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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Orissa turning into a lab of hate and divisive politics

Posted by: danish Ahmed 11:53 PM

The ongoing violence in Kandhmal is a direct consequence of the government’s reluctance to deal with the deepening fissures between the communities in this remote region. This regions as well as other tribal regions in the state have seen a steady increase in number of tribal converting to Christianity. This is absolutely unacceptable to Hindu right wing parties who accuse Christian missionaries of fraudulently stealing the souls of "our adivasis". The right to worship and propagate one's religion is one of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution of India but strangely enough in this corner of the earth religious conversions are looked down upon not just by religious fanatics but by the common people too. For a state that converted the haughty Asoka into a Buddhist and was home to one of the largest Jaina states ever, a new wave of religious conservatism seems to be taking over.In fact, Orissa was the first Indian state to pass anti-conversion laws.

Actually for the Hindu fundamentalists, religious conversions being carried on by Christian missionaries are seen as part of a greater design to change the demography of the state in the same manner as was done in some north-eastern states. Paranoia is a chronic ailment that most Sangh Parivar activists suffer from but in this episode their delusion is not absolute. Christian missionaries in many instances have been found to have adopted some unconventional methods to gain converts. While missionaries of every proselytizing religion appeal to reason and try to prove the divine nature, truth quotient or rationalism of their doctrine, Christian missionaries in Orissa are accused of proselytizing illiterate tribal by promising material benefit. I am not sure why I should be infuriated with some of the most backward tribal getting free education and healthcare in lieu of their belief. If we are not able uplift our own people in any way, why should we object to others doing it even if its a Judas' bargain. But Christian missionaries have also been accused of frauds and use cheap tricks to gain converts. I myself have at least once been victim of an over-enthusiastic group of missionaries who tried to impress me with sleight of hand. I was really outraged that these guys really believed that I would be unable differentiate between street magic and divine miracle! They in turn were outraged that I was more interested in Christian ideology that they did not know much about. Having experienced that myself I am disinclined to rubbish all allegations leveled by the saffron brigade.

However, this does not mean that I have the right to prevent anyone from propagating her/his religion. If I really want to stop conversions I need to go and work among the tribal and convince them of the superiority of my ideology. This is what Swami Lakhananda Saraswati had been doing and the reason for which he was gunned down. What followed was nothing short of mayhem among the mob as well as the media and the administration. The initial media reports quoting the police said that Maoist groups were responsible and a Naxalite group had in fact claimed responsibility for the attack. This was quickly dismissed by VHP leaders who wanted the government to blame Christian groups for the attack. The BJD-BJP government has all along displayed its reluctance to take on the rightists head on and risk the government's survival. When the VHP called for a state-wide bandh, the state government instead of ensuring security ordered closure of all educational institutions sending out the message that it was unwilling to protect citizens who were dared to disobey the dictates of the far-right VHP. Private parties like Infosys too followed suit and a bandh call by a rogue party turned out to be the most successful strike the state had ever witnessed.

Social activists visiting the state after the last December violence had warned that the Gujarat experiment was being emulated in the state and genocide was in the making. Initially I was a bit skeptical but as things unfold, those ominous forebodings are beginning to resemble the reality. The Kandhmal region has a history of ethnic strife between the “adivasis” and the “Panos”( a scheduled caste member). While the tribal, who were originally animistic, have now been included in the Hindu mainstream, the “Panos” of the region have adopted Christianity in large numbers. Thus, a communal angle was added to an already chronic ethnic schism. All political parties like to fish in troubled waters but the Sangh Parivar simply loves to come across this sort of situation. In this case since the BJP was a ruling coalition partner, there was little or no opposition to the Sangh Parivar’s programme to turn Orissa into a laboratory of hate and divisive politics, the experiment in Gujarat was now being repeated in Orissa’s tribal regions.

As the government looked the other way the Sangh Parivar activists began to build their base by exploiting the decades old Kandh tribal versus the dalit Panos schism. The fact that majority of the Panos had converted to Christianity helped the mischief-makers give the conflict a communal tinge. The simmering tension was out in the open last Christmas, when the Saffronites went on rampage destroying more than 100 churches and institutions and scores of innocent people were killed or rendered homeless. In the aftermath too, the government did little to ensure the safety of the minority community or to reconcile the warring communities. Instead the VHP and Bajrang Dal were allowed to carry on their campaign of hate and violence in the garb of religion. Now and then, there had been minor flare ups indicating what’s in store for the future but the government was absolutely disinclined to act against the Hindu hardliners.

Swami Lakhananda Saraswati’s murder and the bandh that followed materialized the fears of the Christian leaders. The Sangh activists went on a rampage burning churches, institutions and homes of the local Christians. The early report that blamed Maoists for the dastardly crime had simply disappeared as the intellectuals too began to question why Naxalites would target Swamiji. This apparently rational question discredited the Maoist angle completely; even as the top cops went on record with it. Indeed, what enmity would a Far Left militant group have with the leader of a Far Right group? Ideologically, both the groups stand on the opposite sides of the pole. The Maoists strive for a classless society whereas the Hindutva brigade espouses an ideology that includes caste-based stratifications. Besides these there are many more arguments to prove that Maoists and Sangh activists are ideologically opposed to each other more than any other organizations in the country.

Further, the Maoists have heavy presence in the region and are said to be close to the Christian groups which is quite understandable from the fact that Christians of the region constitute a majority of the district committee of the Maoists. The possibility of Maoist involvement in the killing should be examined in the light of evidences and not buried in the name of reason. If the initial media report about Naxalite involvement was incorrect, the police and the administration should refute it officially instead of shoving it out of theirs as well as the public's memory. Because of the ineffiency of the government in first protecting the life of the Swami and then being ambiguous about the identity of the perpetrators, it has aggravated the situation in the state.

This spate of violence has been unprecedented in the state, starting from Kandhmal it spilled over to other parts, churches, institutions, homes, vehicles, and even orphanages were not spared by the marauding mobs. The destruction to both property and lives of people belonging to both the communities is massive; peace is yet to return as more dead bodies as being recovered in the jungles. The violence has left a major emotional scar in the psyche of the surviving victims. People who had fled to the jungle to escape the mob are still too fearful to return home. The worst part is that the social fabric has been damaged irreparably which suggests that this pogrom could be premeditated. The sustained campaign of the VHP and Bajrang Dal in the region further corroborates this charge. If the attacks by the Sangh activists appear to have been planned ahead of time, the retaliation by Christian groups too cannot be termed as spontaneous. The use of firearms and bombs by both the groups reveals that both the sides, especially the Christian groups might have been prepared to defend themselves since the state government had not been able to protect them during the Christmas violence. If things have indeed gone to such an extreme, it is high time, the government wake up and take the responsibility of restoring normalcy and more importantly restore the victim’s faith in the secular civil society that it represents.

Orissa CM Navin Patnaik has in the past taken brave decisions based on the party ideology and without giving much thought to political repercussions, so his reluctance to rein in the marauding Sangh activists is a little intriguing. Agreed, any stern action against the rioters belonging to the rightist party could compel the BJP to walk out of the coalition effectively bringing down the government in the process but Navin Patnaik should understand that by playing into the hands of the Saffron parties he might end up eroding his own support base. At the moment, his party is the senior coalition partner and does not need the BJP as much as it needs him. But as the radicalization of the voter base continues, the Sangh Parivar’s support base would increase at the cost of BJD’s own voters’ base.

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