The Hero of Kandhamal
IN AUGUST 2008, ARCHBISHOP RAPHAEL CHEENATH of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese was just turning his thoughts to a peaceful retirment when reports reached him that Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati - whose mission in life was hounding Christians out of the district - was shot in his “ashram”.
Luckily for Cheenath (pictured above), he was in Kerala when intruders scaled the walls of the Swami’s abode, entered his bedroom, broke the cardboard door of his western-style bathroom, where he had taken shelter, with the bayonet of their guns and shot him at close range.
Though the Naxalites, an aggressive network of Maoist militants, claimed responsibility for the murder, propaganda was unleashed that it was the handiwork of the Christians. As proof, the minutes of a church committee meeting was produced wherein it was clearly mentioned that the committee resolved to bump him off.
Surely this would have been the first church in the world not only to plan the murder of a swami but also to record it in the church’s register. Whoever had come up with such obviously fabricated evidence was not very clever. Clearly, the Sangh Parivar merely wanted an excuse to attack Christians, and the Swami’s murder served that purpose.
In the end, the propoganda took effect. Bigoted cadres of the Parivar began purging village after village of Christians, burning and looting their houses, killing men, raping even a nun and destroying churches and pastoral centres.
Finally, Christians realised that even the custodians of law and order had forsaken them. When the tormentors came, they all ran to the forests, which sheltered them for days. The old men and women who could not flee as fast as the able-bodied were simply slaughtered. Never before had Christians in India faced such a vicious attack, the only exception being the persecution they suffered during the regime of Tipu Sultan in the 18th century.
Overnight Cheenath was catapulted to the unenviable position of leading a community devastated by the pogrom that continued for several weeks. The statistics were simply overwhelming. Let me quote John Dayal, who has been using every forum from pulpit to periodicals to expose the perpetrators of one of modern-India’s most shameful episodes:
“When the fires died down, more than 54,000 people had become refugees in their own homeland, over 400 villages had been purged of Christian presence, a hundred people had been killed and over 5,600 houses burnt”.
When Cheenath returned to Orissa as early as he could, he could have rushed to Kandhamal where martyrdom, like the one that visited his former diocesan treasurer Father Bernard Digal, awaited him. Alternatively, he could have fallen into the trap of a trumped-up murder case from which it would have been near-impossible for him to emerge unscathed.
Instead, he worked behind the scenes to bring a ray of hope into the lives of his people. Today even his trenchant critics would readily admit that Cheenath has been able to recapture the imagination of his people and provide them purposeful leadership. “It’s all God’s grace,” Cheenath said in a recent interview.