In August 2008, communal fires scorched Odisha’s Kandhamal district, which saw widespread violence against Christians, allegedly instigated by Hindutva organisations.

The flashpoint for the riots was the murder of Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his followers on August 23. Hindu groups blamed the murders on Christians, even though they were widely believed to be the result of a Maoist attack. The ensuing violence claimed at least 38 lives, according to government estimates, though human rights groups peg the death toll closer to 100. More than 40 women were sexually assaulted and over 300 churches were vandalised. The violence spread to 600 villages. More than 6,000 homes were looted and burnt, and at least 56,000 people were displaced, according to various estimates. Many Christians were coerced to convert to Hinduism with the threat of violence.

10 years later

The riots have cast a long shadow. Over the years, activists and journalists have revisited Kandhamal and written reports of the lingering scars of the 2008 violence and thousands of people who were displaced have not yet returned to the area.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the riots, a group of activists organised an event called Kandhamal: Never Again at New Delhi’s Constitution Club on August 25. At the convention, photographs by activist Joe Athialy, who visited Kandhamal in June, were exhibited. He documented the vandalised structures and grieving families in the area as well as tales of courage and resilience. During his visit, he was accompanied by filmmaker KP Sasi, whose 2016 documentary Kandhamal: Voices From the Ruins, attempted to trace the roots of the communal violence in the area and its impact on local residents.

Anita Pradhan with her son. Her husband, Sibino Pradhan, was killed during the 2008 communal violence. Many people said they knew the culprits, but the family has struggled to get justice. They feel that the judicial system has failed them.

On August 29, the photos were exhibited in Bhubaneswar, alongside an event held in the Odisha capital by Kandhamal survivors.

This church building of Hindustan Bible Institute at Gunjibadi village in Kandhamal was attacked during the riots, and has been used as a cattle shed since. Its roof can collapse at any time.

Athialy, who works for the Delhi Solidarity Group, a collective that supports various social movements, told that the idea behind the event was to draw connections between the incident in Kandhamal and violence against minorities in India today. “The impunity...that was given to the perpetrators of this incident, has led to more such incidents,” he said. “It is not just about revisiting one case but [to] go beyond and see what lessons we can learn.”

A Catholic Church building at Katimaha village was attacked in 2008, and has not yet been rebuilt.

The events of August 2008 too cannot be seen in isolation. Tension had been simmering in the region for months. In late December 2007, there had been a spurt of violence in various parts of the district, including an attack on a bamboo structure set up for a Christian celebration, and arson incidents at several churches, fuelled by rumours of attacks on Saraswati.

A group of people who said they were forcefully converted to Hinduism by Hindutva groups in 2008. They said members of the mob placed axes on their necks and threatened to kill them if they did not convert. There are many more people who converted to Hinduism under duress during the riots. But almost all of them continue to go to church.

There have been conflicting narratives on the reasons for the violence. Human rights groups working in the region contend that the violence against Christians in Kandhamal was planned and coordinated by Hindutva organisations. They say that the riots were the result of years of fear-mongering over purported forced conversions by Christian groups in the area. Saraswati himself had been openly campaigning against missionaries and working to reconvert Dalits and Adivasis who had adopted Christianity.

Community structures like this Jana Vikas shop at Pirigada village were also destroyed. The shop was managed by local residents. Grocery and clothes were sold here at lower-than-market rates, and saved residents a trip to the nearest marketplace, which is about 18 km away.

Meanwhile, Hindu groups have suggested that the riots were the fallout of the ethnic tensions in the region, primarily between the Dalit Pana community and the Adivasi Kandhas. Both communities live in considerable poverty, but the Kandhas, classified as Scheduled Tribes, have access to land rights and other reservations. The majority of Panas, who had converted to Christianity over the years, were stripped of these rights because they were no longer recognised as Scheduled Castes.

Nungari Pradhan of Sulesaru village is the youngest sister of local Hindu leader Sidheswar Pradhan. When a Hindu mob unleashed violence in the village, her brother promised to protect the Christians. The mob killed Sidheswar Pradhan for opposing them, and burnt his body. However, in most cases where Hindus came together to protect Christians, the mobs retreated.

In 2010, the report of the Justice AP Shah-led fact-finding tribunal, held the Sangh Parivar responsible for the flare-up. The report said:

“The historic context of the Kandhamal violence is located in the spread of Hindutva ideology...Following the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 that killed over 2,000 Muslims and destroyed the community, a targeted attack on the Christian minority in Orissa was a disaster in the waiting. The potential of manipulating the tense dynamics of relationship between the Dalit and the Adivasi communities to serve the goals of religious fanatics made Kandhamal an ideal site for such an attack.”  

Adivasi leader Rashmi Pradhan is an active member of the Kandhamal Survivors’ Association. She in charge of Prashanti, a cultural institution and resource centre for the revival and promotion of Dalit and tribal culture, language and food. It also functions as a centre for peace and reconciliation for all.

Meanwhile, investigations into the riots cases have moved slowly. Out of 827 cases filed after the violence, 315 were closed citing lack of evidence. The Supreme Court in 2016 asked the Odisha government to re-investigate the closed cases and also expressed concern over the fact that out of 362 trials that had been completed, only 78 resulted in conviction. Among the few who have been brought to justice is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Manoj Pradhan, who was convicted in 2010 (he was a MLA at the time) in a murder case connected to the Kandhamal riots.

Satyabhama Nayak went out of her way to save the lives of many Christian nuns in 2008, risking her own life. She hid them in her small house during the riots. This was the room in which several nuns crowded together while hiding from the mobs.
Five-year-old Pratik Nayak was born after the 2008 riots.

All photos by Joe Athialy. Information for the captions is from KP Sasi.