By Santosh Digal, BosNewsLife Asia Correspondent reporting from India
NEW DELHI, INDIA (BosNewsLife)-- Church leaders in India on Wednesday, June 30, welcomed a seven year jail sentence for a leader of an influential Hindu party who was seen as the mastermind behind anti-Christian violence in India's eastern state of Orissa that killed scores of people in 2008.
A local court said 30-year-old Manoj Pradhan, a legislator and leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or 'Indian People’s Party, was involved in murdering Parikhita Digal, one of at least 70 people killed during the August-October clashes of 2008 in Orissa's Kandhamal District.
Besides killing the Christian on August 27, 2008, Pradhan was accused of torching houses of people belonging to the Christian minority. Another person, Prafulla Mallick, was also sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in the murder case.
Additionally, Pradhan and Mallick were ordered to pay a fine of 6,000 Rupees (128 dollars) to avoid an addition six months jail. Pradhan said he would appeal against the verdict in the Orissa High Court.
Priest Jugal Kishore Digal, a social worker who supports Christians in Orissa, said however he was pleased with the outcome of the trial.
"With the conviction of Manoj, the victims of Kandhamal feel relief and have placed their home and confidence in judiciary," he told BosNewslife. "They believe that justice has been done to them and no body in the country can take law into their hands. It is a great warning and lesson for those who have a tendency to create this sort of turmoil," the priest added.
Pradhan has also been charged in some 14 cases of rioting and murder, but he was acquitted in seven of them while six more are yet to be tried.
The violence erupted on August 23, 2008, following the killing of a local Hindu religious leader, Swami Laxamananda Saraswati and four of his followers. Although Maoists claimed responsibility for the attack, Hindus blamed Christians.
The deadly clashes displaced 50,000 people, many of whom remain afraid to return home, according to Christian officials.
"My heart is in Kandhamal since I first saw the communal flames, riots, killings and destruction by pro-Hindu groups carried over Christians after Christmas 2007 and August 2008," said John Dayal, secretary general of advocacy group All India Christian Council and a prominent human rights activist. "Let us us hope the people of Kandhamal and all those who suffered so much get justice, and peace."
Christian observers say the clashes in Orissa underscore concern among hard-line Hindu groups about the spread of Christianity, especially among 'Dalits', who are deemed the lowest caste in India's ancient system of Hinduism.