Fr.Bernard Digal, the financial administrator of Catholic Diocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar was the first priest to succumb to Kandhamal violence. As four years have gone by since the horrible tragedy of violence unleashed against Christians in Orissa, Fr. Ajay Kumar Singh shares a report based on interview by Fr.Bernard Digal to the UK based Guardian before he succumbed to his injury. Fr. Ajay knew him personally and started his priestly ministry with him.
There has always been rivalry between Hindus and Christians in India, but it was the killing of an elderly Hindu holy man called Laxmananda Saraswati that sparked off the anti-Christian riots that have spread through India over the past month. In the eastern state of Orissa, Hindu fundamentalists burnt down Christian homes and churches and rounded on minority Christians, leaving many of them dead. Father Bernard Digal, 46, a Roman Catholic priest, was among those who tried to get away. He recalls what happened on the night the mob caught up with him.
On August 23 this year, while I was on an official visit to Khandamal, I got the news that Swami Laxmananda Saraswati had been shot dead and the Bajrang Dal was accusing Christians of having had a hand in the killing. We were informed that after the swami's funeral rites the Bajrang Dal would take their revenge.
Fearing for our lives some of us fled to the nearby forest and took refuge there. The next day we returned to our mission house thinking that the Bajrang Dal would have found the place deserted and left. But that evening they attacked. They set the mission house and my car on fire. We managed to escape – my driver and I walked 15km to a friend's house and took shelter.
Meanwhile, I got the news that the Bajrang Dal had also attacked our village in Bhubaneswar. Houses and a church were burned and five people were killed. My friend told me that the Bajrang Dal had found out I was hiding at his house and would attack at any moment. So the next morning, while it was pitch dark and raining heavily, my driver and I left for another village. There we came across a deserted church, which was burnt and deserted. I felt that since the Bajrang Dal had already vandalised the church, they would not return again. We felt safe taking shelter there. We were totally exhausted from the long walk through the muddy soil and soon fell asleep.
At around 10pm we woke up to loud shouting outside. Beams from torch lights were shining in. We hid behind a wall and could see about 10 young men carrying swords, axes, iron rods and crowbars. Then they spotted me.
My young driver managed to flee in the dark while blows rained upon me from all sides. I was hit on the head and was bleeding profusely. Then I lost consciousness. When I woke up I found I was being dragged to a fire. I fought bitterly to avoid being pushed into the fire. I could sense death. I said a silent prayer to St Michael to save me from my tormentors. Then I found a new vigour take possession of me; with one final push I managed to free myself from their clutches. Somehow, I had no clothes on and ran naked into the dark, fearing for my life. But after covering some distance they caught up with me and beat me ruthlessly. Once again I lost consciousness.
The next morning, I was surprised to find myself alive. They must have left me to die, thinking that I wouldn't survive. I was found lying naked on the soil by two villagers. I told them my story and begged them to give me water and food – and clothes to cover me. Then the police came and took me to a hospital at Tikabali. Once the doctors had stitched the wound on my head I was shifted to a government hospital in Bhubaneswar.
Later I came to know through the press that the killing of Laxmananda Saraswati was not carried out by Christians, as claimed by the Bajrang Dal. A Maoist group had owned up to the killing.
There is law that was introduced by the Orissa government known as the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, which states that if anyone wants to change his or her faith, he or she has to notify the government by giving one month's notice and sufficient reason for the conversion.
We Christian and Hindu communities have co-existed for ages, not just in Orissa but in other parts of India too. My sister is married to a Hindu. Christians in Orissa follow traditions and culture that are more or less the same as our Hindu brothers. Under the Indian constitution minorities are given equal protection, but the Orissa government has failed to protect us. It is fundamentalist organisations like the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad that create problems for minority faiths. I want the government to seriously think of banning these Hindu extremists who are destroying the social fabric of India.
• Father Bernard Digal was speaking to Rajen Nair in Orissa.
The Pastoral Imperative for the Church.
The purpose of the Homily.