With the Parivar unrepentant, will peace or the Orissa refugees ever return…

9 Feb
With the parivar unrepentant, will peace or the refugees ever return to Kandhamal?

by Smita Gupta, Outlook India

“Conversion is a complex and emotionally charged issue. Fundamentalists exploit it, liberals complicate it, many do not comprehend what the fuss is about, and others shy away from getting involved.”
—Jesuit sociologist Rudolf C. Heredia in Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India

Sandipan Chatterjee
Persecuted Christians take refuge at the Raikia relief camp

Kandhamal, with its forested hills, sparkling rivulets and riot of wild flowers, is heart-achingly beautiful. The road that winds its way from Kalingaghat to the district headquarters at Phulbani must rate as one of the most scenic routes I have taken.

But who controls all this untamed beauty?

Not the state, certainly not Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s BJD-BJP government. “Like many other tribal areas in the country, it has been left largely unadministered, with even mainstream political parties conceding space to a set of non-political actors,” says a civil servant based in Bhubaneshwar.

In this largely tribal district, it is a volatile mix of Christian missionaries, Sangh parivar activists (who include not just VHP, Bajrang Dal and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram members, but also the increasing number of petty traders and businessmen who have come from outside the district) and Maoists which is battling for the hearts and minds of the people.

The Christian missionaries arrived first, in the 1920s, providing the district with some of the facilities the state did not: health and education.

Then came the Sangh parivar, more than 30 years ago, to win back from the ‘clutches’ of Christianity all those on the margins of the great Hindu parivar. And last came the Maoists looking for recruits among the still largely deprived and neglected people of a  district, whose pristine beauty has not yet been marred by industry, no, not even by a railway line.

The State makes a token appearance in Kandhamal: for instance, policing this district of 7.4 lakh are 500 policemen stationed at 13-odd police stations. After the Maoists raided a police training school in neighbouring Nayagarh district in February this year, the guns were locked up in the armouries. Now policemen rely only on the baton. This, despite the gradual build-up of Sangh muscle power in the district, demonstrated in the violence during the Christmas week of December 2007.

It was against this backdrop that Sangh fury erupted in all its virulence following the murder of Laxmanananda Saraswati, the controversial swami whom the VHP regarded as one of its marg darshaks, on August 23. VHP and Bajrang Dal activists spurred on the tribals (among whom the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has been working) to cut a bloody swathe across the district. As the swami’s funeral procession, led by VHP leader Praveen Togadia, covered the 150 km between Jalaspeta, where he died, and Chakapada, where he was interred, homes of Christians were torched and churches vandalised. Over 22,000 of the 1.17 lakh Christians in the district fled to relief camps. “Had we tried to stop it, it would’ve been even more violent,” says a district official when asked why the procession was permitted. “There would have been more deaths.”

The unabated violence that continued for close to 50 days has not only cemented the faultlines between Kandhamal’s two major communities—the Kandhas and the Panos—but also turned the spotlight on the deeply contested question of conversions and reconversions. The largely Hindu Kandhas are tribals, accounting for 52 per cent of the population, while the largely Christian Panos are scheduled castes, making up 17 per cent.

Sangh spokesmen have accused the church of sponsoring the swami’s killing. Christian missionaries, they say, saw his aggressive campaign to reconvert Christians and ban cow slaughter (both Kandhas and Panos were traditional beef-eaters) as an obstacle. Emboldened by the BJP’s presence in the state government, the saffron brotherhood has gone on the offensive in response.

The impact of this is visible even at the government-sponsored relief camps, never mind the almost abandoned villages. In the Raikia camp—certainly the worst-run of the camps I visited—agitated inmates allege that the block development officer is an RSS man. “The pastors aren’t allowed into the camps,” says Sajib Naik, an inmate, “but on the pretext of setting up a peace committee, the BDO allowed RSS, Bajrang Dal and Vanika Sangha (an RSS-sponsored businessmen’s association) members to come into the camp.

We surrounded them as these are the people who burnt our homes. The CRPF eventually had to throw them out.”

Of course, it suits the Sangh—with the government’s backing—to suggest that the current rift between the two communities has nothing to do with its activities. Instead, it demonises all Panos as forcible occupiers of tribal land and users of false caste certificates for jobs (SCs who convert to Christianity are not entitled to reservation unlike their ST counterparts). While there is certainly some merit in these accusations, the fact is that instead of working to heal the rupture, the Sangh has actively worked to widen the rift.

Fear keeps people at camps awake at night

At the relief camp in G. Udaygiri, Runima Digal clutches the folds of her purple nylon sari convulsively. On August 25, two days after the swami’s murder, she, her husband Ishwar Digal and four children had fled from their village Gutingiamallipora. They came to the camp carrying nothing except the clothes on their backs.

Less than a month later, on September 20, Ishwar received a message from his village that his father was seriously ill. Anxious, he rushed home, accompanied by his wife and one child. There, Runima recalls, four local RSS activists told him that if he had plans to return to the village permanently, he had better “reconvert” to Hinduism or face death. Scared to spend the night in the village, the Digals decided it would be safer to return to the camp under cover of darkness. As they took a shortcut through the jungle, some men emerged from the shadows—one of whom Runima recognised—and hacked her husband to death before her eyes. Grabbing her child, she ran to get help, but by the time she returned with the CRPF, it was too late. There were only bloodstains to mark the spot where her husband had been killed. His body had been removed.

Runima’s story, with some variations, is repeated at all the relief camps I visit—in Tikabali, G. Udaygiri and Raikia. The Christian refugees—a majority of whom are Panos while a few are Kandhas—are all scared to return to their villages. (Even the sarpanch of the Kurtamagada gram panchayat in Tumribandha, Shrish Malik, could not escape the wrath of the saffron hordes even though he is a Kandha and is in the BJD. His sin? He’s a Christian.) They have all been told they can return “in peace”—but only if they return to the Hindu fold. If God couldn’t save someone named Ishwar, what can others hope for? Especially as the parivar can’t understand what the fuss is about. “There are 8.5 lakh Christians in Orissa: only 20,000-odd are in camps,” says Dr Lakshmidhar Das of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. “Why are we being given a bad name for such a small number?”

Most have already lost everything, their homes—at least 4,455 homes have been razed to the ground—reduced to charred shells, their churches ransacked, their hard-earned worldly goods looted or destroyed, their grains burnt and their goats scattered.

The manner in which the houses have been targeted show prior knowledge: as in Gujarat, only the homes of the minorities have been torched.

For instance, in Beheragam, eight or nine km from the Chakapada Ashram where the swami was interred, the home of Padmacharan Digal, a retired JCO, along with 40-odd others, were singled out on September 24. “Nearly 1,500 people came, shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Jai Bajrang’,” recalls Padmacharan. “Our neighbours pointed out our homes. With my army savings and pension, I had bought a fridge and TV. It’s all gone now.” An acrid smell greets us as we visit the charred remains of what was the ex-JCO’s home. Only a heap of half-eaten corn cobs strewn across the floor have survived. Padmacharan and his family now all live in the Tikabali camp. Every morning he and others make the pilgrimage back to the village, walking past a ransacked church, a large broken red cross placed artistically on the rubble, looking for some signs of hope.

Branded! Some put ‘Oms’ outside houses

At the Chakapada Ashram, Saroj Kumar Das, who performed the last rites for the swami, and doubles as a Sanskrit teacher at the BD High School, looks like an unlikely spewer of venom. Dressed neatly in trousers and shirt, he sits cross-legged in the ashram’s pillared prayer hall dominated by a portrait of the swami. “Only Hindus love Bharat mata; Christians and Muslims together create riots,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “They are traitors. They killed Swamiji, not the Maoists—that’s just a cover by the government. Do you know in Daringbadi (a block in the district), they raise the Italian flag on Independence Day? If any Hindu says anything to them, they tell them we will tell Madam (Sonia Gandhi).” What about the rape of the nun? “Can a nun be raped?” he asks, his tone now aggressive. “She is supposed to have said that she was raped in front of 10 policemen. That’s not part of Hindu sanskriti. It can only happen in ekant here, not like in the West.”

As this man of god expands on this theme, one wonders how CM Patnaik hopes to return the district to peace. This is no longer just a law-and-order problem. Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to voices such as that of Jesuit sociologist Rudolf Heredia, who calls for “religious disarmament” and suggests that it is time to acknowledge that while religious commitment is essentially a matter of personal conscience and choice, it also impacts other levels of individual and social life.


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