The SAJA Photo Forum presents the work of photographers covering South Asia and its global diasporas in order to highlight important but often overlooked stories.
The Believers: Indian Christians Under Attack
Text and photographs © Massimiliano Clausi
In August and September 2008, a wave of violence perpetrated by Hindus on Christian villages swept through the Khandamal district in the in the Indian state of Orissa. Most estimates put the death toll between sixty and one hundred people, with dozens of churches destroyed and thousands of homes burned to the ground. More than 50,000 people were displaced from their homes. The official reason for the violence was the murder, blamed on Christians, of a widely followed religious and political leader. But the roots of hatred lay deep in a mix of poverty and political interests undermining the fragile peaceful coexistence of faiths and ethnic groups in Orissa.
Khandamal is a mountainous area where every plain is cultivated with rice, the major source of income for the villages. Most of the inhabitants belong to the Khanwa tribe; hence the district's name. The Panos, who are the dalits at the bottom of the caste ladder, form the next big group and converted to Christianity generations ago. The percentage of Christians in Khandamal – 25 percent – is high compared to the 2.4 percent for India as a whole.
On August 23, 2008, 81-year-old Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a political party, was gunned down at night in the district. Notwithstanding the fact that Maoist guerrillas took responsibility for the murder, Christians were immediately blamed by politicians belonging to the major Hindu parties. Two days later, hordes of Hindu militants were attacking Christian homes and places of worship in Khandamal, mainly at night. Whole families were forced into hiding in the nearby forest for days with no food or water. Those who stayed behind, the old and sick or those simply not willing to surrender their land and belongings to the assailants, were killed, mutilated and burned, or severely injured.
Three months after the peak of the violence, the situation is deadlocked. While Christians are still stuck in inadequate relief camps, the local government is encouraging them to go back to their villages. But they say the threat of fresh attacks is too high, and the local police force is unable to protect them. Every week new assassinations of isolated Christian peasants are being reported, and the promised compensation of Rs. 20,000 is not enough to rebuild a house.