This story contains depictions of graphic violence.
August 26, 2008, was the worst day of Asmita Digal’s life and the last day of her husband’s.
Digal lived with her husband, Rajesh, a pastor, and their two young daughters in Kandhamal, a community in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, then called Orissa. Christians and Hindus had lived as neighbors relatively peacefully in the area for years.
The majority of Christians in Kandhamal were Dalit converts who demanded that the government continue to pay them reparations even though the law discriminated against them, only allowing Hindu scheduled caste members to get funds. But Hindutva (a political ideology seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus and Hinduism in India) groups used the Dalit converts’ actions as a justification to instigate tensions between the local tribes and the Christian majority-Dalit community of the area.
In December 2007, Hindu nationalists had burned down churches and Christian houses. But the worst yet came the following August.
Rajesh Digal was returning home when a mob surrounded him. Finding a Bible in his possession, the mob assaulted him and buried his body, leaving only his head above the ground.
“They kicked Digal’s head like a football,” said Asmita, who learned of the graphic details of her husband’s last moments from his Hindu friend, an eyewitness to the atrocities whom the mob set on fire after they rejected his religious claim. (The friend jumped into the river to extinguish the fire.)
When Rajesh asked for water to drink, one of the Hindu extremists urinated in his mouth. After intense torture, the mob covered Digal’s face with mud and buried him alive.
Asmita Digal reported the matter to the police, but when they searched for the body, they couldn’t find it, leading her to believe that his killers had exhumed and disposed of it. She and her daughters, ages four and one, fled.
“We were in the jungle for three days, without food and water. I had a packet of cookie on which my daughters survived,” Digal said.
When the family returned home, they found their home burned down. For three years, the family took shelter in a relief camp with other displaced Christians, 30 miles from her home. No one was ever prosecuted for her husband’s death or the majority of deaths of the more than 100 people who lost their lives in the wave of massive anti-Christian violence.
The Indian government paid damages to some widows like Digal who lost their husbands to the mob. But not all traumatized families received money for the murder of their fathers and husbands, and none received compensation for property damage or loss.
In the nearly 15 years since, with no fixed monthly support from the government or church, the widows have struggled on a daily basis to provide for their families. In addition to facing poverty, many still suffer significant emotional trauma from the horrors of the attacks.
“Besides compensation, we [church leaders and activists] have to return to them their dignity and right to live without fear,” said Kulakanta Dandasena, an attorney and activist in Kandhamal.
Reign of terror
The August 2008 terror began when right-wing Hindu groups accused Christians of murdering a controversial Hindu guru, swami Lakshamanananda Saraswati, and his four disciples on August 23, 2008.
Even though Maoist groups said they immediately claimed responsibility for his murder and accused the government of suppressing the information, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, the World Council of Hindus) alleged that Christians had killed the swami and called for thousands of protesters to flood the streets, effectively shutting down traffic and forcing shops and schools to close.
The same day, Hindu extremist mobs started brutally attacking and assaulting Christians, destroying their property and destroying the lives of more than 6,000 families.
The Kandhamal anti-Christian violence did not stay in the community but instead spread to nearly half of the 30 districts in the state of Odisha, leaving more than 75,000 people displaced.
Mobs ransacked more than 6,500 Christian houses and burned or damaged nearly 400 churches and places of worship in the violence that lasted into November. Nearly 40 women were raped and sexually assaulted, and violence disrupted 12,000 children’s education for years. Several cases of forced conversion, from Christianity to Hinduism, were reported, according to media reports and surveys done in the years that followed.
Many saw this aggression coming, especially after the December 2007 violence in which at least three people lost their lives. (Other reports put the death toll at nine.) In January 2008, an independent fact-finding team led by the All India Catholic Union’s John Dayal had warned the government to act or there would be “more tragedy waiting to happen.”
In the aftermath of the 2008 attacks, the Odisha state government established two fast-track courts to deal with the number of complaints filed by Christian victims. But a lack of evidence or poor investigation on the part of the police doomed most attempts for justice. Of the 3,300 complaints made to police, only 800 were registered and 518 indicted. Of those, less than a dozen were convicted.
A survey by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HRLN) estimated that the total property and livelihood-related losses of 122 families from three villages in Kandhamal amounted to $4.58 million, adding that it was an “underestimation of the actual loss suffered.”
The government extended help to victims in the form of relief camps and some financial compensation. The central and state government offered 10,000 rupees and 20,000 rupees respectfully for a partially damaged home, and 30,000 rupees and 50,000 to rebuild a fully destroyed one. But the compensation was not consistent. The government also provided 500,000 rupees to the dependents of 39 Christians who had been killed. (Even though more than 100 people were killed, the government only recognized 39 deaths.)
A 2016 Supreme Court order also allowed some widows to receive an additional 300,000 rupees.
Beyond the government, Christian victims of the Kandhamal violence had few places to turn for help.
“All the local churches were destroyed or burnt down to ashes. The churches had no funds to establish themselves; therefore the victims did not get any kind of monetary or emotional support from them,” said Sukanta Nayak, a local Christian leader and a former school principal.
Some widows and their allies are continuing to fight for justice. Last August, on the 14th anniversary of the attacks, a victim rights group submitted a 15-point memorandum to the district administrator. Its demands included the reopening of the 315 closed cases; the review of cases closed due to faulty investigations; prosecution of government officials who were complicit or negligent; just, enhanced, and adequate victim compensation; livelihood and skill training for those who fled their homes because of the violence; scholarships for the children who belong to minorities; and reversing the state’s anticonversion law.
“[The widows] continue to live in a majority Hindu community and have never felt the freedom to share their agony and pain that they still live with, for all the past years,” said Father Purushottam Nayak, a Catholic priest and a survivor of the violence himself who works closely with the victims.
These Hindu neighbors continue to discriminate against the widows because of their faith, including forcing them to endure long lines to fetch water or receive government subsidies.
“Though we have forgiven the Hindu community, we have not forgotten what they did to us,” Asmita Digal said. “There is constant fear and insecurity as we continue to live among them.”
Plight of the widows
Digal, like many Dalit women in Kandhamal, is illiterate and unskilled and relied on her husband to financially support her and her family. Years after their husbands were killed in the worst attack on the Indian Christian community in decades, many of these widows say they continue to live in poverty, struggling for basic necessities.
Asha Lata Nayak’s husband, Vikram Kumar Nayak, was stabbed before her eyes. She managed to grab her five-month-old son and escape to the jungle, where she hid for three days. Her husband succumbed to his injuries.
After the attacks, Nayak’s in-laws mistreated her to such an extent that she was forced to leave her home and her village.
“I went from one relief camp to another, lived with my brother’s family for many months, and then shifted to living with my parents. It took me years to finally settle at one place,” she said. “It was hard for me to answer my growing-up son’s questions about his father and raising him all by myself.” Her son Ashirwad is 14 now.
Sixty-year-old Priyatama Nayak is the widow of Abhimanyu Nayak. On August 26, 2008, a mob kidnapped her husband while he slept on the porch and set him on fire. Abhimanyu died the next day from his wounds under the care of Priyatama. She filed a complaint with the police, but no one was convicted of the murder, she said.
Her husband left her with three daughters and a son to care and provide for. Today she works as a manual laborer, supplementing her wages with occasional help from a Catholic priest and relief distributed from time to time by various organizations in her area.
“All hell broke out on me when my husband was killed and left me with four children to bring up all alone,” Nayak said.
“The government just gave a one-time help, but I had to feed my children every day and educate them. Where would I get the money for food and schooling? Coping up with the trauma, caring for four young children, thinking of ways to set food before the children, and above all the fear of being attacked again was constantly haunting us,” she said.
Despite the lack of justice and—in most instances—resources, the widows of the Kandhamal attacks are determined to hold on to God.
“What keeps them going is their faith. None of them have abandoned their faith even in their testing circumstances,” said Ajay Singh, a Catholic priest and a social activist working closely with the victims.
“Despite utter poverty, there was not a single day when there was no food in my house,” said Priyatama, pointing to the goodness of the Lord who has “always provided.”
Her youngest daughter, Barsha, was just 7 when her father was murdered.
“Though my mother gets upset with Jesus, she has no other option but to turn and pray to him,” said the now 21-year-old.
“The Lord allowed this for a purpose,” said Priyatama, “and we will endure this.”