NEW DELHI: The recent death of Archbishop Emeritus Raphael Cheenath coincides poignantly with the days when we recall the martyrdom of perhaps the largest single group of Christians in India in many centuries.

The orchestrated pogrom, a targeted violence on Dalits and Tribal communities in the Kandhamal forest district of Odisha in 2008 speaks of the penetration of militant Hindutva groups into the deepest hinterland where they seek to challenge freedom of faith of the common people, in the process exploiting State impunity and the possible complicity of police and other government apparatus.

That over 60,000 people, who were displaced after 6,000 and more homes were destroyed in several days of mayhem, who had to struggle for years in the Supreme Court of India to get a modicum of justice speaks of the prevailing situation. The Supreme Court, which had first overruled the local government to allow Christians to bring relief to the victims, not only enhanced financial compensation, but ordered fresh enquiry into over 300 criminal cases in the district.

The late Archbishop has been partly vindicated. But the struggle he led in his lifetime continues, for many more crimes need investigation.

This columnist spoke with Sr. M. of Kandhamal, two days before writing this story.

She has a name, but one calls her Sr. M. as a human courtesy, and in obedience to the Supreme Court’s directives that the privacy of victims of sexual violence needs to be preserved as a matter of human decency.

Sr. M. Had just returned from the District and Sessions Courts in Cuttack in the state.

She had been summoned to be cross-examined by the defense lawyers after she had identified five of the men who had assaulted her and her colleague, Fr. Thomas Chellan. She was the solitary witness to the assault on the priest.

Her own experience in the trial of her rapists had been a painful one. The magistrate recording her statement would not do so honestly. The high court was remiss. Ultimately the Supreme Court had to remind the Orissa [the state was then so named, not yes Odisha, its current name] justice system where their duty lay.

As a witness in the traumatising assault on Fr. Thomas Chellan, the Catholic priest who too had sought to hide from the mobs before they were caught, she raped, and he beaten to an inch of his live, Sister M’s experience was once again traumatising.

A friend told me later, “Nobody accompanied her; no senior lawyers, just a young lawyer to help her face a very hostile team of local lawyers who carry their ideology on their sleeves, several of the assailants, and a huge media contingent which was looking for some juicy interlude to telecast and report. The Nun felt rather helpless.”

In 2008, she was still recovering from her wounds - to her body and her psyche.

The targeted pogrom of Kandhamal was then at last grabbing headlines internationally, and the Indian media, especially in Orissa, was trying its best to minimize the damage to the state’s reputation by either trivialising the Nun’s trauma, or in vile insinuations.

It was in these circumstances that Sr. M decided to tell her story. She came to face more than 200 TV, Radio and press correspondents from all over the world at a press conference in New Delhi’s Indian Social Institute. She was must too shaky, and her statement was read out by someone else to the media. Sr. M is a Tribal woman of Orissa.

This is what Sr. M said that afternoon of October 24, 2008, narrating what she underwent, as demonic assailants professing allegiance to an ideology of religious nationalism, targeted her fellow Christian men and women in Kandhamal.

Statement made to the Press by Sister M

On 24th August, around 4:30 pm, hearing the shouting of a large crowd, at the gate of Divyajyoti Pastoral Centre, I ran out through the back door and escaped to the forest along with others. We saw our house going up in flames. Around 8:30 pm we came out of the forest and went to the house of a Hindu gentleman who gave us shelter.

On 25th August, around 1:30 pm, the mob entered the room where I was staying in that house, one of them stopped me on my face, caught my hair and pulled me out of the house. Two of them were holding my neck to cut off my head with axe. Others told them to take me out to the road; I saw Fr. Chellan also being taken out and being beaten. The mob consisting of 40-50 men was armed with lathis, axes, spades, crowbars, iron-rods, sickles etc. They took both of us to the main road. Then they led us to the burnt down Janavikas building saying that they were going to throw us into the smoldering fire.

When we reached the Janavikas building, they threw me to the verandah on the way to the dining room that was full of ashes and broken glass pieces. One of them tore my blouse and others my undergarments. Father Chellan protested and they beat him and pulled him out from there. They pulled out my saree and one of the stepped on my right hand and another on my left hand and then a third person raped me on the verandah mentioned above. When it was over, I managed to get up and put my petticoat and saree. Then another young man caught me and took me to a room near the staircase. He opened his pants and was attempting to rape me when they reached there.

I hid myself under the staircase. The crowd was shouting “where is that sister, come let us rape her, at least 100 people should rape.” They found me under the staircase and took me out to the road. There I saw Fr. Chellan was kneeling down and the crowd was beating him. They were searching for a rope to tie us both of us together to burn us in fire. Someone suggested to make us parade naked. They made us walk on the road till Nuagoan market which was half a kilometer from there. They made to fold our hands and walk. I was with petticoat and saree as they had already torn away my blouse and undergarments. They tried to strip even there and I resisted and they went on beating me with hands on my cheeks and head and with sticks on my back several times.

When I reached the market the market place about a dozen of OSAP policemen were there. I went to them asking to protect me and I sat in between two policemen but they did not move. One from the crowd again pulled out from there and they wanted to lock us in their temple mandap. The crowd led me and Fr. Chellan to the Nuagaon block building saying that they will hand us over to BDO. From there along with the block officer the mob took us to police outpost Nuagaon, other policemen remained far.

The mob said that they will come back after eating and one of them who attacked me remained back in the police outpost. Policemen then came to police outpost. They were talking very friendly with the man who had attacked me and stayed back. In police outpost we remained until the inspector in charge of Balliguda with his police team came and took us to Balliguda. They were afraid to take us straight to the police station and they kept us sometimes in jeep. In the garage, from there, they brought us to the station. The inspector in charge and other government officers took me privately and asked whatever happened to me. I narrated everything in detail to the police, how I was attacked, raped, taken away from policemen paraded half naked and how the policemen did not help me when I asked for help while weeping bitterly. I saw the inspector writing down. The inspector asked me “are you interested in filing FIR? Do you know what will be the consequence?” At about 10:00 pm I was taken for medical check-up accompanied by a lady police officer to Balliguda Hospital. They were afraid to keep us in police station, saying the mob may attack police station. So the police took us to the IB (Inspection Bungalow) where CRP men were camping.

On 26th August around 9:00 am, we were taken to Balliguda police station. When I was writing the FIR, the IC asked me to hurry up and not to write in detail. When I started writing about the police, the I I C told me “this is not the way to write FIR, make it short”. So I re-wrote it for the third time in one and half page. I filed the FIR but I was not given a copy of it.

At around 4:00 pm the inspector in charge of Balliguda police station along with some other government officers put us in the OSRTC bus to Bhubaneswar along with other stranded passengers. Police were there till Rangamati where all passengers had their supper. After that I did not see the police. We got down near Nayagarh and traveled in a private vehicle and reached Bhubaneswar around 2:00 am on 27th August.

State Police failed to stop the crimes, failed to protect me from the attackers, they were friendly with the attackers. They tried their best that I did best that I did not register an FIR, not make complaints against police, police did not take down my statement as I narrated in detail and they abandoned me half of the way. I was raped and now I don’t want to be victimized by the Orissa police. I want CBI enquiry.

God bless India, God bless you all.

Sr. M”