“Christ is indeed alive at the ground zero of the worst [Christian] persecution in Indian history.”
That’s journalist and documentarian Anto Akkara’s takeaway after 15 years of telling the stories of a Christian community in the eastern state of Odisha (formerly Orissa), India, systemically ravaged by Hindu mobs in 2007 and 2008.
Over these two years, extremists took the lives of 100 Christians, burned down 6,500 houses, and burned down or vandalized nearly 400 churches and places of worship. More than 40 women were raped and sexually assaulted, and the violence disrupted school for 12,000 children for years. (Previously, Kandhamal Christians had been subject to sporadic terror, though nothing at this level.)
Starting in 2010, Akkara has made 34 trips to the rural Kandhamal region, where he has filmed four documentaries focused on how this violence has impacted the victims’ lives. For his latest release, The Right Hand of God over Kandhamal, Akkara uncovers the fates of 10 assailants who attacked the Christian community and concludes there has been some sort of “divine retribution” at work. Eight have died, including two by suicide, one in a car crash, and one from paralysis. Another lost his ability to speak. Beyond those whose stories he investigates, there are even more that he says regret their actions and have “embraced the faith they once tried to banish from Kandhamal.”
Akkara recently spoke with CT’s South Asia correspondent Surinder Kaur about his surprising conversations with the assailants, the ways his reporting changed how he sees God, and the courage and boldness of the Christians who lost everything.
Why did you decide to tell the story of these assailants?
In Christmas 2009, the government convened a peace meeting between Christians and Hindu extremists and activists. During the meeting, Bamdev Kanhar, an activist who had vandalized a church in 2007, stood up and said, “We should not attack Christians. We must live peacefully; otherwise God will punish us.”
After I heard this statement from witnesses, I contacted the priest who was also present in the meeting to confirm the report in 2010. I then went to meet Kanhar and spoke to him, and he verified his own statement. One after the other, I heard several confessions from various sources about assailants regretting their actions and began to investigate each one. Interviewing one source led me to another—an act I did not see as a mere coincidence. Instead, I could see the divine intervention of God. Every investigation was a stunning revelation to me.
How challenging was traveling to Kandhamal?
It was challenging indeed. The journey to Kandhamal takes five to six hours from Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital city. Depending on where you want to travel after that, you could end up traveling up to 100 miles through a sprawling jungle district. [Nearly two-thirds of the land in the district is covered by a dense forest.] These are sensitive stories, and I was extremely cautious to verify minute details before I published them because there is no room for mistakes. One needs infinite patience to pursue the leads in this remote region where documentation is unheard of.
What form of trauma do the victims of the anti-Christian violence continue to witness?
The victims of the violence continue to suffer the losses of the consequences of the attacks of 2007 and 2008 and sporadic incidents in the years prior. Some lost their lives. Many lost property. They still carry the pains and struggle with their harsh lives, while holding on to their faith valiantly. They have suffered the injustice at the hands of the government and judiciary where even murderers have not been convicted.
Though the Supreme Court of India in 2016 described the “large number of acquittals” in Kandhamal as “unacceptable” and ordered Odisha State to investigate “wherever acquittals were not justified on facts,” nothing has happened.
Further, most victims of the violence have not received the enhanced compensation that the Supreme Court ordered, as the government made no effort to inform them of these benefits.
Amidst struggle and hard life, these people have shown exemplary faith and witness. While working on my book Shining Faith in Kandhamal, I was worried about the safety of the victims quoted, and so I used pseudonyms and blurred the faces in the photographs I took to hide their identities. But when I took copies of the book to them, they were furious, and they said, “We are not cowards. … Let them kill us. Kindly show our faces.”
Since I first began visiting in 2009 to my latest trip in March 2023, their courage (about being identified) has not declined over the years and is manifested in their response to my book.
How has unmasking the persecutor through this documentary brought solace to victims?
Kandhamal has witnessed scores of incidents that I describe as divine retribution or God’s punishment for injustice heaped on hapless people or for desecrating something sacred, like a cross or church.
In 2004, a 22-year-old boy named Akhaya Mallick urinated on the Tabernacle of the Raikia church after it was torn down. A few days later, he was hospitalized for urine blockage. He confessed to the doctor about his act at the church and then went and met the parish priest and confessed his sin. Mallick died a few days later … his older brother Pramod’s wife, Sharddha Nayak, confirmed.
Mallick’s sudden death instilled fear of the living God in his brother Pramod (who in 1999 had become a follower of Christ but due to pressure from family had recanted his faith), and Shardha and Pramod started to attend church regularly.
On the other hand, there are everyday incidents witnessed by the victims where their Hindu neighbors (who were part of the violence then) have confessed their participation and regret their involvement.
A pastor shared with me how his neighbor who had pulled down his house helped him rebuild it nearly two years later.
I know of Hindu assailants whom I met attending (Christian) prayers who told me, “We assaulted them and looted them, but instead of staying angry, they were smiling at us. We saw that they are living peacefully, while we have no peace of mind. So, we decided to join them.”
I have also met several Hindus sitting in houses of Christian victims and admitting that “we joined in the attacks on Christians due to the false propaganda. Now we live in peace.”
These incidents of Hindus embracing the Christian faith have given new confidence to the hounded Christian community in Kandhamal. The sense of fear they carried has disappeared, and they are now more hopeful.
How do you understand God’s act of justice in this context?
After documenting these incidents meticulously, I cannot endorse theologians or Christians who claim that “God is ever merciful and will never punish.” How can we judge God? I have solid experiences and a firm belief that God’s ways are inscrutable. We cannot brand God as A or B or C alone. God does not remain blind or sit idle to the atrocities on the earth. Even the secular world has the term natural justice.
Wherever persecution took place, whether [in] Kandhamal, Mangaluru, or other parts of India, there have been incidents of divine retribution.
We had people from across the country who watched the documentary and then shared what they believe were examples of divine retribution following other attacks on Christians. One commenter shared about a police officer who led the brutalization of Christian protesters in Mangaluru in 2008 who later killed himself. People also wrote about similar events happening in Hyderabad and Bihar, where church desecrators met tragic deaths.
How has seeing what you believe is God’s intervention in the Kandhamal community changed your thinking about God and the reality of persecution?
By human logic, it is difficult to comprehend what God has planned or willed. Why did God allow 10 of Jesus’ disciples to become martyrs? Why God allowed those 21 Coptic Christians to be martyred by the ISIS in 2015?
But when I look at persecution, I remember the dictum of church historian Tertullian , “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” He wrote these words under Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in 313, and I believe they still hold true. In fact, I call one chapter in my book Early Christians of 21st Century “Kandhamal Proves Tertullian Right” because it holds stunning testimonies of Hindu converts. I have also come across several “St. Pauls of Kandhamal”—disciples of the slain Swami who have embraced the Christian faith.
Why is your documentary important for the global church?
The unconditional forgiving attitude of the traumatized Christians has floored the Hindu nationalists in Kandhamal. Would anyone believe that there has not been a single revenge attack even in Christian-majority areas?
Kandhamal’s story of faith by the means of my documentary is a reminder to the global church of hope, faith, forgiveness, and that God is in charge.
Do you think Indian Christians and Christians globally pay enough attention to the reality of persecution of Christians?
There is global concern about what is happening in India, especially among organizations advocating for persecuted Christians, but unfortunately, there is hardly any act of solidarity when it comes to state-level interactions. I am reminded of the US President Donald Trump’s India visit in February 2020. Christians in India had high hopes that Trump would mention religious freedom issues in India, particularly the persecution of Christians, but his visit went by without any mention of the increasing attacks on Christians under the Modi regime.
Do you think there are more such individuals who might have met such horrendous ends? Are you motivated to carry on this investigation further?
There are much more than these 10 lives that I have traced back while working on this documentary. I have come across dozens more of such stunning incidents bordering on divine intervention and revelation. After the release of my documentary, I am getting messages and phone calls from sources who are eyewitnesses and have told me about the fate of the individuals involved in the violence. My aim is not to project lives that ended tragically but instead highlight the process of realization that these individuals had whether they are still alive or dead.
What do you hope this documentary accomplishes?
Given the increasing persecution of Christians across the country by the belligerent Hindu nationalists, with the connivance of the mandarins of ruling BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] regimes, I intend to convey the message of hope and encourage my Christian brothers and sisters to trust in God. I also hope this crisp visual presentation of the stunning incidents recorded over 15 years will instill the fear of God and his judgment on the oppressors.
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