By Sandhya Jain

Was the alleged rape of an Orissa nun, following the assassination of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four sanyasis in Kandhamal on Krishna Janmasthami, Aug. 23, 2008, an afterthought by missionaries targetted by enraged Hindus? Was it a planned vengeance, aimed at garnering the international spotlight and forcing Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to break off his alliance with the BJP, which empathized with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s anger at the murder of its octogenarian leader?

The questions are legitimate given Father Thomas Chellan’s admission in court on July 26, 2010, that he did not report the alleged rape of the nun when filing the first information report (FIR) with the police on Aug. 26, 2008. The Baliguda Catholic Church pastor, a key witness in the case, admitted during cross-examination before Cuttack district and sessions judge Bira Kishore Mishra, that he had not mentioned rape in the FIR filed a day after the alleged rape. His complaint caused the arrest of 23 persons.
The alleged rape of the 29-year-old nun from Sambalpur occurred on Aug. 25 in Kandhamal district, a day after agitated Hindus went on the rampage to protest the gunning down of the Swami and his disciple-monks in the precincts of his own ashram. The Swami had previously escaped several attempts on his life and had received death threats from missionaries infuriated by his anti-conversion activities.

The nun worked at Divyajyoti Pastoral Centre at K Nugaon block. She was reportedly dragged out of a retired head clerk’s house by 40-odd armed men who chanted ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai,’ taken to the office of an NGO, Jan Vikash, where one man raped her. At that time, 12 policemen of the Orissa State Armed Police were camping in a school in front of the NGO office. The nun identified the main accused as one Santosh Patnaik, alias Mitu.

Father Chellan was reportedly beaten and paraded half-naked on the road the same day. He identified two accused in court as being part of the mob that attacked his church, but had failed to identify either man during the test identification parade held at Choudwar jail last year. The case was initially committed to a fast-track court in Kandhamal that was trying all riot cases, but was transferred to a sessions court in Cuttack after the nun petitioned that she felt unsafe in Kandhamal. (This is now the standard refrain in all anti-Hindu cases; Gujarat ex-minister Amit Shah is only the latest victim).
Interestingly, Dr Chotray Marandia, who first treated the nun after the alleged assault-cum-rape, testified on Aug. 28 that she had only complained of swelling on her face. “I only treated the swelling on her face and she did not complain of anything else,” he replied when asked by defence lawyers about other injuries on her body. So we have no evidence of rape or any sexual activity. The then block development officer, B.B. Mishra, testified that he had accompanied the nun and priest to the local police station to file their complaint about the mob attack. Both thus had full official protection while filing the complaint, and cannot claim that the police did not record the FIR properly, or that the rape charge was ignored by the police. These testimonies are damning.

That the rape is most likely a fabrication can be seen from the nervousness of the prosecution. Earlier, her lawyers had sought a month’s time for the nun to appear before the court. This is suspicious to say the least, but fits in with the church’s hiding the nun from the local people and producing a veiled woman with a thick Malayalam accent at a press conference in Delhi. Interesting, last Saturday, the nun failed to identify the key accused at a test identification parade.

The Church-prosecution embarrassment has been aggravated by the June 12, 2010 arrest of Pandit Bishimajhi for allegedly plotting to kill the nun and priest to prevent them from testifying against the mob. It was alleged that Bishimajhi led several mob attacks, one of which stripped and paraded the nun and Father Chellan, and is thus complicit in the fast-disintegrating rape case.

It may be appropriate to put the anti-missionary violence in context. The Kandhamal violence broke out after the murder of Swami Laxmanananda, whose tireless efforts to uplift the tribal communities and protect their religion and culture against aggressive proselytisation infuriated the evangelists and Maoist goons (mostly converts). The Swami was severely injured in an attack on Christmas Eve 2007, and had then accused a Congress MP and World Vision chief for the attack. He alleged a nexus between Maoist terrorists and missionaries; which is why when Maoists claimed responsibility for the killings, public ire was directed at the missionaries. Certainly the murders had a purely religious motivation; Orissa has in recent years seen an influx of rich American Baptists, for soul-harvesting purposes.

Beginning on December 26, 1970, Swami Laxmanananda was attacked eight times before he was finally struck down by AK-47-wielding assailants in 2008, according to the fact-finding commission chaired by Additional Advocate General of Rajasthan, G.S. Gill. Soon after the multiple murders in the ashram, state police arrested World Vision employee Pradesh Kumar Das while escaping from the district. Later, two men, Vikram Digal and William Digal were arrested from the house of a local militant Christian, Lal Digal, at Nugaon; they admitted having joined a group of 28 assailants. Then, in July 2009, a Maoist couple, Surendra Vekwara and Ruby, also allegedly involved in the killings, surrendered to the Orissa police. One does not know how the state government intends to prosecute the cases against these persons, especially as the sensational rape case is silently falling apart!

However, as I have previously argued, the murder of Swami Laxmanananda closely resembles the murder of Swami Shanti Kaliji Maharaj in Tripura in August 2000. The latter was also shot in his own ashram by gun-wielding goons after several dire warnings against his anti-conversion activities in the tribal belt were ignored. Swami Laxmanananda’s murder prompted Biju Janata Dal MP Tathagata Satpathy to insist that there was an urgent need for an anti-conversion legislation as aggressive proselytisation was hurting the social fabric.

Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati had, just before his murder, demanded a national debate on conversions and an end to the foreign funding to NGOs. This is an urgent imperative.

This article originally appeared in VijayVani, an opinions forum

 

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