Attack on Christians in Kandhamal
Swamy Laxmananda’s killing has raised many questions inside and outside Orissa. The flared-up communal violence after such killing is the basic ground for those questions. Suddenly, Christians, those comprise only 2.6% against 94% Hindus out of total population, became enemy of the majority. The poor state of economy, perennial caste conflict, regional imbalance, state repression, corporate globalization and forceful land acquisition were not the subjects of concerned rather conflict over religion - how far it is truly religion is- became the matter to be worried about for the time being in Orissa.
On 21st September, 2008 -after nearly a month of communal violence in Kandhamal- I went first time to the district and visited several affected areas where christians and their institutions were attacked. I was then part of a team comprised of various human rights organizations of different states like HRF and APCLC of Andhra Pradesh, PDF of Karnataka etc. I was interacting with the victims who took shelter in different relief camps of Tumudibandh, Baliguda, K. Nuagaon, and G.Udayagiri in Kandhamal. After that I visited the district once more and interacted with more sections of people. Then I met victims those who took shelter outside the district in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack and Brahmapur town.
Situation so volatile
Rabindra Pradhan, a dalit-christian of Rupagaon of Chakapada block was telling, “they came to our village with shouting slogans. We all went to the forest in fear but I left my younger brother Rasananda Pradhan who was a paralysis patient also. They burnt my houses and threw my brother alive into the fire and burnt him dead. I have seen them because my house was near to the forest. Most of them were of my own villagers.” Namita Digal, a dalit Christian woman of Pipudidei village of Tikabali block was telling “because of my pregnancy I could not run. All my family members ran into the forest. They were chasing us and I just hide myself inside a bush and saved myself. They burnt all our house belongings. Our own village people and nearby did this burning.” In fact, the tribals and dalits went to burn the houses of tribals and dalits of the same village or nearby in most of the cases in Kandhamal. Tribal-Christians were not spared from such attack by same tribals also. Galiyat Pradhan, a tribal- christians of Tiangia village near Raikia was telling “when they attacked our houses we ran away. I lost my son Sachinjit (8yrs) in the forest and got him after three days.”
Then can we say what happened in name of retaliation to killing of Swamy Laxmananda was just “spontaneous reaction” what often we heard from various sources? Or can we say it is just a conflict between Pano - dalit and kondh - tribals what government of Orissa has started saying? If it is really spontaneous then why no immediate violence did happen near Jaleshpeta ashram where Swamiji was killed, not much even in Kotagada block rather it happened more in northern part of the district, that is, between Baliguda to Chakapada block (Raikia, Tikabali, G. Udayagir, Paburia, K.Nuagaon, Barakhama, and Baliguda area) of the district? If it is just conflict between two communities like Dalit verses tribals then why tribals were attacked by tribals then?
Ranimati Digal, an anganwadi helper of Dolikia of Raikia; Sabita Prasad of Rudangia of G.Udayagiri and many others were telling “they were coming shouting slogans like ‘jay sri ram’, ‘jay bajarang bali’, ‘jay hindu rastra’, ‘kill christans’ etc. They had lathis, spade, petrol, diesel and few guns also. In this communal violence the northern part of the Kandhamal district was largely affected. The bigger relief camps were set up at Raikia, Tikabali, G. Udayagir, Paburia and Baliguda inside Kandhamal. At some places two relief camps were simultaneously running. Many Christian families left their houses when they were attacked or listened that they would be attacked and came to relief camps. Namita Digal was telling they spent two days and two nights before reaching the relief camps.
Manoj Digal, a dalit-christian of Raikia has an immediate answer of my question ‘why such violence happened more in northern part of the district’. He was telling “most of the Bajrang Dal/RSS chiefs of the district are belong to Baliguda, Raikia, G. Udayagir and Tikabali which happens to be the bigger trading center of the district.” After delimitation happened, Phulbani MP constituency has become general now. One trader, aspirant for the BJP ticket and was closer to Swamiji, organized such attack in some cases what he was telling me. But I was not convinced with his immediate reply. A group of traders happens to be the member of Sangha Parivar can not organize such attack on Christians with help of local tribal and dalits unless there is a similar voice in among them who went and destroyed the houses of same villagers.
Actually, the news of Swami Laxmananda’s killing by Maoists on 23rd August, 2008 at Jaleshpeta ashram near Kotagada (southern part of Kandhamal) spreaded like wildfire. In the same night just after the incident Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister said “some miscreants” have done this killing though he was aware of it that Maoists had done it. Earlier for every small incident in Orissa, Maoists were blamed by the government. Even when Jaswant Singh, IPS (then southern DIG of police) was killed by his own security men in 2007 initially Government of Orissa said “Maoists have done it’” and started combing operation in Rayagada district. But in this case knowing the fact that Maoists had left leaflet at the killing site and had faxed Press Release to various news offices claiming such killings, Government of Orissa did not accept it in public and media helped the government to spread. The way thing was organized against Christian minority it speaks about organized collusion of bureaucracy, police and media with ruling political bosses to do this attack.
This was immediately planned by the government and its partners including all its machineries, so that, the people’s anger could be directed towards minorities. Swamiji’s dead body was taken with much procession from Jaleshpeta ashram and traveled half of the district next day- 24th August- and covered the places like Baliguda, K Nuagaon, G. Udayagiri, Raikia, Paburia, Tikabali and Phulbani etc without any objection by the district administration and police in spite of section 144 in entire district and curfew in above towns were imposed since the day of killing. The district administration and police also permitted Pravin Togadia, self proclaimed international secretary of Viswa Hindu Parishad or VHP (VHP have not gone for election since its formation) to participate in the funeral procession. They were silent spectator of Togadia’s inflammatory speech against christian minority at the funeral site. All these callousness in part of district administration and police happened definitely in consent of the political bosses. (Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister also looks after the home ministry.) The communal assault on minority broke out from 25th August.
Swethu Nayak, a pastor of K.Nuagoan said “nearly 2000 people gathered at the K.Nuagoan market on 24th August noon time to receive Swamiji’s dead body. Suddenly news came that four Christian youths were caught by Raikia police with bible in their hands who have killed Swamiji. Then entire mob came towards our Christian pada and on that day burnt prayer halls. Then next day (on 25th August) again they came and burnt our houses”.
The armed police were telling to the victims, “we have guns but bullets are in hands of Naveen Patnaik”. The local victims of interior villages were praising before us the role of Rapid Action Forces (RAF) deployed in selected areas of the district but were condemning the role of state armed police. Dedhacharan Nayak, a dalit-christian of Baliguda town was telling “I phoned to the police station and immediately seven armed police men came to our pada. There was curfew in the town but 50-60 people came to attack us on 25th August. Only 10-12 women were with the mob who blocked the police and then police left the area”. Sajjit Nayak of Raikia town was telling a similar experience also when he approached the local police. He was telling how RAF came in rescue of them.
Just after two days of killing of the Swamiji - 25 August - the BJP gave a call of Orissa Bandh and communal assault on minority started in almost eight districts out of thirty districts of Orissa. It continued for some days in some parts of Subarnapur, Baragada, Koraput, Nabarangpur, Kalahandi, Gajapati, Bolangir and Rayagada districts but it continued up to end of November, 2008 in Kandhamal district only. The three months long communal violence took nearly 50 lives, destroyed 5000 houses and hundreds of religious institutions, made nearly 40,000 people displaced from their homes, out of this nearly 25000 people went to various relief camps and rest of the people went outside of the district. By the time I started visiting to the relief camps most of the landless Christian families had already left for Keral, Andhra Pradesh and Karnatak in search of work.
Motivation behind violence
It is said that conversion, fake certificates to dalit-christians in name of SCs and grabbing of tribal land by dalits are the reasons behind such attack. If it is true then why it happened on this occasion? Swami Laxmananda had never raised his voices against such issues except conversion. What is true is that in such areas of Baliguda, K Nuagaon, G. Udayagiri, Raikia, Paburia, Tikabali and Phulbani, Swami Laxmananda had largest followers. Sivaram Digal, a hindu-dalit of Katingia of G. Udayagiri was telling “before swamy Laxmananda came to our area we were poor. Under his guidance we improved a lot. I personally was a student of his Chakapada school and left after two years of study. But I was traveling with Swamiji and was telling our dalit and tribals brothers and sisters not to leave our religion. India is a hindu rastra and hindus only can stay here.” He was giving logic of recent violence, “christians killed our Swamiji and that became intolerable for most of the hindus (both dalits and tribals). So majority people came to the street and reacted”.
Swami Laxmananda came to Chakapada in northern part of Kandhamal district (then it was called as Phulbani) in 1969 and started an ashram and a school there. He was rather deputed by RSS to Phulbani with Raghunath Sethi, a Pracharak to check conversion and check missionary activities in the area. (1) From his beginning he was targeting tribals of the area. He was traveling each and every village of these areas and was participating in each and every function of the local community. Later he opened Jaleshpeta ashram in Kotagada area.
The tribal of the area were late entrants into hindutwa fold also like to Christianity. Bijay Pradhan, a tribal youth of Raikia who was earlier with RSS but left the organization was telling “RSS was organizing sakhas. I had helped to start some sakhas also. Swamiji with help of us were organizing satsang, yajna, and bhajan mandalis in tribal villages and was attracting tribals toward hindutwa. Tribals do say tribals when one asks about their caste and they say hindu when one asks them about their religion. Swamiji had taught this to them.” Ranimati Digal was alleging “ tribals in my village are now observing hindu festivals and have forgotten their own festivals. These tribals participated in looting of our houses”. On the other hand most of the tribal – christians to whom I met were telling “our fore-fathers were believing Dharanipenu ( tribal god) but now a days we have left our festivals and are doing X’mas or some of us are also observing hindu rituals like sankrati, ekadasi etc.”
Krushna Majhi, one of the tribal leaders of the area and who was also president of tribal forum ‘Kui Samaj’ said “untouchability was more in these communally affected northern part of Kandhamal areas. Dalits because of untouchability practices got attracted more towards christianity. Tribals of the same area also identified more with Hindu religion”. Not only Laxmananda but also Gayatri cult might have played a role behind such hinduisation. Gayatri cult, which is not critical about casteism rather speaks that a dalit and a tribal can be a Brahmin and perform yajna (but to leave drinking liquor and eating beef) is equally acceptable in the area. I saw few tribal devotees of gayatri who have been observing it for some decades.
Krushna Majhi also was telling “tribals on southern part of the district like Kotagada, Tumudibandh, Daringbadi and Brahmanigaon area were more taking beef as their age old practices and they did not find difficulty with Christianity. But tribal of the northern area are identified more with Hindu religion because beef eating was not a practice in those areas.” This is why communal assault on Christians was less in southern part than in the northern side of the district.
But why so much hatred of hindu community towards christians? Salunga Pradhan, the previous MLA of G Udayagiri when revealed this fact to me that Swamiji was provoking the audiences in dharma satsang such as, “Who can throw a stone on a church raise your hand”, “Who can burn a bible lift up your hand” and was propagating the idea that ‘only if one is part of VHP, then could be safe’, I was surprised. I crosschecked his allegation on Swamiji at every where and I got the same answer. I was surprised because it had never come in the media. Swamiji then started provoking ‘hindu-majority’ followers in Kandhamal to attack the minority. In Kandhamal and more particularly in those areas where he was frequently visiting, hatred against churches and christian minorities were growing more which came into culmination in August (2008) attack. I could understand the anger of Swamiji who feels powerful because he himself belongs to the brahmanic-hindu majority (he himself is a dalit from a dhobi or washer man community) but I could not understand why local tribal identified more with such powerful majority and came in hate against his own villagers unless and until there is a conflicting relationship between both the identification.
Manoj Digal of Raikia was giving a brief history of such attack in past on christians in the district. He was telling “whenever Swamiji was conducting a program in Kandhamal, there was bound to be some random stone pelting on churches around that area.” Such attacks on Christian religious institutions in Kandhamal district happened earlier like at Raikia (1986), Baliguda (1986), Daringbadi (1986), Simonbadi (1987), Baliguda (1989), G.Udayagiri (1999) where either church or Christian religious leader or both were attacked.(2) The hatred had been finely brewed by the Hindu right wing for almost two decades now. The death of the Swamiji only acted as the immediate spark in an already volatile Kandhamal and left many questions unanswered.
Kandhamal, why a soft target
Kandhamal comes under eastern hill range of India. Its demographic picture speaks, more than half of the population are tribals (52%) who are mainly of kondh tribe. Besides them, dalits are of 16% of the total population and among them Pano community are the majority. Rest of the population are trading community and upper caste people who migrated to the districts for trading and other purposes from the coastal area in recent past. Few of them are retired government officials who settled in Kandhamal.
By and large, dalits and tribals in Kandhamal stay together in interior villages of the district where as other castes like General caste and trading community (few Other Backward Castes also) in comparatively small number live with dalits and tribals in road side villages. Most upper caste trading people prefer to stay in small village towns like Raikia, G Udayagir, Baliguda, and Tikabali - local trading centers. Turmeric cultivation and sal-leaf collection are the prominent agriculture as well as forest economy of the district apart from rice and vegetables. The Tribal Development Cooperative Corporations (TDCC) in Baliguda, Tikabali towns for forest produces; Regional Marketing Centers (RMC) opened in Tikabali, Raikia, G. Udayagiri for agricultural products like turmeric to help local tribals became defunct and traders of the area took these businesses into their hands. That developed a nexus of hoarding, distress sale by traders in connivance with government officials.
Kandhamal is one of the most backward districts in terms of infrastructure, electricity and civic amenities. Human Development Report 2004, Government of Orissa speaks Kandhamal district ranks as 29 under Human Development Index (HDI), 30 under Health Index Rank and 23 under Education Index Rank. Orissa has thirty districts now. The intervention of christian missionaries for one hundred and fifty years and entry of hindutwa for fifty years ‘for upliftment of tribals and dalits’ did not do much change in the development atlas of the district. Rather traders, politicians and government officials are ruling the rust. The upper caste, upper and middle class hindu and their economic, political and cultural leaders, in fact with the active support of the state and administrative machinery and political parties are stimulating a cultural climate which encourages a value system which strengthens the prejudices against the lower classes and non-hindus. (3). They made non-hindus and lower class community into victims of their own value system. Swamiji’s main supporters in the areas were these local traders and government officials who belong to the upper caste and upper middle class. Their ‘value system’ of hindu-brahmanic ideology is to hide their won corrupt practices and to propagate religious hatredness (which we have been seeing for centuries together) against the religious minority. The role of these people behind this communal attack who have their link with higher echelons both in among political as well as in administrative and media circle, is definitely suspicious.
My assumption in Kandhamal would have been wrong had I not been enquiring about the last year’s (2007) incident. Communal riot happened during X’mas days (December) in 2007 when rumor spreaded that Swamiji was attacked by minority christians at Dasingbabdi near Bahmanigaon in Kandhamal. It was a pre-planned effort of Hindutwa forces to disturb the festival. Then, group classes happened at two places. Upper caste local traders who happened to be the supporter of Swamiji went and burnt Christian houses shouting slogans like “kill the Christians; destroy the churches” at Bahmanigaon. They burnt 30 houses at Bahmanigaon and in retaliation also Hindu traders’ houses were burnt (who did this burning is a matter of confusion now even today). Also in Barakhama near Baliguda, group clashes happened in the same reaction and nearly 60 houses were burnt. In both these incidents police came into picture and went on firing. Due to police firing four people died. At several places in Kandhamal churches were attacked but it was not much sever as like in August, 2008.
It is learnt that the CPI (Maoists) group were not active in Kandhamal earlier to this incident but they were trying to expand their areas. But why they targeted Swamiji? Rajendra Bastaray of Tumudibandh was telling “there was no discussion about role of hindutwa forces by the Maoists in the district prior to the killing”. It must not have been Maoists apprehension that entire Christian minority people would be attacked for this killing. But it is also true that in reality they also failed to check such attack. It speaks their negligible presence in the district. But surprisingly, these ‘ultra Marxists’ like Maoists who till date were recognizing only ‘proletariat identity’ for ‘workers’ socialism’, now have come in support of ‘tribal identity’. (“Tribal are not hindus and not Christians. They have their own cultures which should be protected.”- Maoist’s Oriya magazine ‘inquilab’ speaks). Are they really interested for protection of ‘tribal identity’ for their ‘proletariat socialism’? Are they not killing tribal in name of police informer rather leaving it to the entire community to decide? One’s, respect to tribal identity and ignoring the role of tribal community, can not go together. Are not they using such for their own expansion?
In the mean time Maoists have killed another local VHP person Dhanu Pradhan at Daringbadi in December, 2008. He had a role behind such attack on christians what they are telling. But can such killing bring peace and harmony in the district? Can it water down the religious hatredness growing between both communities? Will it not force the paramilitary forces to be stationed permanently or to create another Salwa Judum like situation for the protection of these traders cum hindutwa forces? If this happens then there is no doubt that those tribal- sympathizers of Swamiji- would be the members of Salwa Judum and this would bring serious problem to the area.
I know the future of the district is very much uncertain but its present is not so much hopeless. Dandapani Mallick, a tribal leader of Damikia near Baliguda moved around four villages with village committee members and stopped the entry of hindutwa forces inside the villages. By this way he was able to save some christian families. He himself did not belong to Christians nor Hindus rather claims himself as tribal. Several tribal youths of Kotagada, Brahmanigaon and Tumudibandh area spontaneously came forward and moved around their own villages and stopped violence. They are the real hope of solving the tragedy.
1. RSS’s Tryst with Politics by Pralay Kanungo
2. Faith Under Fire by JPDC Bhubaneswar (2008)
3. Communal riots in post – independence India by Asghar Ali Engineer
SAILASHRI VIHAR, BHUBANESWAR- 751021, ORISSA
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