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India

Vandals 'sought to divide' indigenous communities in Odisha

Fact-finding team believes attacks on a temple and two churches aimed to stoke tensions in Indian state

Vandals 'sought to divide' indigenous communities in Odisha

Members of a fact-finding team visited areas of eastern India that witnessed vandal attacks on two churches and a temple. Here they sit in front of a destroyed Marian grotto in Rourkela Diocese on April 11. (Photo provided)

A fact-finding team sent by civil society groups believe a series of attacks on a temple and two churches in eastern India were carried out to create divisions between local Christian and non-Christian indigenous people.

The five-member team, which includes Father Ajay Kumar Singh of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese, investigated the vandalizing of two Marian statues and the destruction of a sacristy in Sundergarh district of Rourkela Diocese in two separate incidents in Odisha state on April 2. Both incidences occurred in the early hours of Monday after Easter.

Vandals also destroyed the statue of a bull in a Shiva temple in the same area on the same night. The bull, called Nandi, is associated with the Hindu god Shiva, one of the three main gods of Hinduism along with Brahma and Vishnu.

Police in the state, which is run by local secularist party Biju Janata Dal (BJD), arrested a "mentally unsound" person and have accused him of vandalism.

However, the fact-finding team said the real culprits have not been found and they say that all of the attacks were purposely done.

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"It is highly planned and purposefully executed" and more than one person is involved, said the team via a statement that pointed out the attacks occurred at different places on the same night. The two churches are seven kilometers apart, and the temple is two kilometers from the nearest church attacked. 

"The vandalism was part of a well-orchestrated strategy to divide the Christian and non-Christian indigenous people in the area," said team member Abhiram Mallick, vice-president of Mulnivasi Samata Parishad, which works on behalf of the interests of indigenous people.

The team's statement quoted locals as saying most people were tired and sleeping after the day-long Easter Sunday celebrations. Some woke on hearing sounds of commotion in both places.

Team member and human rights activist Dhirendra Panda said they could not find past records of hostility between local Christian and non-Christian indigenous people.

Even though the police suspect a single individual, "it is not possible for one person to execute such an operation so precisely," Panda said.

The team's report also touched upon the possibility of corporate involvement in the acts in a bid to break the unity of indigenous people opposing mining companies taking their land.

Team member Father Sigh said the issue also could have political implications as the state is scheduled to have election in less than a year along with national elections.

The BJD has led the government since 2000, Father Singh said.

"Now political polarization on the basis of religion and caste have become the order of the day to win elections," he said, alluding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party's alleged policy of seeking votes on religious lines.

He said the team plans to submit its report to state and federal officials including state governor-in-charge Satya Pal Malik.

Odisha is a religiously sensitive region and was the site of the worst anti-Christian riot in Indian history. The riot began in Kandhamal district after Hindu leader Swami Laxmananada was shot dead with three others on Aug. 23, 2008.

The riot resulted in the deaths of more than 100 Christians and partial or full destruction of 395 Christian places of worship. Six hundred plus villages were destroyed and some 6,500 houses were looted and burned, displacing 54,000 people. Several women — including a nun — were raped.

Christians form just 2.77 percent of 41 million people, mostly Hindus, in the state.

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