Mental shift

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A tragedy foretold (Editorial on Orissa Violence in The Statesman)

Posted by jytmkh on September 8, 2008

Way back in 1966, students set ablaze two churches by the side of a college in the heart of the divisional town of Berhampore in Orissa. The indiscretion was more a youthful prank carried out by agitating students on the spur of the moment and not communally motivated violence. 
Compared to the Hindi heartland, communal disturbances were a relatively rare phenomenon in Orissa till the eighties. The atrocities unleashed on the Hindus in East Pakistan in 1964 set off a serious communal backlash in parts of eastern India, including Kolkata, Jamshedpur, Ranchi and Rourkela.  
The riots in the Rourkela Steel Township against the Muslim community were the first major outbreak of communal violence in post-independence Orissa. Since then there has been no significant Hindu-Muslim strife in the state, though lately Hindu fundamentalist forces have launched a sustained violent campaign against the indigenous Christian community in the remote tribal areas of the state. 

Communal hatred

Since 1999, BJP affiliates like the Bajrang Dal, Viswa Hindu Parishad, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram have systematically fomented communal hatred and engineered inter-religious clashes at different places in Orissa in a bid to expand their parent party’s political support base. The post-Babari attacks on the religious minorities include social and economic boycotts, vandalism, torching of private and public properties, physical and emotional threats, abuse and violence, including torture, rape, arson and murder. 
In January 1999, Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh and his associates murdered Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, in Keonjhar district when they were sleeping in their camper. Next month, Jacqueline Mary, a Catholic nun, was gang-raped by some men in the neighbouring Mayurbhanj district. In September 1999, Atul Das, a Catholic priest, was murdered in the same Mayurbhanj district. 
In February 2004, in Jagatsinghpur district, seven Christian women and a male pastor were forcibly tonsured and a social boycott was imposed on them, which continues till today. In August 2004, a church in Phulbani district was attacked. In 2007 alone, thousands of Adivasis and Dalits were forcibly converted to Hinduism. 
Hindu majoritarianism operates with the aim to maintain dominance and Hinduise non-Hindus and other marginal and secular groups, including Christians, Muslims, Adivasis and Dalits, as a part of the goal of turning India into an exclusively Hindu state. 
The Sangh Parivar perceives and projects itself as an adjunct and/or adversary to the state that offsets governmental failure to dispense “morality” and “progress” to citizens. The Hindu communalists use local militarism (as in Kandhamal) as consort to state controlled militarisation (as in Kashipur, where in December 2000, three Adivasis were killed in police firing, and Kalinga Nagar, where in January 2006, 12 Adivasis and a policeman were killed in police firing). 
Hindu communalist groups are estimated to have proliferated in 10,000-14,000 villages through sectarian relief work in the aftermath of the devastating 1999 cyclone. In 1965-1966, the RSS announced the Go Raksha Andolan across India. In 1967, the VHP started operating in Orissa, with Raghunath Sethi, a Dalit RSS pracharak, as its secretary, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) started its Orissa chapter. During 1967-69, the RSS entrusted Lakhan (later Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati), a Hindu proselytiser, with the task of regularising the mandate of the Orissa Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act of 1960. 
The Sangh Parivar extended its reach to Adivasi localities in the state, via the VHP, appointing Lakshmanananda Saraswati, in 1969, and Raghunath Sethi to oversee the Hinduisation and Sanskritisation of Phulbani/Kandhamal district. 
Drawing upon such mobilisations in Phulbani and other places, Golwalkar convened a full-scale RSS training camp in Orissa in 1967 to provide RSS cadres with in-state training. In 1970, the Sangh acclaimed Orissa as an “advanced prant”.
Allegations of proselytisation are a common and key political issue in Kandhamal and other adjoining districts. Rival political parties exploit communal tensions between the tribal Kandhs and the Dalit Panas. Over the years, a large number of Panas have become Christians, while many Kandhs have affiliated with the VHP and the BJP. 
In the 1990s, the list of Scheduled Tribes was amended with three more groups ~ Kui, Kuvi and Kuee  ~ designated as ST in addition to those included in the original list. Those on the ST list are entitled to state benefits and reserved jobs. Many Panas speak kui dialect and demand ST status. This apart, a conflict over land rights arose as land rights of the tribals in Orissa are protected under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. 
Tension rose further when the Delimitation Commission reserved the Kandhamal Parliamentary constituency and all the three state Assembly constituencies of the district for the STs in December 2006. The Panas resumed their demand for tribal status so that their leaders might contest the seats. 
The attacks on the Christians in December 2007 in Kandhamal were perpetrated with a view to dividing the communities and strengthening the political support base of the political group concerned. In the latest bout of communal violence, the murder of the VHP leader Laxmananda Saraswati on 23 August, 2008 was carried out with similar motive. 
For its part, the VHP blamed the Christians for the incident and called a dawn-to-dusk bandh on 25 August. Union minister of state for home affairs Prakash Jaiswal was denied access to the affected areas pleading lack of security. Following the murder of the VHP leader, violence against the Christians spread fast to other places across the state. 

Organised violence

Beginning on Christmas day last year, there was systematic and organised violence on the Christians in Kandhamal district. Four people were killed and hundreds of Churches were burnt down. 
These gruesome events, documented by the National Commission for Minorities, should have been an eye-opener for the state government and prompted it to beef up security in the district, but no effective measure was taken by the incumbent Biju Janata Dal-BJP coalition government to prevent recurrence of inter-religious violence. 
Following the anti-Christian riots of December, 2007 the state government appointed a Commission of Inquiry headed by retired High Court judge Basudev Pasigrahi, but the Commission started its work only a few weeks back. It embroiled itself in a controversy by touring the riot-affected areas even before the notification appointing it was formally issued and making uncalled-for comments on the alleged conversion of people to Christianity. 
In the backdrop of all that happened in December 2007, the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal last month was a tragedy foretold ~ a painful narrative of police and administrative indifference, of repeated official complicity and consistent incompetence. And, finally, it is the testimony of total collapse of the law and order machinery in the sate. It was a tragedy that was waiting to happen and a tragedy that can repeat itself yet again under the present dispensation in the state.

(The Statesman Editorial)

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