Telling people’s stories has been the journalist’s passion. That inspired him to take the profession to a higher pedestal and be a voice for the voiceless victims of the orchestrated anti-Christian violence in remote Kandhamal district in Odisha state.
When the national media forgot the simmering anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal jungles from August 2008, it was Akkara who stirred the national conscience with his investigative book 'Kandhamal - a blot on Indian Secularism' after repeated arduous trips to the jungle region.
(Christian targets across Kandhamal went up in flames after the murder or Hindu Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on August 23, 2008. Weeks of unabated violence, triggered by the propaganda that the Hindu leader's murder was a Christian conspiracy, left nearly 100 Christians dead. The unabated violence also left 300 churches and 6,000 Christian houses damaged rendering more than 56,000 Christians homeless with the state mandarins remaining largely spectators.)
Since veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar described the book as 'one of the must-read books' at its launch in New Delhi in April 2009, it was hailed by cross sections. During the Bangalore launch, Justice M F Saldana suggested that given the objectivity of the book, it should be treated as an 'official report' of the Kandhamal violence and the government should act on it. K G Kannabiran, president of People's Union for Civil Liberties, hailed the book as 'a charge-sheet on Kandhamal' during the launch in Hyderabad. Renowned litterateur Sukumar Azhikode recommended the book to be made a 'text-book' at its release at the Kerala Sahitya Academy.
Given the impact the investigative book made, the author had a personal audience with P. Chidambaram, the Home Minister of India. Chidambaram not only visited Kandhamal soon after receiving the book from the author, he even told Indian Parliament in July 2009 that what happened in Kandhamal was 'a blot on the face of Orissa' – quoting the title of the book.
The journalist’s maiden book had been provoked by refusal of government officials to register criminal cases even in murders. In three weeks after the release of the book, Odisha government acknowledged five murders highlighted in it, paving way for the half a million rupee ($ 6,600) compensation to each of the dependant families. Despite his goal being achieved on ‘unacknowledged murders’, Akkara has been making frequent trips to the remote region in the pursuit of Truth and Justice for Kandhamal’s voiceless people even in the 12rth year.
After laying bare before the nation ‘the true story' of Kandhamal as 'The Hindu' remarked, Akkara's brought out his second book 'Shining Faith in Kandhamal' in October 2009, awakening the Christian world to the incredible witness of the poor but valiant Christians.
Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, Major Archbishop and president of Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) in his 'Foreword' to the book described it as 'A Book of Revelation'. "Shining Faith in Kandhamal reveals a true journalist who cannot remain a mute spectator in the face of inhuman atrocities. Love and responsibility for one's fellowmen finds expression in concern for the truth," pointed out Cardinal Vithayathil.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for Evangelisation of People’s of the Vatican who released ‘Early Christians of 21 Century - stories of incredible Christian witness from Kandhamal jungles’, in February 2013 remarked: ”The story of Kandhamal’s martyrs is continuing to inspire us.”
Hindu nationalist conspiracy
Soon after the Swami's murder, four Christians had been beaten up and dumped in police station by Hindu bigots, after inserting the Bible and a knife in their bags. It was Praveen Togadia, leader of World Hindu Council (Viswa Hindu Parishad), who announced the names of Swami's ‘Christian killers', and not the police.
The police released them after 40 days of detention and arrested seven ‘innocent’ Christians - six of them illiterates including a mentally challenged. After four years of trial, the second judge too, who had bluntly questioned the prosecution, was transferred in 2013 and the special Fast Track Court was shut down before delivering the verdict.
Soon, Akkara called on Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde in New Delhi, requesting a federal inquiry into Kandhamal due to the bizarre situation: Fast Track trial over, judge transferred, court shut down and innocents behind bars.
With these shocking inputs and data from Christian and secular groups, the journalist brought out 'Kandhamal craves for Justice' on the 5th anniversary in 2013, drawing national attention to the travesty of justice - a single conviction in 29 murder trials completed while ‘innocent’ Christians languished behind bars on trumped up murder up charge.
Justice Ajit Prakash Shah, former chief justice of Delhi, hailed that “this book has a story to tell" at its release. Yet calls for federal inquiry into Kandhamal to end the travesty of justice went unheard as media remained indifferent to Kandhamal amid the Hindu nationalist surge with the BJP winning more state elections.
Online Campaign for Kandhamal’s Innocents
In the pursuit of truth and justice for Kandhamal’s voiceless people, the journalist author unearthed clinching evidences that left little doubt as to why seven innocent Christians - six of them illiterates including a mentally challenged – were languishing in jail.
Bijay Kumar Sanseth, Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Buddhadeb Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Gornath Chalanseth, Munda Badamajhi and Sanatan Badamajhi had been convicted by a third judge of the trial court - after two judges had been transferred - to life imprisonment for the murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, that had been touted as a ‘Christian conspiracy’.
Following the Hindu leader's murder, Hindu masses - most of them illiterate - had been incited to take revenge on the Christians after the slain Swami's body was paraded across Kandhamal for two days along zigzag routes.
In mid-2015, two top police officials - who had relied upon the same conspiracy theory to ensure the conviction of the accused - testified before the Kandhamal judicial Inquiry commission that the allegations were false. Yet, the hearing on the appeal of the innocent convicts has been pending in the Odisha High Court since 2013.
Conclusive evidence that the author gathered from various quarters – from remote Kandhamal villages to the corridors of the United Nations - confirmed that Kandhamal conflagration was the product of a political conspiracy hatched at the highest level by the Hindu nationalists.
With the massive bloodshed, the Hindu nationalist goal was to entice the Christian world to put pressure on Sonia Gandhi (chairperson of the ruling federal coalition) to dismiss the Odisha government in which the BJP was a coalition partner.
Convinced about the creepy political conspiracy behind Kandhamal carnage, Akkara decided to take the bull by the horn.
On March 3, 2016, the author discreetly brought the illiterate wives of the seven innocent convicts from remote Kotagarh jungles to New Delhi to launch the online campaign www.release7innocents.com. The campaign was inaugurated by veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar in the presence of the illiterate wives of the 7 innocent convicts and a host of dignitaries at the Constitution Club of India.
(The online signatures initially generated three instant emails to the Chief Justice of India, the President of India and Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission demanding the release of the innocents. From the second anniversary of the campaign on March 3, 2018, online signature had been tuned to generate an additional email to the Chief Justice of Odisha High Court as well.)
Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?
This investigative book, brought out in May 2016, has been the journalist author’s masterpiece on Kandhamal. It laid bare the fraud perpetrated by Hindu nationalists and the shocking travesty of justice with seven innocent Christians languishing in jail for a crime they never committed.
The book with Foreword by Kuldip Nayar made the media rewrite the Kandhamal Christian conspiracy script. ‘Kandhamal Tale in New Light’, wrote the national English daily ‘The Telegraph.’ 'Sambad', leading Odia daily, declared that 'People have been fooled' with the Hindu nationalist propaganda that the Hindu leader’s murder was a Christian conspiracy.
During the release of the Malayalam translation of this book on December 13, 2016, Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala, called for ‘a fresh probe’ into Kandhamal as seven innocent Christians continued to languish in jail.
The road to expose the Kandhamal fraud has been riddled with painful memories too. Gauri Lankesh, outspoken journalist who stood with the author at the release of the book in Bangalore, was shot dead on September 5, 2017.
More Stunning Facts
After 25 trips to the remote region, the journalist author brought out the revised edition of the nationally acclaimed book ‘Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?’ on December 28, 2017 in New Delhi.
Kuldip Nayar and leaders of opposition political parties highlighted the judicial farce and travesty of justice in Kandhamal, exposed by the book, leading to news headlines like Book questions conviction of Christians in Kandhamal violence, Not silence, time to preserve liberated India, says Kuldip Nayar, Questions Over Alleged Cover-Up of Kandhamal Killings.
The secular conscience keepers of Odisha led by Goldman prize winner Prafulla Samantara stood by the author and over three dozen media persons attended the release of the revised edition of the book in Bhubaneswar, Odisha capital, on January 4, 2018.
The result was headlines like ‘Sangh Parivar’s (Hindu Nationalist) role in Swami’s murder, Mockery of judicial system, People fooled, Hindus question conviction of innocent Christians’.
On August 23, 2018 - on the 10th anniversary of Kandhamal, Akkara brought out the stunning documentary ‘INNOCENTS IMPRISONED’ - visual presentation of Kandhamal’s continuing travesty of justice. Subsequently, the documentary that ends with calling for endorsing the online petition for the release or the innocents has been dubbed into key Odia, Hindi and Malayalam languages.
The 17-minute documentary inspired ‘THE WIRE’ (critical news portal) interview - 10 Years of Kandhamal Riots: “7 Innocents Have Been Convicted,” Says Anto Akkara. The bare-all interview exposed why the ‘innocents’ including a mentally challenged continued to languish in jail for a crime they never committed. This question was reinforced when the bail plea of the ‘innocent’ convicts was bluntly dismissed by a newly brought in Odisha High Court judge a second time on December 4, 2018 – contrary to the norms laid down by the Supreme Court of India.
Bail for the ‘Innocents’
Christian networks that had been taking care of the legal battle for the ‘innocents’ moved the Supreme Court in early 2019 challenging the denial of bail. When the Supreme Court granted bail to Gornath Chalanseth, Akkara rushed to Kandhamal to receive the first ‘innocent’ coming out on May 21. That was on the request of his son as Akkara had been supporting the struggling families of the ‘innocents’ in a unique way - connecting donors and his readers directly to their families without handling donations.
Two months later, Bijay Kumar Sanseth too was granted bail by the Supreme Court. However, the bail applications of the remaining five - Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Buddhadeb Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Munda Badamajhi and Sanathan Badamajhi got adjourned repeatedly in the Supreme Court. The routine hearing on the bail applications were adjourned - not by judges but by the office of the Registrar of the Supreme Court!
Akkara challenged this judicial farce in a November 21 Facebook post “When will the Hon'ble Judges of the Supreme Court fix the 'COMPUTER' bug in the Registrar's Office that has been adjourning repeatedly the bail pleas of Kandhamal's remaining five INNOCENTS?”
(Coincidence or not, the bail order for the remaining five ‘Innocents’ from the Supreme Court came five days later on November 26 - the next ‘computer generated’ date of hearing.)
"Justice for 7 Innocents of Kandhamal"
Following the bail order for the remaining five, Akkara cut short a reporting trip to Europe and rushed to Kandhamal to receive the ‘Innocents coming out of jail’, parade them before the media, and revise the campaign to ‘Justice for 7 Innocents of Kandhamal’. The campaign for 'Release 7 Innocents of Kandhamal' was modified to 'Justice for 7 Innocents of Kandhamal' at a news conference in Berhampur on December 12, 2019 in the presence of the Innocents.
The journalist author brought at great risk the Christians on bail to Bangalore in south India mid-February 2020. Presenting the innocents before the assembly of nearly 200 Catholic bishops in India, Akkara reminded them about the silence of the Christian community to the innocents belonging to evangelical churches due to fear of the ruling BJP. “Faith must lead to Action,” urged Akkara, calling for solidarity in the fight for justice for the ‘Innocents’ of Kandhamal.