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John Dayal

Maoist violence delays church restoration /
The Catholic parish of Batticola village that has vanished in thin air

Sikarma Catholic parish is a blessed one – it escaped anti Christian violence both in Christmas 2007 and the 23 August to November carnage of 2008. But today it is a Parish in mourning. Five of a local Catholic Dalit and Tribal families were wiped out when an ambulance they were travelling in was blown up in a bend in the forest road on its way back from a Hospital in Behrampur some 200 kilometers at midnight on 27th November 2010. Ironically, the pregnant woman the family had taken to the hospital gave birth to a stillborn child because they had delayed too long. The tragedy was further aggravated, for among the dead was a pregnant social worker, and a three year old girl who would not stay back at home with her father. The social worker and the ambulance driver were the only one not related to the others. She had volunteered to accompany the woman in distress.

Maoists had a few days earlier shot dead a businessman and Hindutva political activist Manoj Sahoo, 35, at point blank range in the marketplace. Sahoo was a contractor and had been listed in a public handbill reportedly published by Maoists after the assassination of VHP vice president Lakshmananda Saraswati on 23rd August 2008, which triggered off a three month orgy of anti Christian violence by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh groups Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Adivasi Kalyan Parishad. Manoj was an enthusiastic local leader of that violence, according to the villagers.

In another incident three moths ago, two Christian home guards were killed by the Maoists who accused them of being police informers before slashing them with sharp weapons and then executing them with gunfire.

In the terror that now pervades the area in Brahmanigaon and Sikarma, people are afraid to come to work. According to the Parish priest of Brahmanigaon, his work of reconstructing the church burnt down on Christmas Eve in 2007 has been stalled because the contractor has chickened out.

In a black turn to the tragic story of nearby Sikarma, the Maoists reportedly apologized to the surviving members of the small well knit- clan, and have offered compensation. The surviving family members told me they would refuse the money if indeed it was given.

The Maoists had set the trap – a powerful wired anti-vehicle mine set off by a long distance switch – for a local senior police officer, who was to pass by the same route in a white vehicle, very similar to the ill-fated hospital ambulance. The policeman apparently changed his plans at the last moment. According to villagers who wish to remain anonymous, the ambulance driver too had been “warned” by unidentified persons not to travel along that route so late at night, but the family was in a hurry to reach home to collect money for the Behrampur hospital where their patient required fresh infusions of expensive blood.

The ambulance driver avoided possible Maoist “checkpoints” in the nearby Brahmanigaon area by taking a detour through the local police station and hospital before coming back to the only road to the village, and its rendezvous with tragedy. It would seem that the Maoists mistook the ambulance be the vehicle of the policeman and set off the blast. Later, they dragged the bodies of the driver and another man close to the culvert, seemingly to identify them. The women’s bodies were still far away from the shattered vehicle.

It was some days after the blast that I came to the village after passing by the twisted remains of the jeep-ambulance by the culvert. I met the family which was still in a trauma to be very coherent. The story was narrated by Sister Teresa who runs a dispensary in her convent, and Fr Dushmant, the assistant parish priest, who had helped pick up the pieces of the bodies as they lay, splattered over 500 meters in the jungle. Dushmant has himself seen violence at close quarters. He was earlier in the Kanjimendi-Nuagaon Pastoral House when it was burnt by marauding mobs in August 2008.

Fr Dushmant says they are still to find the legs of one woman, and the head of another.

Sister Teresa said she had earlier attended on the pregnant woman, Bonita, the wife of casual labour Buna Digal. She had diagnosed that the woman was carrying a fetus too large for a normal delivery. She told them to take the woman to the government hospital in Phulbani or to Behrampur. Buna waited too long. By the time his driver friend Simon Pradhan brought the hospital ambulance, rushed Bonita and her relatives to the hospital, it was too late for the unborn child. He was dead in the womb. But Bonita still needed blood, and for that, the family needed money. The ambulance was returning with the family to borrow the money.

In their twin huts in the Musina hamlet of Sikarma village close to the road, Bento Digal sits with his grand aunt Sushila Digal, who now looks older than her 60 years. Bento lost his pregnant wife Innoci and daughter Subhashi. His three year old son Pabano had remained in the village, and survived. Sushila lost her son Buna, whose wife survives in the Behrampur hospital after her still born delivery. The two unrelated good Samaritans who died were Simon Pradhan, a friendly tribal who had brought the ambulance from the hospital in Brahmanigaon where he served, and Shushanti Mallik, 30, a tribal and social worker of an NGO. The survivors do not know what the future holds for them. Senior district officers are still to visit the twin families.

Batticola – The Parish that vanished

Tragic in a different manner is the story of the Catholic parish that has vanished into the unknown. Batticola parish covered the Nandigiri village which had more than six dozen worshipping families. These were devout families, and had given at least three Nuns and two Priests to the Church in recent years despite their life of abject poverty as petty famers and casual labour. One of the priests is Fr Mrityunjay, the secretary to Archbishop Raphael Cheenath and also the treasurer of the diocese. His mother and two brothers are witness to some of the worst aspects of the anti Christian violence of 2008. One of his brothers was forcibly tonsured, made to drink cow dung and urine in a religious conversion masterminded and enforced by the local Hindutva thugs.

Every single Christian house in Nandigiri was torched and destroyed in the violence. The people ran away into the forest, and then found refuge in government camps. Bu they are among the unfortunate who may never be able to go to the village of their ancestors because they have been told they would have to convert to Hinduism as a precondition to their return. The kingpin behind the violence is one Goverdhan Pradhan, who roamed free for two years before he was finally arrested in nearby Udayagiri town by police inspector Murmu.

Collector Krishan Kumar has apparently conceded that he cannot ensure the safety of the Christians back in Nandigiri nor can he persuade the local Hindus to accept their brethren back. His solution has been to found a new village ghetto several kilometers away at the foot of a mountain, just for the Christians. In a supreme irony, this village is called Shantinagar, the place of peace.

The collector has allotted 4 cents of land – four per cent of an acre – to each family to build a house. The 69 families who have shifted – 51 of them Catholic – cleared the shrub, dug the rain water trenches, and waited in tents before the houses – sterile and identical brick and steel sheet roof structures – were put up by the Believers Church in money they donated together with the little money that the collector gave. The houses cost Rs 80,000, and many of the residents now owe money to the church. Efforts are on to persuade the church to waive off the balance. The Jesuits and Mother Teresa’s sisters have provided the cots and blankets, the cooking pots and the clothes.

But there is no livelihood. The collector has allotted them the land on condition that they would let go of their claims on the old village land. But he has not allotted them any agricultural land in exchange of their fields in the village where they are now not allowed to till. This is a village where the men have no jobs of any kind. The younger lot goes to the nearby town of Udayagiri to try their luck as casual labour. They have lost much more than their livelihood. They have all but lost their dignity. And the church has lost its parish. The official parish priest now lives in far away Bhubaneswar. A priest closer by comes for Sunday prayers. Even as I was talking to them, the villagers were being persuaded by St Gabriel congregation Brother Markose, who was uniting them to build a new church-cum-community hall, so they could celebrate Christmas in a new church, and not under the very cold Kandhamal skies.

Their Christmas wish remains a return to the lost parish of Batticola in Nandigiri and to revive their old Church.

Landelijke India Werkgroep / India Committee of The Netherlands - January 3, 2011