Kandhamal: On the night of 7 June this year, suspected Christian fanatics broke into a small Hindu temple in Daringbadi in Odisha’s Kandhamal district. The 'Ma Bana Durga' temple, which the locals say was at least 50 years old, was just a shrine under a tree till two months earlier when a proper brick-and-mortar structure was created around it.

On 22 June, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) organised a public meeting at the site of the broken shrine. A priest performed the puja, as people from the neighbouring villages began to pour into the site. They examined the damage, particularly standing for long in front of a portrait of the Goddess Durga, painted on the wall of the temple, now broken into pieces.

“There is no doubt that the Christian missionaries did this,” said Minaketan Sahu, who had come to the site from a neighbouring area. “They are the ones who killed Swamiji, and now they have done this,” he pointed at the rubble.

This was the second time the shrine/temple had suffered damage; earlier also, in 2007, when clashes erupted between two main ethnic groups of Kandhamal – the Panos (a Scheduled Caste community, a majority of them converted to Christianity) and the Kandha tribals (most of them converted to Hinduism), the shrine was vandalised.

"Christian fanatics set ablaze 20 houses belonging to Hindus in Gadapur village while several Christian houses and churches were burnt or damaged elsewhere in Daringbadi by Hindu fanatics"

Blood spills on Janmashtami

On the evening of 23 August, 2008, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a much-revered Hindu leader of Kandhamal, entered his quarters in his ashram in Jalespata. It was the day of the Hindu festival of Janmashtami, and the evening celebrations were about to begin for which a pandal had been erected on the ashram grounds. The 82-year-old Saraswati wanted to take a little rest before he would attend the festivities.

Saraswati had come to Kandhamal 40 years ago in 1968. At the age of 25, after eight years of marriage and after working as a cook in places like Jamshedpur, he had decided to become a sanyaasi. He began to travel and finally settled in Rishikesh, where he learnt the Hindu scriptures.

In 1966, when Hindu organisations launched a major campaign to demand a ban on the slaughter of cows in India, Saraswati also took part in the agitation in Delhi. He was arrested along with many others and spent 18 days in Tihar Jail.

After he returned to Rishikesh, Kuldeep Maharaj, a sadhu, told him how Christian missionaries were active in Odisha, attracting ‘lower-caste’ Hindus to their fold. It was also the time when the VHP was becoming active — it had been formed two years earlier. After consultations with the VHP and the leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Saraswati left for Odisha.

Saraswati went to the Kandhamal area, and within a year (1969), established his first ashram (with a boy’s residential school) in Chakapad. Twenty years later, in 1989, a separate residential school for girls was opened in Jalespata.


But in spite of enjoying this influence, the Panos were treated as an inferior caste by the Kandhas

As Saraswati retired to his room that August evening eight years ago, at 7.45 pm, Simachal Patra, one of the ten constables deployed by the Odisha Police for Saraswati’s security, heard the sound of footsteps outside their tent in front of the ashram. The two other constables present in the tent at that time had eaten their dinner, and Patra was about to eat. One constable had ventured out after borrowing Patra’s cellphone, to speak to his family. None of the policemen carried any firearms.

As Patra stuck his head out, he saw two men standing outside. One of them was carrying a gun, and it was pointed at Patra. When he looked to the side, Patra saw a group of armed men entering the ashram.

Around 20 masked men, wearing black uniforms, kicked the gate open and headed straight towards Saraswati’s quarters, opening fire. As he heard the gunshots, Saraswati locked himself in the bathroom adjacent to his room and started shouting in Odia: “Save me, save me!” The gunmen broke into his room and killed two of his associates: Ma Bhaktimayi and Kishore Babu. Then they tore through the bathroom door and fired at Saraswati.

Another associate of Saraswati, Baba Amritananda, was shot dead in the adjacent room. One of the guardians of a girl student who happened to be in the guest room, Puranjan Gaunta, was killed as well.

Outside, the gun was still pointed at Patra’s head. Then he saw a group of men running towards the main road shouting in Odia, “It is done, it is done!” At this moment the man holding Patra hostage threw a letter towards him, asking him to give it to reporters. And then he also ran into the street.

A local reporter who reached Jalespata soon afterwards says he can never forget what he witnessed inside Saraswati’s quarters. “There was blood all over and it smelled; it was as if I had entered an abattoir,” he recalled.

The killers had pumped several bullets into Saraswati’s body. They had also cut his Achilles tendons and his wrists. A devotee who reached there and saw Saraswati’s body was so overwhelmed with anger that he hurled a brick at the then Kandhamal police chief, Nikhil Kanoria.

The police was quick to blame the Maoists for the brutal murder. As Saraswati’s body was taken for cremation from Jalespata to Chakapad, a distance of 150 kilometres, emotions ran high. Immediately afterwards, riots broke out in which at least 39 Christians lost their lives while their houses and churches suffered large-scale damage.

In October 2013, seven people — all of them Christians — and a Maoist leader, Pulari Rama Rao,were sentenced to life imprisonment for their role in Saraswati’s killing. Two other Maoist leaders — both in jail now — Dunna Keshav Rao alias Azad and Sabyasachi Panda are also accused in the case.


Next time there are riots, there will be mayhem

The tribes of Kandhamal

In Odisha, the Kandha is the most prominent tribe, the biggest in terms of numbers as well. In present-day Kandhamal district, the scheduled tribes constitute 53.6 percent of the population. There are 44 tribes in Kandhamal, 10 of them represented by only one person each. The Kandhas are the biggest community and by far outnumber the rest of the tribes. They speak the Kui language that does not have a script.

The Kandhas are nature-worshippers and believe in a sacred place they call 'Penu Basa'; the earth is worshipped as a goddess and is called 'Darni Penu'. In the course of time, a majority of the Kandhas adopted Hinduism as most of its practices diffused well with tribal culture.

In the old times, the Kandhas are known to have practiced human sacrifice or 'meriah' to appease their gods. The ritual was first discovered by the British in 1835. They tried to stop it by convincing the community elders to substitute it with buffalo (kedu) sacrifice. But after it prevailed, the British under the then assistant collector, Major-General John Campbell, had to use force, which did not go well with the Kandhas. So they revolted against the British administration. From 1836 till 1853, the British are said to have rescued over 1,800 children before the Kandhas could sacrifice them as meriahs.


It is around the same time that Christian missionaries made their foray into the area. According to a research paper by AM Pradhan in the Odisha Review, the Baptist Mission Society established its first church in 1920 at Kumbharikupa. The missionaries opened schools in which the mode of instruction was the Kui language, and church officials were given their titles in Kui as well. The Bible was translated in Kui and, according to Pradhan, the Roman Catholic Church published a Kui book Kristo Dharma Kata, which describes the ritual procedures in the Church.

While many Kandha tribals converted to Christianity, the community that the Church could attract the most was the Panos. The scheduled castes constitute 15.8 percent of the population in Kandhamal. There are 93 SC communities in Kandhamal — eight of them represented by only one person each, while 26 have less than a hundred members.

Panos is the largest SC community; according to anthropological studies, they are a community of weavers who migrated from the Vizagapatam (Visakhapatnam) area of the erstwhile Ganjam Hill Tracts Agency (then part of Madras Presidency in British India). They could speak in Odia and quickly adopted the Kui language as well. At first, they worked as labourers and weavers for the Kandhas. But, soon, they became indispensable to Kandhas as a bridge between them and outsiders. The Kandhas were unable to communicate with traders or government officials since they knew no other language. The Panos acted as interpreters for them and began to conduct business transactions on their behalf.

In his 1909 book, Caste and Tribes of Southern India, Edgar Thurston, the then superintendent of Madras Museum, writes: “They (Panos) live on the ignorance and superstition of the Khonds (Kandhas) as brokers, pedlars (peddlers), sycophants and cheats. In those parts where there are no Odias, they possess much influence, and are always consulted by the Khonds in questions of boundary dispute.”

But in spite of enjoying this influence, the Panos were treated as an inferior caste by the Kandhas. The anthropologist, Barbara M Boal, who worked extensively in the area, writes: “The Konds (Kandhas) for their part being self-limited to the only honourable occupations of agriculture, hunting, and war, have always found them (Panos) quite indispensable for the proper carrying out of Kond ritual and in the provision of certain necessities of life. They also deal as tradesmen and at the time of death in the village they fulfill specific functions which are taboo to the Kond.”

In Kandhamal, in those times, there used to be a saying: “Kandha raja, Panos mantri” (Kandha is the king, while the Panos is his minister).

With the advent of Christian missionaries, a large number of Panos got converted to Christianity. It meant a lot to them when they could be in a Church and sit next to a ‘converted’ Kandha. Association with the mission also meant access to education and facilities including medical ones.

The ethno-religious cauldron

By 1969, however, Saraswati had arrived as an alternative. He could not match the Church's funding, but a mix of welfare and Hinduism proved to be a big lure. The missionaries looked down upon various cultural practices and rituals and urged people to discontinue these; but Hinduism offered no such resistance, except to beef consumption.

The Church was worried, and to counter Saraswati, it began the practice of outcasting Christian converts who showed a renewed interest in Hinduism. They would be barred from taking part in community events such as ‘Prabhubhoji’ (the holy feast).

With the arrival of Pentecostals, the war intensified and turned aggressive. It was a turf war in a true sense, between Christian missionaries and Saraswati. The bait was welfare – food, education, and healthcare; in other words a better life – that should have been provided for by the State. But in the absence of the State, Kandhamal became a breeding ground for ethno-religious hatred.

The Odisha Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property (By Scheduled Tribes) Regulation 2 had came into force in 1956, to control and check the transfer of immovable property (read land) by Scheduled Tribes. But land that belonged to the Kandhas and other tribes continued to pass into the hands of non-tribals.

There was blood all over and it smelled; it was as if I had entered an abattoir


According to the Odisha government, a large number of cases of illegal land alienation by “trickery and unfair means” are pending against the Panos. Till 31 October, 2015, 22,798 cases of land grabbing were detected in Kandhamal, according to Odisha government figures.

It is not only the Panos who indulged in this land grab. Other communities, including the 'caste' Hindus did it as well. But there were other factors that deepened the fault lines between the Kandhas and the Panos. The Kandhas felt that the Panos were asserting themselves more due to their association with the Church. Also, constitutionally, the Panos being a scheduled caste have reservation advantages. But once they converted to Christianity, the Panos no longer enjoyed reservation. The Kandhas allege that the Panos hide their Christian identity and continue with their scheduled caste (Hindu) identity to reap benefits from both sides.

Also, many cases have been reported where the Panos get fake caste certificates to pass off as scheduled tribes in order to grab government jobs meant for the STs. According to government figures, there are 1,48,895 Christians in Kandhamal. But the Kandhas say the number will be more since many Christians are still pretending to be Hindus (both Panos and Kandhas).

Since 1970, the Kandhas have been protesting against possession of their land by non-tribals. These protests turned violent from 1985 onwards, including riots in 1987.

Kandhamal district is born

In 1994, the district was bifurcated. Though it had been called Phulbani since 1986, the Kandhas now felt that their ethnic identity did not come across fully with this name and that it should be changed to Kandhamal. The same year, conflict broke out between the Kandhas and the Panos after one of the Panos boys entered a temple. In the ensuing violence, 20,000 people from the Panos community had to leave their villages and take shelter in towns near police camps.

Succumbing to pressure, the name of the district was changed to Kandhamal on 13 October, 1994, and, according to the Odisha government, a special drive was launched in which 5,000 cases of illegal possession of the Kandha land by the SCs were resolved.

The tension continued through the early 2000s. Disturbances were reported in the summer of 2002 in at least two panchayats of the Daringbadi block.

In 2007, two things happened. The Panos demanded ST status, arguing that they spoke the Kui language as well and hence their caste name be changed from Panos to Kui (since from 2002, the government had begun to use ‘Kui’ as a synonym for ‘Kandha’). This would have ensured that the Panos who convert to Christianity also benefited from the ST reservation (if a tribal converts to Christianity, he does not lose his ST status). In response, the Kandhas called for a “Kandhamal Bandh” on 24 and 25 December to protest against the demand of the Panos.

On 24 December, there was trouble in Brahmanigaon village in Daringbadi when the Christian community allegedly encroached on space utilised by the Hindus to put up a pandal for Durga Puja. Saraswati went there to intervene and was manhandled by a Christian mob while returning. This resulted in clashes between the two communities. Christian fanatics set ablaze 20 houses belonging to Hindus in Gadapur village while several Christian houses and churches were burnt or damaged elsewhere in Daringbadi by Hindu fanatics. Four people lost their lives.

The Justice Basudev Panigrahi Commission, which probed the 2007 riots, submitted its report in 2015. It said that religious conversion was the reason behind the riots and “tribals, along with Hindus, were behind it”. Justice Panigrahi told journalists that in spite of a strong anti-conversion law in Odisha, large-scale religious conversions were happening.

"Several cases were detected where names had just been picked up randomly from voter lists and were then used to falsely identify these as rioters"

The population skew

According to the 2011 Census, the growth rate in the Christian population in Odisha has jumped by 478 percent in the past 50 years compared with a 130 percent rise in the Hindu population. After Sundargarh and Gajapati, Kandhamal has the third largest Christian population in Odisha. There are around 1,200 churches in the district, which comes to one church per 125 believers. Government sources say there are around 300 Church-based organisations active in Kandhamal, “from South Korea to South Africa”, as a government official put it.

Senior government functionaries, who have served in the district, say on condition of anonymity, that after the 2008 riots, there was a massive influx of funds into the district from Christian organisations. Although thousands of lives were affected by the riots, officials say the funds also led to exaggeration of figures and other falsehood. “Let me put it this way,” said a senior official, “even if someone was beaten up in Kandhamal in those days, it would be splashed all over the internet by Christian organisations.”

Right after the riots, officials remember, how the Archbishop of Cuttack handed over a list of 200 people, who he said had died in the riots, to the then District Collector, Krishna Kumar. Kumar made personal enquiries and also circulated the list among volunteers and staffers of non-governmental organisations working in riot-affected areas. Many in the list turned to be living; some had shifted to Bhubaneswar and other areas, while some of them had died a natural death before the riots.

Several cases were detected where names had just been picked up randomly from voter lists and were then used to falsely identify these as rioters.

The other major problem the administration faced was the implementation of relief in villages, especially help with rebuilding houses. As Collector Kumar toured through villages, he realised that if only the Christian families in affected villages are helped with housing, it would create further heartburn. “Building a house also requires raw materials like sand, timber etc. The tribals would have created hurdles in access to such material if it were only to be used for building houses for Christians,” said Kumar. So, after consulting the state government, the district administration rebuilt houses for the Kandha tribals as well. This helped control tempers and brought about reconciliation to some degree.

Maoists fish in troubled waters

Senior police sources say that the Maoists had predicted a massive unrest after Saraswati’s killings. They had hoped that it would help them receive a surge of recruits from the affected Christian families. The prominent Maoist leader, Sabyasachi Panda, according to these sources, had managed to convince 3,000 people to join the Maoist ranks. But at the last moment, due to the timely intervention of the district administration, these would-be recruits ditched Panda. Finally, Panda fell out with the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and was arrested in 2014.

The Justice AS Naidu Commission, which probed the 2008 riots in the aftermath of Saraswati’s killings, submitted its report to the state government in December last year. It has reportedly examined Panda, and Dunna Keshav Rao and Pulari Rama Rao. But the findings of the Commission have not been made public.

In Odisha, however, no matter with whom one speaks — whether government officials, police officials, or journalists — everyone is convinced that the Maoists were just a part of what they call “a larger conspiracy”. Some speak in hushed tones about the involvement of certain Christian leaders who had issued open threats to Saraswati just days before his murder. “You see, even Dunna Keshav Rao is a Christian,” said a senior police official, “I have no doubt that the Maoists were acting at somebody’s behest.”

Most people you speak to in Kandhamal and in Bhubaneswar have already made up their minds about who that ‘somebody’ is.

In Kandhamal, meanwhile, the tribal leader, Lambodar Kanhar warns about how the situation in the district is turning explosive. “First of all, I am not a Hindu. We are tribals and the Panos are appropriating our land,” he says. Kanhar alleges that even their women are facing harassment at the hands of the Panos community. “The Kandhas are not willing to be mute spectators,” he says.

“Next time there are riots, there will be mayhem.”

Eight Janmashtamis after (this year it is on 25 August) Laxmananand Saraswati’s chilling murder on that festive night of 23 August, 2008 – and the subsequent riots — the ethno-religious fault lines in the district are sharper than ever.

Post Script: On 4 August, the Supreme Court ordered the re-investigation of 315 cases related to the 2008 riots in which closure reports were filed. Directing the state to provide an additional compensation of Rs 3 lakh to the families of those killed in the violence,the court said that the state government should undertake peace-building measures in the Kandhamal district. But in the face of an undercurrent of hostility, the chances of peace look very grim.