Shock and pain

Published : Sep 26, 2008 00:00 IST

Two of three priests recovering in a Mumbai hospital recount their narrow escape.

in Mumbai

THREE priests who were attacked in Kandhamal district on August 24 and 25 are undergoing medical treatment in Mumbai. Fr. Bernard Digal, Fr. Edward Sequeira and Fr. Thomas Chellan, all in their mid-50s, are members of the Society of the Divine Word religious congregation. They have served in Orissa for many years and even speak the local language. They have faced anti-Church tirades before, but not violence on this scale.

While Frs. Edward and Thomas are from Karnataka and Kerala respectively, Fr. Bernard is from Orissa. All three were assaulted viciously and were close to being burnt alive. Of the three, Fr. Bernard is still unable to talk of his experiences. He has extensive fractures in the lower part of the body, including the knees, hip and shins, and wounds at the back of the head which needed stitches.

Fr. Thomas, 57, director of the Divyajyoti Pastoral Centre, narrates his experience:

I knew there would be trouble when I saw the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati announced on TV. I called the Orissa State Armed Police for help. They told me not to worry. Some OSAP men in plainclothes were already posted outside the centre because of some incidents relating to the killing of a cow. But, around 4.30 p.m., a huge crowd gathered at the gate. I could not recognise anybody in it. They were carrying trishuls, wearing saffron, and shouting Hindutva slogans.

A fellow-priest and I and a Sister feared for our lives and ran out from the back into the forest. We heard the sound of shattering glass and saw flames and smoke. We took shelter in Nuagaon village, but the next morning I realised that we were not safe. From the window of the place where we were staying, I saw a small church being torn down.

In the afternoon the mob found me. They pulled me out, and I saw that they had already got the Sister. They started hitting me and ripped off my clothes and kept asking me, Why did you kill the swamiji? How much money did you give the killers? Why are you conducting so many meetings at the pastoral centre? Then they beat us both using lathis, axes, spades, crowbars, iron rods and sickles. They tore off the Sisters blouse and began assaulting her. When I objected I was beaten with an iron rod.

Then they poured kerosene on me and were about to strike a match when they decided to drag us to the middle of the road, where they made me kneel for about 10 minutes. Someone searched for a rope to tie us together and burn us alive. Then they paraded us through Nuagaon half naked. They told us to fold our hands and walk. They tried to strip away our remaining clothes, but we managed to resist. As we walked, people showered us with blows. Someone hurled insults at us in Malayalam [this unusual occurrence is not easily explained. Fr. Thomas theorises that it could be someone hired from Kerala to keep an eye on him].

When we got to Nuagaon at 2.30 p.m., there were a dozen OSAP agents by the roadside. Sir, please help us! I told one of them. Someone in the crowd hit me with a rod. As for the policeman, he just stood there, looking on. The crowd forced us to sit by the roadside. Someone kicked me in the face. Then, someone I knew very well, a shopkeeper in Nuagaon, went to pick up used tyres to burn us. By then the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] arrived and saved us. We were taken to Balliguda where we filed three complaints against the attacks on the pastoral centre, the Sister and myself. Then we were taken to Bhubaneswar [280 km from Nuagaon].

Fr. Thomas was working in a Hindu village and said that none of his attackers was from the village. He believes they were from outside or at most from neighbouring villages. He dismisses the idea that they were attacked because they were outsiders, saying, Most of the priests and church workers attacked are locals, like Fr. Bernard Digal.

Fr. Edward Sequeira, 58, was attacked on the afternoon of August 25 at his residence in Padampur in Bargarh district, where he ran a leprosy home and orphanage. Someone knocked on his door asking, Where is the priest? He thought someone had come for help, but on opening the door found about 20 people heavily armed with farm implements. I realised what was about to happen so I tried to shut the door but could not. One man shouted, Twenty people cannot manage one and that seemed to rally them. They pulled me out and started beating me. They screamed abuses and shouted slogans in praise of Bajrang Bali and Hanumanji. Fr. Edward is being treated for fractures of the shoulders, hand and skull. I was beaten for about 45 minutes and then I collapsed. The attackers had swelled to about 500. They looted the house, threw some chemical and set fire to it. They then pushed me in and shut the door.

Fr. Edward was able to save himself by taking shelter in the bathroom. But he heard the screams of 19-year-old Rajni Majhi, who was tied up and burnt alive. Said Fr. Edward: I can still hear her screaming, Father they are going to burn me. After this I lost consciousness. Her death is a deep wound in my heart.

Initial reports said Rajni was a Sister, but subsequent reports said she was a lay missionary. Fr. Edward explained that the girl was one of the many orphans he had rescued and who continued to live as a Hindu.

Said Fr. Edward: I have been working among leprosy patients in Padampur for the past 10 years. I realised that the preference for sons means that parents often have many daughters before a son is born. The girls are rarely cared for. So I started a small hostel-orphanage to give them opportunities and dignity through education and vocational training.

Rajni Majhi was born to Hindu parents who already had five daughters. They gave her up for adoption to a Hindu tribal childless couple. Later, the adopted parents had biological children and began ill-treating Rajni. So she came to my orphanage four years ago. All the development programmes for these leprosy patients and some Dalits have been for Hindus. For more than 25 years I have worked in Orissa and not a single person have I converted to Christianity.

When the church makes the people aware of their dignity and gives them self-reliance, we are attacked. Dalits and tribal people are becoming self-reliant through our education. This is strongly resented and opposed by the local landlords, who are unable to exploit them. India has a dual identity, one of an emerging economic power an industrial India and a parallel India of the rural poor who are without rights, without religious freedom, who are not even considered by the political powers except as an election vote bank. Religion is politicised, and the rural poor are pawns in the hands of powerful politicians who whip up religious frenzy for political gain.

Theorising about the reason for the attack, Fr. Edward said, Hatred of Christianity and development of the downtrodden is what drives radical Hindu groups to try to wipe out the presence of Christians and their institutions. Who says that terrorists are only those who plant bombs and carry guns? This was a terrorist attack on Orissa. What about these Sangh Parivar members, who have been given the licence to kill, destroy and plunder their fellow citizens? This was sheer terrorism unleashed on the Christians in Kandhamal district.

Responding to the rumours that the swami was killed by Maoists, the priests say it would be best if the Central Bureau of Investigation inquired into this though they do say that the Maoists are making inroads into Orissa because of the absence of the state machinery. The Church has asked for a CBI inquiry. The Centre is agreeable to it provided the State asks for it. Why is the Orissa government not asking for a CBI probe? Whom is it shielding? Fr. Edward said.

More stories from this issue


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment