In this October 2008 photo, an Indian Christian family return to their house after it was damaged during rioting by hard-line Hindu activists in Odisha state's Kandhamal district. (Photo by Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP)
It was pure journalistic instinct that made me travel to the remote Kandhamal jungles in India's Odisha state after an arson attack destroyed over 100 churches and Christian institutions in December 2007. I then had no clue that I was embarking on a life-changing voyage.
By December 2017, I had completed 25 visits to the jungles, the hills where India's worst anti-Christian riots took place some 200 kilometers southeast of Odisha's capital Bhubaneswar.
My visits and research had confirmed that the 2007 Christmas nightmare in Kandhamal had been only a rehearsal for the bloodbath that unfolded a year later in the tribal district. All were part of a plan.
On Aug. 23, 2008, as Hindus celebrated Janmashtami or the birth of Hindu lord Krishna, their prominent leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was shot dead.
Hindu radicals rounded on Christian targets after dubbing the murder a Christian conspiracy. The unabated violence that continued for seven weeks killed some 100 people, rendered 56,000 homeless and destroyed 6,000 houses and 300 churches.
A few skeptics in the church suspected the suffering could force some people to leave Christianity. The poor but valiant Christians in the remote jungle tract have proved the skeptics wrong. Hardly anyone has recanted their faith despite the suffering and inexpressible poverty.
My book on the riots, Shining Faith in Kandhamal, was released in October 2009. Worried about the safety of those who had testified against Hindu radicals, I masked the faces of those who gave strong testimonies. I used anonymous names, even for their villages, to ensure they were not tracked.
"What have you done? We are not cowards. Show our faces," said those people whose photos were masked. They were hurt by my action, they said. "We are ready to suffer any hardship for our faith in Christ. We will not give up our faith."
An undue rush was seen in accusing Christians of the Swami's murder and arresting them.
Soon after the murder, four Christians including an illiterate 13-year-old boy were picked up by Hindu activists, beaten and dumped in police stations. It was not police but Praveen Togadia, the leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), who made public their names and accused them of killing the Swami.
When the police could not make charges stick after detaining the group for 40 days, they were released. Then the investigation team arrested seven Christians (all non-Catholics) including a mentally challenged man from the remote Kotagarh area. On the day the charge sheet was filed at court, Togadia even demanded that "the pope should apologize to Hindus."
During the four-year trial of the accused, hardly any worthwhile evidence was brought before the two judges. Biranchi N. Mishra, the judge who presided over the final two years of the trial, was transferred in 2013 before delivering a verdict.
The judge had repeatedly challenged the prosecution over why the innocent Christians were in detention and even recorded that the conduct of investigating officer Santosh Kumar Patnaik was "deplorable."
The shocking verdict convicting the seven Christians to life imprisonment was delivered abruptly by a newly appointed third judge in October 2013.
Surprisingly, two years later, the same police officers who had ensured the conviction of the innocent Christians told the Justice Naidu Commission of Inquiry that the much trumpeted "Christian conspiracy" theory was baseless. Yet the appeal of the innocent Christians has been pending in Odisha High Court.
In a travesty of justice, they continue to languish in jail even after nine years, branded as murderers for a crime they never committed.
The arrest of the Christians was the result of an outlandish Hindu radical conspiracy rooted in the slain Swami's boastful claim that the United States, Europe, the pope and Sonia Gandhi had a vested interest in making Kandhamal a Christian region.
Out to capitalize on this claim, radical outfits meticulously prepared the ground for the contract killing of the Swami.
When Christians were brutalized after his murder, radical outfits calculated that the then ruling Congress government, under international pressure, would dismiss the Odisha government in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a coalition partner.
Then the BJP could play the victim and go to the 2009 election projecting Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Italy-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, as a Christian supporter to win votes against her. But its political ploy faded away sooner.
Intelligence agencies got wind of this conspiracy and warned the Congress-led government not to step on the Kandhamal landmine. It has been confirmed from United Nations corridors. Even Togadia himself had confided to a senior journalist that "we tried to do something in Kandhamal but it did not bear fruit."
When I continued to speak up for Kandhamal after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014, a friend gave me very fraternal advice: "Brother, stop all this and keep quiet." In fact, many have cautioned me on continuing with the Kandhamal campaign.
"Are you not facing any threats?" is the repeated question that has been propping up at press conferences across the country.
Despite naming leaders of prominent Hindu groups as Kandhamal conspirators and questioning the judicial farce in keeping seven innocents behind bars to perpetrate a fraud, I can tell you this — none has ever threatened, abused, touched me or even come forward to challenge my findings.
After knitting together the contradictions and absurdities in the conviction, I made secret arrangements to reach the illiterate wives of the innocent Christians and launched an online campaign (www.release7innocents.com) for their release on March 3, 2016.
A prayer campaign was launched for the release of Kandhamal's innocents on Oct. 15, 2017. This prayer has been working miracles.
The response to the online signature campaign was initially timid, with a mere 1,000 signatures in six months, but it picked up steam after the prayer campaign was launched. The dismal tally of 3,000 signatures in 20 months went up meteorically to 60,000.
As a Christian, I firmly believe, faith must lead to action.
Anto Akkara is a journalist and author who has published three books on the anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal in Odisha state.