacy on Kandhamal" with investigative books and social media campaigns, Akkara was conferred the prestigious journalism award instituted in memory of St Titus Brandsma, who was injected with poison for speaking up against Hitler in the Nazi Dachau concentration camp in 1942. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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