Twelve years ago Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples were killed in Kandhmal district of Odisha for opposing conversions to Christianity and the violence perpetrated by Maoists. Vivekanand Motiram Nartam recalls this macabre incident and the larger issues related to it in this detailed analysis-
“Remembering Swami Lakshamananda Saraswati Ji
On 23 August 2020, it would be twelve years that Swami Lakshmanananda ji was assassinated by fanatic Christian Missionaries and the Maoist Gangs in the Kadhamal District of Odisha. Swami Lakshmanananda ji, a Hindu monk devoted to the cause of awakening Hindus against Christian evangelism was seen as a big stumbling block in their activities to covert the innocent Hindus taking advantage of their ignorance and poverty. They killed him in alliance with Maoist gangs of the Kandhmal district on the auspicious day of Janmashtami. There have been many such killings of this kind, the recent one being killing of Kalpvriksha Giri Maharaj (70) and Sushil Giri Maharaj (35) in the Gadchinchale village in the Palghar district of Maharashtra on 16 April, 2020. What’s appalling is that these brazen acts against Hindu monks and people adhering to Hinduness have either gone unreported or brushed under the carpet. Moreover the state and central governments of those days coined terms such as Hindu terror, saffron extremism and so on and did not leave any stone unturned to further malign Hindus. Therefore, while we remember Swami Lakshmanananda ji on his twelfth martyr day, we also need to know the deeper conspiracy that’s brewing in the country.
Swmi Lakshmanananda ji had come to Kandhamal district 40 years ago in 1968. He decided to be a sanyasi at the age of 25 years and he began to travel. Finally he settled at Rishikesh where he learnt Hindu scriptures. In 1966, when Hindu organizations launched a major campaign to demand a ban on the slaughter of cows in India, Swamiji also took part in that agitation. Hundred of Hindu saints were killed as police opened fire on their peaceful protest and thousands were arrested. He too was arrested along with many others and spent 18 years in Tihar jail.
After his release from the jail he went back to Rishikesh. Kuldeep Maharaj, a Sadhu told him about the Missionary activities of converting Hindus into Christianity in the state of Odisha. In those days, evangelical organization with the help of huge money at their disposal and aid in terms of spreading terror in the hands of Maoists, active in the district (a quid pro quo), were carrying out mass conversion activities among poor, illiterate and innocent Hindus. The so called ‘lower caste’ Hindus were falling prey to money and muscle power of Christian missionaries. It was also the time that Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was becoming active- it had been formed two years earlier. After consultation with the VHP and the leaders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Swami ji left for Odisha.
As soon as he went to the district, Swami ji took up the task of eradicating poverty and spreading education among poor and backward Hindus of the district. In 1969 within a year in the Kandhmal district, he established the first ashram and a boys’ residential school in Chakpad. He also took up to the massive task of awakening Hindus in by organizing various public gatherings and celebrations. His work naturally built up self confidence among Hindus about their faith and conversion was brought to halt on a larger extent. Not only that those who had converted, also started coming back to their original fold. Seeing Swamiji’s relentless work for his fellow Hindus, Christian missionaries started conspiring against him. Meanwhile in 1989, Swami ji established yet another separate residential school for girls in Jalsapeta in the Kandhmal district.
Assassination of Swami Lakshamanand Ji
Swami Lakshamanand Saraswati and four of his disciples were assassinated on 23 August 2008. On that fateful evening twelve years ago as Swami ji retired to his room at 7.45 pm on the auspicious day of Janmashatami, Simachal Patra, one of the constables deployed by Odisha police for Swami ji’s security heard the sound of footsteps outside their tent in front of the ashram. The two other constables present in the tent at the time had eaten their dinner, and Patra was about to eat. It’s important to note that Swamiji was being constantly given death threats by the Christian goons and Maoists unhappy with his work in the area. Swami ji was never given proper security to protect him from these goons despite an imminent danger to his life. On that fateful night also, the three security personnel provided by the Odisha police did not carry any fire arms.
On 23 Augst, 2008, Mr. Simachal Patra one of the security personnel provided to Swamiji saw two men standing outside the gates of the ashram where Swamiji was staying. Further he found that there were many other armed men who threatened him to be quite. Around 20 masked men, wearing black uniforms, kicked the gate open and headed straight towards Swamiji’s quarters, opening fire. As he heard the gunshots, Swamiji tried to hide himself in the bathroom adjacent to his room .The gunmen broke into his room and killed two of his associates: Ma Bhaktimayi and Kishore Babu. Then they tore through the bathroom door and fired at Swamiji.
Another associate of Swamiji, Baba Amritananda, was shot dead in the adjacent room. One of the guardians of a girl student who happened to be in the guest room, Puranjan Gaunta, was killed as well. Outside, the gun was still pointed at Patra’s head. Then he saw a group of men running towards the main road shouting in Odia, “It is done, it is done!” At this moment the man holding Patra hostage threw a letter towards him, asking him to give it to reporters. And then he also ran into the street. A local reporter who reached Jalespata soon afterwards says he can never forget what he witnessed inside Swamiji’s quarters. “There was blood all over and it smelled; it was as if I had entered an abattoir,” he recalled.
The killers had pumped several bullets into Saraswati’s body. They had also cut his Achilles tendons and his wrists. A devotee who reached there and saw Swamiji’s body was so overwhelmed with anger that he hurled a brick at the then Kandhamal police chief, Nikhil Kanoria. The police was quick to blame the Maoists for the brutal murder. As Swamiji’s body was taken for cremation from Jalespata to Chakapad, a distance of 150 kilometres, emotions ran high. In the aftermath of the event massive riots broke out in the area.
The Assassins and Investigations
Even after the twelve years of Swamiji’s murder, his assassins have not yet been properly identified. It is open secret that the Christian missionaries bribed Maoists to eradicate Swamiji for his work among poor and educationally backward tribal people was a big barrier in their conversion and many other illegal activities. In October 2013, seven people — all of them Christians — and a Maoist leader, Pulari Rama Rao,were sentenced to life imprisonment for their role in Saraswati’s killing. Two other Maoist leaders — both in jail now — Dunna Keshav Rao alias Azad and Sabyasachi Panda are also accused in the case.
So far, two commission of inquiry have been set up to investigate Swami Lakshamanananda’s assassination to quell public anger after the gruesome killings at Swamiji’s Jalesapeta hermitage. In November 2008, the Odisha government had appointed Justice Sarat Chandra Mohapatra as the one-man commission to probe the incident. In july 2009, the SC Mohapatra Commission had submitted its interim report to the Odisha government. The commission took serious note of the rampant religious conversion in Kandhamal by Christian missionaries. Yet another one-man commission under Justice AS Naidu was appointed. Though Justice Naidu submitted the report Deceber 2015, still action in relation to the findings of the report seem farfetched.
Constant Danger to Swamiji’s life: Previous attacks and threats
Previous to the plot of assassination of Swami Lakshamanananda Saraswati, on 24 December, 2007 while he was on his way to visit Brahmanigoan village to resolve the dispute that had occurred between communities, a bus belonging to Sugriba Singh, a Panna Christian leader and Biju Janata Dal Member of Parliament (Lower House) obstructed the road. Swamiji was attacked on the spot- Swami ji, his driver and his security guard had all sustained injuries. In a statement, Swami Lakshamanananda had identified Radha Kanta Nayak, an Indian National Congress Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, as being involved in the attack. Radha Kanta Nayak also served as chief of the Christian-evangelical organization World Vision. Swamiji had further stated that this was the seventh time that they had failed to kill him.
Swamiji received an anonymous threat only a week before his assassination. Ashram authorities also filed a First Information Report (or FIR) with the local police. However, no steps were taken to provide appropriate security cover to him, despite ample evidence that there were very real threats being made on his life and the lives of those he served. The Government of Odisha would later admit that lapses might have occurred in his security and would place Kandhamal Superintendent of Police Nikhil Kanodia and officer-in-charge of Tumudibandha police station Jena under suspension.
Kandhmal District: An Area Predominantly Inhabited by Tribal Population
The Kandhamal district is predominantly a tribal area constituting 53.6 percent of the district’s population. In Odisha, the Kandha is the most prominent tribe, the biggest in terms of numbers as well. The Kandhas are the biggest community and by far outnumber the rest of the tribes. They speak the Kui language that does not have a script. The Kandhas are nature-worshippers and believe in a sacred place they call ‘Penu Basa’. They worship Earth as a goddess and is call it ‘Darni Penu’. A majority of the Kandhas follow Hinduism and most of their traditional dance, folklore and ways of worshiping have many similarities with the rest of the Hindus dwelling in urban areas.
The East India Company Act 1813, also known as the Charter Act 1813 paved the way for Christian missionaries to preach and propagate Christianity among these tribes. According to a research paper by AM Pradhan in the Odisha Review, the Baptist Mission Society established its first church in 1920 at Kumbharikupa. The missionaries opened schools in which the mode of instruction was the Kui language, and church officials were given their titles in Kui as well. The Bible was translated in Kui and, according to Pradhan, the Roman Catholic Church published a Kui book Kristo Dharma Kata, which describes the ritual procedures in the Church. Christians started luring these tribes and started converting them into Christianity on a large scale. However, they became more successful in among Panos, a SC community.
Panos is the largest SC community; according to anthropological studies, they are a community of weavers who migrated from the Vizagapatam (Visakhapatnam) area of the erstwhile Ganjam Hill Tracts Agency (then part of Madras Presidency in British India). They could speak in Odia and quickly adopted the Kui language as well. At first, they worked as laborers and weavers for the Kandhas. But, soon, they became indispensable to Kandhas as a bridge between them and outsiders. The Kandhas were unable to communicate with traders or government officials since they knew no other language. The Panos acted as interpreters for them and began to conduct business transactions on their behalf.
Edgar Thurston, the then superintendent of Madras Museum, in his book published in 1909, Caste and Tribes of Southern India writes: “They (Panos) live on the ignorance and superstition of the Khonds (Kandhas) as brokers, pedlars (peddlers), sycophants and cheats. In those parts where there are no Odias, they possess much influence, and are always consulted by the Khonds in questions of boundary dispute.” It’s important to note that despite enjoying superior advantage in comparison to Kandhsa, they were not given equal place in the community by Kandhas. The anthropologist, Barbara M Boal, who worked extensively in the area, writes: “The Konds (Kandhas) for their part being self-limited to the only honorable occupations of agriculture, hunting, and war, have always found them (Panos) quite indispensable for the proper carrying out of Kond ritual and in the provision of certain necessities of life. They also deal as tradesmen and at the time of death in the village they fulfill specific functions which are taboo to the Kond.”
In Kandhamal, in those times, there used to be a saying: “Kandha raja, Panos mantri” (Kandha is the king, while the Panos is his minister). With the advent of Christian missionaries, a large number of Panos got converted to Christianity. It meant a lot to them when they could be in a Church and sit next to a ‘converted’ Kandha. Association with the mission also meant access to education and facilities including medical ones.
Swami Lakshamanand Sarswati ji’s work brings paradigm shift in the Social Situation
After Swami Lakshamanand Sarswati ji’s coming in the Kandhmal district of Odisha, social situation started changing. Though he could not match to funding of the Church in the area but his welfare initiatives and his religious activities attracted the tribal people who longed to adhere to their original faith. The Christian missionaries always looked down upon the traditional ethos and practices of the community and forced them to give them up while there was no contradiction between the Hindu ways and tribal life. This made missionaries worried and they started becoming aggressive to the local people. It was here that the Christian missionaries started targeting Swamiji sensing their ground was slipping under their feet and they further intensified their religious antagonism with Swamiji and his followers.
There is yet another bone of contention between the followers of Christianity and the tribal Hindus of the district. The Odisha Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property (By Scheduled Tribes) Regulation had come into force in 1956. This act bars the transfer of tribal person’s land to a non-tribal but there a large pieces of lands were being illegally usurped by the Christian convert non-tribals. This was all being done with aid and support of the Church and government officials. According to the Odisha government, a large number of cases of illegal land alienation by “trickery and unfair means” are pending against the Panos. According to the Odisha government figures till 31 October, 2015, 22,798 cases of land grabbing were detected in Kandhamal district.
As per the provisions in the law, the SC Panos upon converting to Christianity would lose their SC reservation advantages. But they continued to take advantage of the reservations by hiding their Christian identity and projecting themselves as Hindus. According to government figures, there are 1,48,895 Christians in Kandhamal. But the Kandhas say the number will be more since many Christians are still pretending to be Hindus. Since 1970, the Kandhas have been protesting against possession of their land by non-tribals. These protests turned violent from 1985 onwards, including riots in 1987.
It was this illegality that Swamiji stood against and gave voice to Hindu Kandhas. As put earlier in this piece, his welfare initiatives along with his activities of awakening Hindu tribal population towards their identity did not go well with Christian Missionaries. The situation in the Kandhmal district of Odisha also presents a case wherein once the Indian converts to Christianity, he looks at others with sense of animosity and a rivalry. Kandhmal district in not an isolated case but we have seen such a seeds of division being sown in Jharkhand and many other parts of India. The Central India’s tribal populated areas are being developed as the hotbeds of missionary activities as numerous evangelical missions are carrying out their evangelical activities unhindered. They think of this region as the over ripen fruit that needs to be harvested before it gets too late.
Therefore, as we remember Swami Lakshmanand Saraswati ji on his 12th Martyr Day on 23 August, 2020, we must also understand the wildfire of the conspiracy that’s spreading in the tribal areas of India thereby posing serious threats to India’s unity, integrity and sovereignty.”
(The author is faculty at Delhi University)