Mar 2024


Odisha is located on the eastern coast of India, bordering West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. As per the 2011 census, Odisha has a population of 42 million people with 83 percent of the population living in rural areas.[1] 22.85 percent of the population is made up of Adivasis (officially Scheduled Tribes or ST), the third highest in the country. Combined, Dalits and Adivasis make about 40 percent of the entire population in the state.[2] As per the WCD database, Christians form 2 percent of the population while Hindus form 93 percent. The real numbers of Christians in Adivasi or Dalit groups are difficult to ascertain since Christianity is often practiced in secret due to either fear of persecution or fear of losing their Scheduled Caste/Tribe status and the benefits that come along with it. Enumeration of Hindus and other religions is also complex as Adivasis are beginning to mobilise for recognition of their own Adivasi faith/religion to be listed in the census – separate from Hinduism and Christianity.[3]

The state is primarily agricultural with 60 percent of the population working as either agricultural labour or cultivators. [4] Additionally, mining has a become a key aspect of Odisha’s economy since 32% of iron ore reserves, 25% of coal reserves, 55% of bauxite reserves, 95% of chromite reserves and 92% of nickel reserves of the country are found here.[5] As per the National Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2021 report (measuring the three main dimensions of health, education and standard of living), Odisha is among the top-10 states with a significant share of the population living under poverty. Despite a battery of welfare programmes by the government, 30 per cent of the State’s population is multi-dimensionally poor. The report further revealed that poverty is significantly more prevalent in Adivasi areas.[6]

Politically, Odisha has one of the most stable governments in the country. The current political party, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), a secular and development-oriented party led by Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, has been in power since 2000, with Patnaik winning 5 consecutive terms. In his first 2 terms Patnaik was aligned with the BJP and formed coalition governments. However, after the large scale anti-Christian violence in 2007 and 2008, BJD has independently won consistent majorities to form the government. In the last four to five years, BJD appears to be returning to its alignment with the right-wing BJP, supporting controversial bills that have rolled back human rights and civil liberties on a diverse range of issues, including supporting the militarisation of Kashmir and the criminalisation of triple talaq (divorce) for Muslims in India.[7]It seems to be an alliance of convenience where leaders of the BJD have faced serious allegations of corruption and the party faces anti-incumbency after many years in power. It would seem that the BJD is keeping its ideological and electoral options open in order to hang on to power in Odisha.

The history of Christianity in Odisha can be linked to the early 1800s through the influence of British colonialism. The Serampore missionaries initially worked primarily in Cuttack once the embargo of mission work was removed by the British government. Missionaries of St Francis De Salles and the Vincent Spaniards were also undertaking mission work in Adivasi areas in the 18th century. Society of Divine Word Catholic missionaries catered to the western part of Odisha, primarily working with Dalit and Adivasis since the mid-20th century. Over the last four to five decades, Christian presence in Odisha has diversified considerably. There is also a large presence of informal non-denominational house churches with colloquial names in rural and remote Adivasi villages. These churches do not follow the liturgical form of worship one finds in Catholic and Anglican churches but have their own rituals and prayers.

The primary law used to persecute Christians in Odisha is the Odisha Freedom of Religion Act from 1967. Post-independence Odisha was the first state (although other princely states had similar laws before independence) to enact a law prohibiting conversion using force, allurement, through inducements like gifts or gratification and grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise, or by fraudulent means. Though enacted in 1967 it could not be implemented until 1989 when the Odisha Freedom of Religion Rules were framed. [8] The law is primarily used as a means of harassing and intimidating the Christian population in Odisha. Punishment could be imprisonment that may extend to one year, with or without a fine, of up to Rs 5,000 (approximately 60 USD). The Act prohibits conversion of anyone under the age of 18. For conversions involving persons below the age of 18, a woman, or a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the punishment increases to 2 years imprisonment and fines up to Rs 10,000. Christians may also be persecuted through the use of the Odisha Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1960. Under the Act penalties include fines or imprisonment or both for those caught slaughtering a cow as well as for those failing to disclose information about cow slaughter. During research conducted primarily in tribal areas of Odisha it became clear that the Act is used to register false cases on the Christian population to intimidate.

Pastor Jaykumar (name changed) is a third generation convert whose family including his father and now him have been engaged in mission work setting up churches in Southern Odisha.He connects the ongoing violence in 2022 to the violence of 2008 in Kandhamal[9]. “From that time they know where the Christians live and who the leaders are so they target them. They do the same type of violence – beating us, burning our churches. Not as large as Kandhamal, but it still happens.” The constant violence against Christians in Southern Odisha, primarily amongst tribal populations is linked to the violence of 2008 that while began and had its epicenter in Kandhamal actually traveled south through the Adivasi belt of Southern Odisha till Jeypore, a major town in Koraput district of Southern Odisha. The echoes of this violence have now reached as far as Malkangiri (another 100 kilometers further south from Jeypore) with the violence now consolidated in the area. The case study below illustrates several recent incidents that shed light on structural and physical violence.

Pastor Naveen (name changed) lives in an adivasi village in Koraput about 50 kms aways from Jeypore town. In his village there are about 20 Christian families he caters to. They are a strong Christian community and are for the most part self-sufficient with their own pump that is located near his house. Pastor Naveen has built a church on his land near his house where the other Christian families come together to worship. In August 2022, in a coordinated attack a mob of 500 people from his village and nearby villages attacked 7 Christian churches in a 30 km radius in one day. These attacks included Pastor Naveen’s church as well as churches in the villages of Panti Paani, Mundari Gudda, Kothari Gudda, Sagar Gudda, Gundal, and Ghad Gundal. The 500-person mob went from village to village from 10am to 10pm. They first attacked Gundal where they threatened and beat up 2 people including the local pastor and a believer there and burned the Church. They then went onto the other villages systematically where they destroyed the churches by burning or breaking down vulnerable structures like the thatched roofs. Thankfully, some of the pastors including Pastor Naveen were not there when the attack happened as they were informed that the mob was coming to the village after the first attack, so they escaped to another village and hid while this was happening. The pastors caught by the mob were taken to the local police station where they were questioned by the police. Eventually after the attacks happened the police calmed things down, but not while it was going on. Eventually a compromise was reached between the mob and the Christians, and no case was registered.

This is not the first time something like this has happened to Pastor Naveen. Echoing the pattern identified by Pastor Jaykumar above, Pastor Naveen says, “In 2008 the same thing happened. The Kandhamal incident reached here [Pastor Naveen’s village]. They came and burnt my house and church then as well. We’re used to it. Like then we have built the house and church again. With the grace of God, we will continue. It will happen again, and we will build it again.” The pastor pointed out that the attacks are coordinated. They target the same places. Also, the right-wing groups hold meetings in nearby villages which are Hindu-dominated. “Our people will go and secretly sit in these meetings. The OBCs and Dalits will catch the Adivasis and convince them to do the groundwork. Tell them we are bad. We are converting. That we are spoiling the village. However, the leaders are Brahmin. They all take the Adivasis from the villages and make them do this.

According to Pastor Naveen while there are strong Christian communities in the villages they are generally cut off from the wider community. The Sarpanch [head of the village government called the Panchayat] and other govt officials are on the side of the people doing the violence. “We struggle to get our caste certificate; we won’t get housing under the Indira scheme[10]. Our names won`t be on the list.”

Pastor Michael (name changed) is a first-generation Christian who runs a house church in a village located in Jeypore (about 30 kilometres from the district headquarters of Jeypore town). He lives with his wife and five children in a small house on his own land in the village where he has built the Church as well. In his village, Christians are the minority with only a few families who are believers out of the 30 to 40 houses there. He is a part of the Pentecostal church but runs the daily activities of the church independently with minimal support from the Pentecostal mission. Rather he works with an informal network of pastors in the area who together cater to the wider Adivasi villages in Jeypore.

In March 2022 Pastor Michael along with a group of six people including pastors and youth pastors were traveling to a remote Adivasi village in Jeypore. The group was going there to visit and pray with the few believers in the village. On the way they were stopped by a large mob of 20 to 30 right wing Hindu radicals. They were not able to recognize who they were, implying that this mob consisted of people from other villages and were not locals. The mob surrounded the group and beat them. They accused them of converting people. They threatened them as well. “We will cut you. We will kill you.” Pastor Michael recalls. The mob also recorded the entire incident on camera. They then took them to the nearby police station where the officers there kept them overnight for their safety. The pastors at the advice of the officer decided to go into hiding in another village for a week. Unfortunately, Pastor Michael was not able to go and take his wife and children with him. While he was in hiding a mob of people from his own Hindu-dominated village attacked his home his village. They beat his wife and 5 children and told them to give up Christianity or not come back to the village. They burnt their house and the church destroying the little furniture and clothes they had inside. The mob then took his wife and the children to the thana accusing them of converting. The officer kept Pastor Michael’s wife and children in the police station until her brother came with the support of other pastors in the area to get them. Pastor Michael went with them as well.

When he returned home there was not much left. The church and house were destroyed with no roof and some walls also destroyed after being burnt. With the support of the other pastors the family returned to the house to stay, given he had nowhere else to go. Following the incident, his church membership declined out of fear. Pastor Michael said, “They will pray at home but will not come to the church to worship together.” To date, both the house and the church are not rebuilt. The house now has a temporary roof and some of the walls have been fixed gradually. Pastor Michael’s family continues to live there, and he is still worried about their safety. Following this incident, he has received threats from other members of the village. “If you run any worship here, we will kill you and make your wife my wife.” Out of fear, Pastor Michael has stopped conducting service and visiting the believers in his village.

A First Information Report (FIR) was filed by Pastor Michael about this attack. A group representing the state government came to survey the damage although they did not tell Pastor Michael about which department they had come from.  They told him they will help him build the house. However, no help came. Other pastors supported him with lentils, rice, and other food essentials. However, the other pastors are also not well off, so they could not help him rebuild the house. At the time of writing this case study, there has been no follow up to the police report an no one has been arrested either. Pastor Michael, though living in fear, says he is able to continue to stay there despite the fear and hardship because of his faith in God and the support of the other pastors.

In June 2021, in a village in Rayagada district, Odisha, 35 Christian families belonging to Kutiakandh tribe were forcibly driven out of their villages because of their faith by right wing Hindu religious fanatics of the area. Rayagada is about 130 kilometres from Jeypore and is in Southern Odisha. It has 11 blocks with agriculture being the primary occupation and consists mainly of Adivasis, including the Khonds and Sora Adivasis. Pastor Ravi is connected to a small church there that catered to 10 families in his village in Rayagada district.  Prior to the violence a village meeting was held led by the village sarpanch (head of the village government called Panchayat) and the whole village. In the meeting the village leaders told the Christians that if they want to pray, they must leave the village. The villagers shared that the reason they prayed was because it helped them with the problems they had in their lives – primarily around sickness and bad health. The rest of the village got angry and threatened them by saying they will beat the Christian population, break their houses, and throw them out of the village.

The Christian villagers refused to leave. It was then that the rest of the village began to beat them and destroy their homes and drove them out of the village. Christian communities were severely attacked; all belongings, houses and the church destroyed, and they forcibly driven out of the village. Male members were tied up and severely beaten up in front of the female members and children. The Christians fled to the nearby forest with their children and lived in the open for a while. Eventually they received support from other Christian groups and NGOs. Finally, the government did come in and provided some support. However, they simply tried to mediate with the rest of the village and ask the Christians to return. Most did not and are setting up a different village in the jungle. No arrests have been made at the time of writing this case study.

Kalahandi district is also located in the south-east of Odisha and although agriculture remains a major occupation, the district is also home to mineral resources such as gems and bauxite where heavy mining is on-going accompanied by resistance from Adivasis such as those taking place in Niyamgiri[11]. In March 2022, in a village in Kalahandi district the local church had organized a screening of religious videos for believers in the village on a projector. At the screening in this village, there were about 10 to 15 regular believers who attended the church there. The screening was being run by a colleague of Pastor Ravi (name changed). While the screening was going on, the pastor went to one of the believer’s houses to have a meal. A mob of 100 people from the neighbouring villages came to attack the gathering and the pastor. The believers watching the video fled, some who couldn’t escape were beaten up. The mob also attacked the pastor and his assistant, leading to the stabbing of three believers. The mob then left and other believers came back and helped take the injured to the hospital. There were complications in the treatment of some believers and some of them are continuing their treatment even a year after the attack. One of the pastors was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for about 2 months. The pastors along with a couple of the believers who were present that day went to the police to file an First Information Report (FIR). When the police came to investigate however, none of the believers who were present that day were willing to act as witnesses as they were afraid of retribution from the Hindus if they came forward as witnesses. The police questioned and intimidated them asking about running open and public events such as the screening in question. They also began to raise questions with the families about domestic abuse issues in the area as a false pretext with which to harass the Christians. No one was arrested for the violence and now the believers are all afraid. Prayer meetings do not happen in the area anymore and believers pray alone at home instead.

On December 21st, 2022, in a village in Kalahandi district, Pastor Suresh (name changed) and several other members of his congregation decided to organize a candle carol service. They would go from one Christian house to another in the village singing carols while holding lit candles in preparation for Christmas. It is a tradition that happens in different parts of Malkangiri with different Churches around Christmas time. They went together as a group of about 50 carollers. A mob of about 100 people from the neighbouring villages heard them and came to stop them. The mob accused them of converting people and beat them up very badly. While the exact number is unknown, many of the carollers had to be admitted to the hospital. The mob then then took them to the local police and filed a First Information Report against them saying they were converting Hindus illegally. The believers then filed a counter report for the violence that they faced from the mob. Both cases have been quashed with the police officials favouring a compromise between the two parties. Those who perpetrated the violence go unpunished.

The incidents mentioned above, and many others are occurring with increasing frequency for two main reasons. Pastors in the area describe an organized and active role by right-wing Hindutva groups working amongst Adivasi villages to Hinduism and turn the local Adivasis against the Christian Adivasi population. Pastor Jaykumar is clear about who the perpetrators of the violence are. In Chhattisgarh and Odisha, members of RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal are coming in and creating seeds of hate against Christians. The strategies are similar to what was happening leading up and during the Kandhamal violence. The anti-Christian sentiment stretches from the local village level to the village leadership level and general government bureaucracy at the state level – from panchayat sarpanch (head of the village government) to district collectors to local police. Government officials are described as being biased or answerable to a biased superior who does not treat the tribal Christian population equally. Pastors in Jeypore and Malkangiri shared the struggles they and their fellow believers had when it came to getting their caste certificate (proof of Scheduled Tribe status), government loans and subsidies and government employment which they are entitled to, given their status as Scheduled Tribes. However, if the government officials involved are aware of their Christian status, they will usually be denied these benefits.

This attitude towards Christians is also perceived in the way government authorities deal with the increasing physical violence, harassment and attacks taking place against Christians. “After the 2008-2009 violence, we tried filing First Information Reports (FIRs) but the police did not take up such cases. When the cases reached the magistrates, they were shut down. No warrants or punishments. No action against the people who did the violence who are from the same villages. If then when the violence was so big there was no action, now with smaller cases how will there be action?” shared Pastor Jaykumar. This was the case across South Odisha. A Christian Pastor and activist shared his perception,

“Whenever there is a case of violence which is driven by communal and religious angle, the authorities will rarely file a case and will usually push for a compromise at the village level between the affected parties. If the case is filed, it will never be shown as communal or connected to religion. Thus, there are never any arrests. In Odisha we don’t have a BJP government, its BJD [Biju Janata Dal is the ruling party in Odisha for more than a decade]. After Kandhamal, the state attracted a lot of media attention about communal violence. Since then, they have been actively trying to show that communal issues are not a problem in the state. That’s why you won’t see the cases going beyond the local level either within the court or the media. The exception was the Samaru case in 2019[12]. That was also said to be about witchcraft. But he was killed by the other villagers because he was a Christian.”

Other pastors who are part of an association of pastors in Malkangiri shared their experience with police and state authorities, “When we go to follow up on these cases, the police will only go and investigate because we go together and put some pressure. When we go, they will abuse us and say why are you trying to make a big deal. In one case, the officer in charge told us that we are making his job difficult by trying to push the case and we should just let it be. If they investigate, they will only go for a compromise.” The consequence of this attitude by the state in response to the violence is brazenly empowering the perpetrators and giving them a sense of impunity. Different pastors in Jeypore and Malkangiri attributed the increase in case of violence to the fact that the perpetrators feel empowered and confident that they will not face the consequence of their actions. A pastor in Odisha, part of a wider evangelical Christian organization, regularly sends documentations of the various incidents to the Chief Minister`s office, the relevant DGPs and district collectors when the cases happen. However, he has not received a single response to any of his letters.

With assembly elections due in 2024, it seems likely that will continue to intensify against Adivasi Christians. Radical right wing Hindu vigilante mobs (affiliated either directly or indirectly to the RSS and the BJP) are intent on exposing the weak and unsympathetic law and order and/or administration of the BJD government in Adivasi areas. Meanwhile, facing severe anti-incumbency and increasing allegations of corruption, the BJD government is unlikely to take any action against the vigilante mobs for fear of losing Hindu votes in the upcoming elections. Similar to Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the case studies illustrate deep fissures inside the Adivasi communities of Odisha. If Adivasis choose to convert to Christianity (even unofficially), their identity as Adivasi is violently threatened by Hindu and other non-Christian Adivasis as well as other caste-Hindus.


[1] https://www.census2011.co.in/census/state/Odisha.html

[2] http://www.desOdisha.nic.in/pdf/odisha-profile-2018.pdf

[3] https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/odisha/2020/nov/20/jharkhand-move-triggers-tribal-religion-demand-in-odisha-2225766.html

[4] http://www.desOdisha.nic.in/pdf/odisha-profile-2018.pdf

[5] https://ficci.in/state/1009/Project_docs/State-Profile-odisha.pdf

[6] https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/odisha/2021/nov/27/30-per-centof-odisha-population-is-poor-niti-aayog-report-2388739.html

[7] https://thewire.in/government/more-ally-than-enemy-bjp-and-bjds-strange-connection-in-odisha

[8] http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/Odisha-freedom-of-religion-act-the-conversion-debate/354130/2

[9] https://cjp.org.in/remembering-the-kandhamal-violence/

[10] The union government’s housing scheme was earlier called the Indira Awas Yojana or the Indira Housing Scheme. Since Modi of the BJP has come to power, this scheme is now called the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Grameen) or the Prime Minister’s Housing Scheme (Rural). More details available at: https://rhodisha.gov.in/aboutUs.php

[11] https://www.newsclick.in/we-will-die-niyamgiri-tribes-niyamgiri-protest-against-vedanta-odisha

[12] https://thewire.in/rights/malkangiri-accused-of-witchcraft-15-year-old-boy-killed

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