THE JAIL IN THE TOWN of Baliguda, in Odisha’s Kandhamal district, houses around 85 prisoners, both convicts and undertrials. To meet any of these inmates, visitors have to fill in a form and hand it to a jail official through a window in the prison’s imposing brownish-red iron door.
In July, I visited the jail to meet Duryodhan Sunamajhi, one of its most high-profile inmates. Entering the prison’s main gate, I walked past a few goats grazing near the entrance of a small Hindu shrine, whose walls were newly painted a bright brick red. I was accompanying Jirimiya, Duryodhan’s nephew, who filled the form with his, his father’s and his uncle’s names, and the name of his village. He handed the form to a jail official, who disappeared inside with it. We moved to an adjoining wall, and waited at another window.
After around five minutes, Duryodhan emerged from the interior of the jail and stood by the window: a tall, lean man in his mid forties. He had a trim black moustache and his forehead was lined with wrinkles that appeared deeper because of the shadows cast by the CFL bulb that lit the room. He wore a crisply ironed white shirt.
As we exchanged pleasantries and began to speak, Duryodhan recounted that he had struggled to make ends meet over the years. “First, I worked as an actor with a drama group for three years,” he said. “But I was rarely paid.” He then worked at different churches—he had converted to Christianity many decades earlier, and was given an assortment of odd jobs to do at the churches. But he did not get paid often during this time either. In the late 2000s, after training as a driver, he tried procuring a government job, but was rejected. His inability to make a steady income depressed him. “I started to drink because of the depression,” he told me. “I became frustrated. Because I did lots of jobs, but didn’t get success in any of them.”
Towards the end of our conversation, we spoke about the crime for which he had been imprisoned. “I have nothing to do with the murder of Lakkananda,” he said. “God probably had a reason to put me in prison.”
The man that Duryodhan referred to as “Lakkananda” was better known as Swami Lakshmanananda, a Hindu preacher who had worked for around forty years in Kandhamal, dedicating his life to aggressively propagating Hinduism. He also fiercely opposed the activities of the district’s Christian missionaries, and sought to bring those who had converted to the religion into the Hindu fold. Ten years ago, in December 2007, after an alleged attack on him, the district was convulsed by a wave of violence against Christians. The next year, on 23 August 2008, Lakshmanananda was shot to death at his ashram, named Jalespata, near the town of Tumudibandha.
The killing was followed by the worst targeted violence against Christians that the region has ever seen. Though government figures put the death toll at 39, human-rights activists estimated that around 100 people were killed. A report by the National People’s Tribunal on Kandhamal, a 2010 citizens’ fact-finding group led by the former chief justice of the Delhi High Court and chairman of the law commission AP Shah, stated that 30,000 people were displaced, that the education of 10,000 children was disrupted, and that 295 churches and other places of worship were destroyed.
Several reports and books have documented the blatant failure of the state government to first control, and then properly investigate and prosecute the killings and crimes of sexual violence that spread through the region in 2008. According to Kandhamal: Introspection of Initiative for Justice 2007-2015, a book by the lawyers Vrinda Grover and Saumya Uma, although there were more than 3,300 complaints, only 820 FIRs were filed. Only 30 of these led to trials for murder, and only two cases saw convictions for murder.
The legal system appeared to work with greater efficiency in the case of Lakshmanananda’s killing. In September 2013, a fast-track court in the town of Phulbani, in Kandhamal district, convicted seven men for the killing: four tribal Christians—including Duryodhan—and three Dalit Christians. These men, currently serving life sentences in different prisons in Odisha, all maintain that they are innocent, and have challenged their convictions in the Orissa High Court.
It is not uncommon for prisoners to claim that they have been wrongly convicted. In the case of Lakshmanananda’s killing, however, there is a considerable body of material to support the men’s claims—much of which is collated in a 2016 book titled Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda? by the journalist Anto Akkara. Over the past two years, I studied the material, and the findings of numerous reports on the killing and the ensuing violence, and spoke to Duryodhan and his family. It seemed to me that ten years after the first wave of violence, even as justice eluded the victims of the targeted attacks, the prisoners in the case of Lakshmanananda’s murder had been convicted without sufficient evidence. More worryingly, it seemed that they might have been framed by the state.
THE MOST DETAILED ACCOUNT of the life and work of Lakshmanananda appears in Orissa in the Crossfire, a 2011 report attributed to an author named Brannon Parker, which is unapologetic in viewing the Hindu leader as a hero. According to this report, Lakshmanananda was born in 1926 into a “poor low caste family” in the village of Angul in Odisha. After marrying in his early twenties and having a child, he renounced his worldly ties, became an ascetic and spent several years in the Himalayas, performing austerities. In the course of these practices, he “became more and more concerned about the plight of his fellow Oriya people,” and decided to return to the state to dedicate himself to social service. Among the areas he worked in were health, education, agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as cow protection.
Lakshmanananda entered a social sphere that had been subject to numerous competing forces over the centuries. In a 2003 paper in the Economic and Political Weekly, the political scientist Pralay Kanungo described these forces, among which were Jainism, Buddhism, a multitude of Hindu practices, including Saivism, Vaishnavism, Tantrism and Shaktism, several tribal cultures and practices, and Christian missionary influences, which entered the region at the end of the eighteenth century.
It was the Christian effort that Lakshmanananda sought to oppose most fiercely. According to Kanungo’s report, he was deputed to the town of Phulbani in Kandhamal by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the religious wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, “with the aim of ‘Hinduising’ the tribals and to counter the activities of Christian missionaries.” Both Hindus and Christians expended considerable effort on wooing the region’s tribal people, who comprise around 51 percent of the district’s population.
Parker’s 2011 report stated that “the obvious record of conversion with its Triumphalist agenda, that demands hostility to the Native ways, demanded an answer.” To counter Christian missionaries’ work, the report noted, “Swamiji embarked on efforts that encouraged the people to become active participants in the rich Indian traditions.” He sought to “reinforce the people’s confidence in the Indian traditions and culture on one hand while focusing on practical efforts that included education, health improvement, infrastructure development, self sufficient agriculture and business cooperatives.”
The competing efforts to win over the local population to different social and religious ideologies led to a rise in tensions and violence between communities over the years. This tension was greatest between Christians and Hindus, with organisations such as the RSS viewing missionaries with deep suspicion and hostility. In perhaps the most widely reported instance up to that point of violence fuelled by this hostility, in December 1998, a missionary named Graham Staines and his two young sons were burnt alive in their jeep in Keonjhar district. The mob that carried out the attack was led by a man named Dara Singh, a member of the Bajrang Dal.
Violence in the region was not only of a communal nature. From the mid 2000s onwards, Odisha also became one of India’s numerous states affected by the Maoist insurgency. Since then, rebels have staged several attacks in the state, claiming scores of lives—among the attacks were an ambush on security forces in June 2008, on a boat on the Balimela reservoir in Malkangiri district, in which more than 35 people were killed, and another attack in the same district the next month, in which at least 17 policemen were killed. The Maoists claimed to work for the upliftment of the Adivasis and other marginalised communities, putting them in direct conflict with the work of people such as Lakshmanananda, who sought to bring the same people into the Hindu fold.
Through the 2000s, communal tensions continued to simmer across the state, boiling over with the 2007 violence against Christians. A National Commission for Minorities delegation that visited the region in January 2008 learnt that “Christian properties destroyed in these incidents include parish churches, village churches, convents, presbyteries, hostels, a vocational training centre, a leprosy centre, and scores of shops and houses.” Three people lost their lives: one Christian, one Hindu and one person whose identity the delegation could not establish.
According to a report on the violence by the South Asia Citizens Web, a network of citizen groups, a spate of attacks took place on the morning of 24 December, after which the RSS spread rumours that a car carrying Lakshmanananda had been attacked. But while Lakshmanananda “claimed to the press that he had been injured,” the report noted that “eyewitness accounts and doctors’ statements contradict this and his own activities point to the contrary.”
In the ensuing violence, the report stated, “the entire district was thrown into the cauldron of communal riots, which continued for 15-days. By this riot about 8000 families of 68 villages were affected causing murder of 6 persons, wide spread house burning, damage of several churches, educational institutions, hospitals, molestation of several women including nuns, forced the people belonging to minor communities to hide themselves inside forests for days together under severe cold-waves.”
This pattern of alleged provocation and retaliation in 2007 foreshadowed the violence of the following year.
ON THE EVENING OF 23 AUGUST 2008, Lakshmanananda and several of his disciples were at Jalespata, preparing to celebrate the festival of Janmashthami, which fell on that day. According to the judgment in his murder trial, at around 7.55 pm, “20 to 25 unknown persons being armed with guns trespassed inside the Ashram and fired indiscriminately killing Swamiji and four of his associates.” The document further notes, “It is alleged that within a span of 15 minute the assailants have fired more than 50 rounds.” Lakshmanananda was hit by 14 bullets, and died instantly.
At first, investigators seemed to have a firm theory about who was behind the killing. A September 2008 story by the journalist Prafulla Das in the magazine Frontline noted that, “The police suspected the hand of the Communist Party of India (Maoists), and Director General of Police Gopal Chandra Nanda told mediapersons as much on telephone at 11 pm” on the day of the killing. The Indian Express quoted Nanda as saying, “From the automatic weapons used it looks like the handiwork of Maoists.” A few days later, according to the Indian Express, Manmohan Praharaj, an inspector general of police, said, “Whatever evidence we have got is consistent with the Maoist stamp in the kind of operation they undertake. The assailants had left a note written on the letterhead of Vamsadhara Zonal Committee, signed by one Azad, and it is consistent with the Maoist method.”
But Hindu groups, such as the VHP, insisted that militant Christians had carried out the murder. “The situation took a serious turn when Sangh Parivar leaders rejected the police theory suspecting Maoist involvement and said militant Christians were behind the killing of Lakshmanananda,” Das wrote. The VHP leader Pravin Togadia, he added, “claimed that Christians were behind the killing of the swami and that conversion was the root cause of the unrest in the district.” The Times of India reported that Gouri Prasad Rath, a VHP leader from Odisha, said, “Christians have killed Swamiji. We would give a befitting reply.”
These inflammatory claims were among the factors that escalated the violence against Christians in Kandhamal to a nightmarish degree. Writing in September, while the violence was still in its early stages, Das noted that “thousands of houses were looted and burnt down by the attackers who targeted members of the Christian community. Kandhamal district was the worst affected, with the local administration confirming 16 deaths.”
While the violence against the Christian community may have been instigated by religious fundamentalist groups, the state’s political leadership failed to take measures to control it. The chief minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, has always had a largely secular image—but at the time, his party ruled in a coalition with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Rather than containing the violence, the administration allowed Lakshmanananda’s followers to carry his body in an elaborate funeral procession stretching across 250 kilometres, from Tumudibandha to the village of Chakapad, whipping up a religious frenzy along the way. This was a familiar strategy to fuel violence, and had been seen in—among other instances—the aftermath of the Godhra train burning in 2002. Among those who participated in the procession were Togadia and the RSS leader Indresh Kumar.
Police arrested seven men over the next week, but released them all in the first week of October. That same week in October, the Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda held a meeting with journalists at an undisclosed location, taking responsibility for the killing. As reported by the Press Trust of India, Panda said, “We had asked Laxmanananda to desist from anti-Christian activities. He created a riot in December 2007 and subsequently targeted people indulging in cow slaughter.” And while noting that “Christians are a majority in our organisation,” Panda also stated that the Maoists did “not believe in any religion” and were not “attached to any religious groups.”
A more detailed account of the Maoists’ claim appeared the next year in the Indian Express. According to the report, in July 2009, a Maoist named Surendra Brekwada told Rayagada police after he surrendered that “a six-member crack team of the Maoists, led by Orissa CPI (Maoist) leader Azad alias Duna Keshav Rao reached Jalespeta ashram on August 23 evening and came across four lathi-wielding policemen.” Quoting Ashis Kumar Singh—the Rayagada superintendent of police—on Brekwada’s account, the report said, “Azad told the policemen that we have come to kill the Swami, that we will do them no harm. The policemen jumped across the ashram wall and fled. We asked one of the ashram inmates the whereabouts of the Swami and he pointed to a room. Azad entered the room by breaking the door and then found the Swami in the bathroom. He fired several shots at the bathroom door to crack it open. He then fired at the Swami, killing him.”
Simanchal Patra, who was posted at the ashram as a security guard, later told the trial court in his witness statement, “Immediately after the firing sound was stopped we heard some person living the premises of the Ashram saying ‘KHATAM HEIGALA’”—Odiya for “he is finished.” (The transcripts of the depositions and other documents in the judgment contain numerous errors of spelling and grammar.) One of the attackers pointed a gun at him, he recounted, “disclosed himself to be a Maoist and also assured that he would not cause any harm to us.” He added: “The said person also threw away letter asking me to hand over to a journalist and went away.”
But the Maoists’ accounts were not accepted by the police who, by the end of 2008, had arrested seven other Christian individuals, including Duryodhan, for the murder. These conflicting theories of the murder seemed to be smoothed over in the trial court’s judgment, which noted that “the investigating officer during the investigation found involvement of Maoists organization beside Christian Missionaries behind the killing of Swamiji and others.”
But some police officers did not support the existence of this link. Akkara noted that Arun Kumar Ray, a deputy inspector general for police in Odisha told the Justice Naidu Commission, which was appointed by the state government to probe Lakshmanananda’s killing and the riots, “During the investigation, steps were taken to ascertain about the alleged monetary transaction between the Maoists and Christian community as we received some allegations to that effect but after investigation the said allegation could not be substantiated.”
DURYODHAN TOLD ME that on the night of the murder, he was nowhere near Kotagarh block, the cluster of villages where the crime was committed. By his account, he had left Odisha a few days earlier and set off for Kerala to look for work—but a series of lapses saw him making his way back from Vishakhapatnam on the day of the crime.
“Those days I used to be an alcoholic and was used to sitting idle,” he said. “So one of my relatives thought if I worked somewhere, maybe I could leave my addiction.” According to him, on the night of 22 August, the day before the murder, he and several others left his home in the village of Badgaon for the town of Muniguda, around 40 kilometres away, to catch a train to Kerala. Migrant workers from Badgaon often stayed overnight at Muniguda, from where they then caught the early morning Dhanbad–Alappuzha Express. Duryodhan’s nephew, Andrea, who was around fourteen years old at the time, told me that he had accompanied his uncle to Muniguda on the night of 22 August.
The next morning, the group caught the train for Kerala, but “due to the rush in the general coach, we boarded the reserved coach,” Duryodhan told me. “Then the other people in the reservation coach complained to the ticket examiner. Four people from our group were fined.” The travellers disembarked at Vishakhapatnam, and tried to “move into a general coach,” but, Duryodhan told me, they missed the train in the process. Andrea and some others, who had not tried to board the reserved compartment, managed to travel on to Kerala. Those who were left behind did not find any other train, Duryodhan added, and so decided to return to Odisha. He told me that he took the train back to Muniguda, and slept through the night of 23 August—when Lakshmanananda was killed. By the next morning, the state was already in the grips of violence following the murder. As a result, there were no buses plying from Muniguda—thus, Duryodhan said, he walked all morning on 24 August, and reached his home in Badgaon by the afternoon.
In the days that followed, according to Jirimiya, Duryodhan remained in Badgaon. “He was farming on the land around this time,” Jirimiya said.
Less than two months later, on the night of 4 October, a police team arrived at Badgaon and arrested Duryodhan, as well as two others. “The police asked me to come along too,” Jirimiya told me. He recounted that the head of the police team told him, “Come, we need to talk to you about something, and then we will leave you. You will have to come and sign something.” He said he was shoved into a police vehicle and let go after he signed some papers. He said the officer threatened him, “If you call anyone, we will see.”
Duryodhan, however, never returned home after that night. “A few policemen took me into a van and told me that bada babu”—the inspector—“wanted to meet me,” Duryodhan told me. “I followed them without asking any questions. Then they asked me what I knew about Swamiji’s killings and who the other people involved were. I said, ‘I don’t know anything.’”
A single-barrel muzzle-loading gun was recovered from Duryodhan’s house on the night of his arrest and was produced as evidence in court—a case was also filed against him for illegal possession of arms. “It was my father’s gun,” Duryodhan told me. “We used to hunt together.”
The trial against Duryodhan and his fellow accused began at the court of additional sessions judge RK Tosh, in 2009.
In his book, Akkara described how some key evidence presented by the court collapsed over the course of the trial. In a document titled “Brief Facts of the Case,” submitted to the court along with the chargesheet in January 2009, the investigating officer Santosh Kumar Patnaik had stated that “some of the accused persons, while retreating after the crime had been to the house of one Uttam Gauntia of Village Madaguda.” Patnaik claimed that the accused asked Gauntia for liquor late on the night of the murder. “Uttam Gauntia had identified accused Budhadev Naik, Munda Badamajhi, Sanatan Badamajhi and Duryodhan Sanamajhi who were carrying guns,” Patnaik said. “These accused persons in course of conversation disclosed to Uttam Gauntia that they had killed Laxmanananda Saraswati and were retreating after the crime.”
But when Gauntia appeared in court in April 2009, he stated that the police had never questioned him. “It is not a fact that I was examined by the police in connection with this case,” he said, according to court transcripts.
The prosecution also produced two witnesses that it claimed had heard the murder conspiracy being discussed: Sangh Parivar sympathisers named Mahasingh Kanhar and Birendra Kanhar. But these two men, too, turned hostile when they appeared in court in September 2009, claiming they did not know anything about the murder.
It was only two years later, in 2011, that Mahasingh and Birendra supported the prosecution in court, both stating that they had on separate occasions heard the murder plot being discussed in the days before the killing.
“Three/four days prior to the death of Swamiji in one evening at about 5 p.m. I was proceeding to Kotagarh Bazar from my house,” Mahasingh stated in his deposition. He claimed that he saw five men assembled in front of the Kotagarh high school. “Since the discussion was in connection with Swamiji I could not resist my curocity but to listen the discussion and hid mysels little away behind of the boundary of the high school. I heard Bijay telling Duryodhan and Budha to arrange people and to be armed with weapons to go to Jalespata Ashram.” Birendra, meanwhile, testified that he had overheard a meeting around a week before the killing, in a forested area near the village of Sartul. He claimed that the seven accused had gathered with between ten and fifteen others, including some women, and that some of them were dressed in khaki.
As Akkara noted, “there was no mention of these crucial witnesses in the ‘Brief Facts of the Case’ filed by the Investigating Officer on January 30, 2009 along with the chargesheet.” The court, however, did not find this lacuna objectionable. Tosh wrote that Mahasingh “has stated that due to fear in his mind, in pursuant to the threat extended by some unknown persons he could not venture to depose before the Court.” The judgment also stated with remarkable vagueness that “now a days the witnesses are not ready to speak the truth for so many reasons which is almost known to everybody.” Since Mahasingh and Birender “have shown the courage to speak the truth before the Court, the Court should not disbelieve their statements on record.”
Two other key witnesses deposed in December 2011 and January 2012, more than three years after the murder. Kumudhini Pradhan and Malati Pradhan, who were around eleven and fourteen years old at the time of the murder, both stated that they saw Duryodhan outside Lakshmanananda’s room during the murder. According to her witness deposition, Kumudhini said, “I saw the face of the four assailants. CFL bulb was burning in the room.” She also said, “One person ie the black person who is tall was among the assailants. I am not able to recollect whether the other three assailants are in the dock or not. The tall person in the dock was standing at the door.” The court transcript adds, in parentheses, “The accused who is tall is asked about his name he told his name is Duryadhan Sunamahi.” Malati told the court, “The two assailants who entered inside the room were masked and the two standing outside the room were not masked. The two tall persons who are standing in both ends of the dock”—the court transcript adds, “name asked by the Court Duryodhan Sunamahi and Bijaya Kumar Sanseth”—“are the persons who were standing outside the room during the occurrence.”
Incredibly, to justify his reliance on the girls’ memory more than three years after the crime, the judge noted that they were students of Sanskrit. “A student of Sanskrit requires high memory power to get the Sanskrit verses slokas etc in mind,” he wrote. “Therefore even if investigating officers have committed an error by not examining them at an appropriate time, this Court cannot refuse to accept their credibility.” Thus, based on the girls’ testimonies, the judge concluded that Duryodhan was at the ashram during the murder of Lakshmanananda, whom the judgment describes as “a luminary of Hindu community who dedicated the whole life for the tribal community of this under developed district of Orissa.”
Key to the theory that Lakshmanananda had been assassinated by militant Christians was a claim by the prosecution that 17 conspirators met in May 2008, in the Catholic parish of Beticola, to pass the “Beticola resolution” to kill Lakshmanananda on the day of Krishna Janmashthami that year. The judgment noted that the prosecution had brought its attention to a minutes book, in which was recorded a resolution “to punish the perpetrators responsible to prevent missionary work.” It added, “This court has got every reason to believe that because of the welfare activities of Swamiji and his organization the missionaries operation in the locality have bore grudge and wanted to eliminate him and have got a strong motive for that purpose.” This alleged resolution was also cited in a statement by an organisation called the Hindu Jagran Samukhya on 6 October 2008. The pamphlet claimed that “All the seventeen participants of the meeting, following the brief and command/direction from their bishop … formally decided to assassinate Vedanta Keshari (Lion of Vedanta) Ven. Swami Lakshmananananda Saraswati on August 23, 2008.”
But in 2015, as Akkara noted, the claims about the so-called resolution were debunked in the course of the inquiry of the Justice Naidu Commission. Deposing before the commission, the investigating officer, Santosh Kumar Patnaik, said that during the investigation, he had compared the register of the church with the entries about the meeting that were made in the minutes book. “After investigation, it was found that the entries made in the minutes of the meeting held in the church do not tally with the recording made in the register,” he said. Patnaik added, “I also took steps to verify the signatures appearing in the register with the persons concerned and found that the same did not tallied. The signatures were also sent to hand writing expert along with admitted signatures and the report was in the negative.”
DURYODHAN’S WIFE, GUMILI, works as a wage labourer around her home, in Badgaon, most of whose residents are related to each other—and to Duryodhan. She takes care of two daughters and a son, who are in school. Two other adult sons are married—one works in the village, and another regularly migrates to Kerala for work. I met her in May and we spoke outside her home, which is adjacent to a forested area.
At one point, a heavy wind blew and shook mangoes from the branches of trees, and Gumili abandoned the conversation to run around with the pallu of her saree spread out in her hands, serving as a cloth basket in which to catch fruit as they fell. Duryodhan would later tell me that his wife sometimes brought him “different types of rice cakes and mangoes.” Gumili said that she would visit her husband whenever she had saved enough money—usually a few hundred rupees—to buy him soap, clothes or gudaku, a kind of tobacco preparation.
She told me that her husband had made plans to set his life in order before he set out for Kerala. “After I go to Kerala, I will reduce drinking, earn some money and we can buy some cattle and work on our farm,” she remembered him saying before he left. She added, “It’s good that he doesn’t drink anymore.”
After Duryodhan was jailed, Gumili said, “I used to think about him and I fell ill for one or two months.” She has a low voice, almost a whisper, and paused frequently between words. She recounted that at first she was deeply depressed, and did not know how to care for herself or her family. Now, she manages to make ends meet. And yet, she added, “Even now, whenever someone asks me about my husband, I miss him a lot.”
Correction: The print version of this story incorrectly stated that the trial of Duryodhan and his fellow accused began in 2013. The trial, in fact, began in 2009. This has been corrected online. The Caravan regrets the error.
Rahul M is an independent journalist and a 2017 People’s Archive of Rural India fellow based in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh.