In August 2008, the death of the Hindu preacher Lakshmananda Saraswatiwas and four of his disciples, in the Kandhamal district in Odisha, became the flashpoint for a communal attack that resulted in the deaths of nearly 40 people. Though the government announced that it suspected the involvement of Maoist rebels in the preacher’s death, in the subsequent days, Hindu mobs launched attacks on the Dalit Christian and Adivasi communities residing in the region. The attackers ransacked over 600 villages, and looted and burnt nearly 5,600 homes. Nearly 56,000 people were left homeless, close to half of whom continue to be displaced. During the violence, nearly 2,000 people were forced to renounce their Christian faith. In their book Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice 2007-2015, the lawyers and researchers Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma examine the nature of the violence and the judicial processes that followed, such as the reports of the commissions of inquiry, the investigations and verdicts in the cases registered against the attackers, and the rehabilitation that the victims were able to access. “Nine years later… justice eludes the victims, their families and the targeted Christian community,” the authors note. “Fear and insecurity haunts their daily existence, and their religious identity continues to erode their equal right to exercise of citizenship.”
In the following extract from the book, the authors recount a fast-track court’s observations while convicting the former Bharatiya Janata Party member of legislative assembly from Odisha Manoj Pradhan, who was the main accused in the killing of Parikhita Digal, a Christian man, on 27 August 2008. Pradhan was named in at least eight other cases of rioting and murder, and was convicted in a second murder case. Though the BJP leader was later granted bail, the authors note that the fast-track court’s judgment is particularly important since it bucked the trend of acquittals that is otherwise common to incidents of communal violence. “A verdict of conviction is pronounced only where the trial Court identifies and appreciates the specific contours of communal and targeted violence, in which the crimes are committed,” the authors note. The judgment is also critical, they add, because it notes that “the RSS and other affiliated Hindu right wing organisations were mobilized and it was their members who led the violent attack against the Christian community. The witness testimonies point towards a planned and premeditated targeted attack on the lives and property of the Christian community, in Kandhamal.”
The main prosecution witness in this case is the wife of the deceased. It is on her statement that the FIR was lodged by the police. She deposed before the court that after the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda on 23 August 2008, members of the RSS began indulging in violence within the locality. They set fire to the houses of Christians and some Christians were brutally assaulted by the mob. Due to this, her family and other members of the Christian community were fearful and terrified. Further she states that on 25 August 2008, rioters belonging to the Hindu community burnt houses of Christians, including her house in the village.
Terrorised by the targeted killing of three men of the Christian community and with their house charred, she along with her husband and two minor daughters aged about 6 and 3 years, fled their home and hid in the forest to save their lives. It was while fleeing on a bicycle at about 2 pm to 3 pm that the two accused, along with others, obstructed their path. The few household articles that the deceased and his wife, were carrying were thrown and broken. Through the mobile phone the two accused summoned other villagers to join the murderous mob.
In no time about 100 persons from the village of Tiangia Budepipada arrived and assaulted her husband with deadly weapons, including axes. The mob dragged her husband and assaulted him. He sustained severe injuries and fell down on the spot. The mob then covered him with firewood and set him on fire. The wife of the deceased in her testimony specifically mentions that she saw accused Manoj Pradhan actively participate in the horrific assault and killing of her husband.