How Indian media 'categorically failed' a murdered Christian teenager

Christians across India are experiencing hostility(Photo: Unsplash/llzhrs)

Indian media 'categorically failed' a teenager who was brutally murdered by Hindu nationalists after a campaign of violence, according to Christian charity Open Doors.

Sukumar*, from a village in Southern Odisha, 'was hacked with a blunt object, and bludgeoned to death' on June 4, 2020.

The account of his killing, which features in the report 'Destructive Lies: Disinformation, speech that incites violence and discrimination against religious minorities in India', describes how local media spread misinformation, claiming that Sukumar was murdered for practicing witchcraft.

It adds that that press 'did nothing to investigate the back story of longstanding harassment and discrimination against Sukumar, his family and the other Christian families in the area'.

Dr David Landrum, Director of Advocacy for Open Doors UK & Ireland said: "Sukumar's murder was a horrific cumulation of violence which went unchecked by authorities.

"The media, which should act as a check and balance, categorically failed Sukumar by sharing false claims that he was killed for witchcraft rather than because he was a Christian.

"The international community can no longer ignore what is happening in India. They cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities.

"We are calling for a full international investigation of the brutal and systematic persecution of religious minorities in India."

The report, commissioned by Open Doors, and compiled by researchers from the London School of Economics, reveals how Sukumar's family was one of about a dozen families who, in the lead up to his murder, were victims of consistent violence from fellow villagers because of their Christian beliefs. None of this was investigated by either police or media.

According to village pastor Jayant: "The media showed up only when the body was recovered, and all the local channels accused Sukumar of witchcraft."

The violence grows

In the months preceding the murder, many of the families were forcibly converted back to Hinduism. They were tied to trees, their bibles were burned, their heads were shaved, and they were beaten by people living nearby who threatened to eject them from the village if they continued practising Christianity.

Out of fear, all but two of the families converted back to Hinduism through the process of 'Ghar Wapsi', meaning 'home coming'. The remaining families were denied access to a water supply and ration shops.

The Hindu vigilantes then abducted two Christian boys from the families who had resisted the Ghar Wapsi. They tortured the teenagers, tying them up in sacks and positioning them by the edge of the river, threatening to throw them in and drown them.

No accountability

When the boys were released the next morning Pastor Jayant filed a report with police saying that the family were living under threat. But all the police did was to organise a 'peace committee meeting' between the groups involved.

Around the same time several locals died of a mystery illness. Public health authorities declared the 'mysterious' deaths were caused by contaminated water. These deaths, however, were then used as a pretext to launch false charges of witchcraft against Sukumar.

According to the report, on the night Sukumar was murdered 12 men found him at home and took him away. He was bludgeoned to death and chopped into pieces. The report says: 'His body parts lay scattered around, not found till much later.'

The police Inspector in Charge (IIC) had initially stated that Sukumar was killed because he was a Christian and that this was a communal incident. But the next day when the media got involved, the IIC released a statement saying that Sukumar was killed because the villagers believed he was practising witchcraft.

The LSE report says: 'This anti-Christian murder was falsely categorised as a case involving witchcraft by local authorities.

'It was also subsequently mis-reported by local and national media as a case involving witchcraft.'

As LSE researchers recorded their findings in between January and March 2021, four of the suspects had been arrested but two had already been released on bail.

According to Pastor Jayant: 'The fake news that spread across all media channels that Sukumar did witchcraft to the people who have been dying, ensured that the case was forgotten with anyone going deeper into the details.'

*Name changed for security reasons