Why is Kandhamal Ground Zero in Orissa's communal maelstrom, burning for the second time in eight months?
Though the latest spark was the murder of saffron leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, the underlying cause is the battle between Hindus and Christian converts over reservations in educational institutions and government jobs.
Of the 6.48 lakh people in the district, 3.36 lakh (52 per cent) belong to scheduled tribes (STs), while another 1.05 lakh (17 per cent) are scheduled castes (SCs).
Of the 1 lakh Christians, 60 per cent are converts from SCs, locally known as 'Pana Christians'. This group's demand for ST status, and the ensuing reservations in jobs and educational institutes, is what has fuelled tensions between the local Kondh community and the Pana Christians.
Under the rules, STs who convert to Christianity continue to enjoy reservations, but not SCs who convert.
Adding to this explosive mix in one of India's poorest states is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which is also opposed to reservations for Pana Christians as it would eat into the benefits meant for Hindu tribals.
"If Pana Christians are demanding ST status simply because they speak the local Kui language, then there are people from general castes in the same areas who speak it too. If speaking Kui is the yardstick for according ST status, then it should be uniformly applied to all," said VHP state chief Gouri Prasad Rath.
Though the fight for reservations ignited the communal clashes of 2007, victims say the administration is to blame to some extent for the recent mayhem.
Father Alexander of the church at Sankarakhol told Hindustan Times, "The authorities were aware that there would be trouble after Swami Saraswati's killing. Yet, they allowed the body to be brought in a procession from Tumudibandha to Chakapada, a distance of over 200 km. The sight of the body incited passions and led to attacks on churches and Christian homes."
The 8,021 sq km Kandhamal is poor, even by Orissa's standards.
While the per capita income in the state is Rs. 5,264, it is a mere Rs. 4,743 in Kandhamal. While employment opportunities in other tribal districts like Keonjhar have brightened due to Arcelor-Mittal's plans for a 12-million-tonne steel plant with an investment of Rs. 40,000 crore, Kandhamal is devoid of any industrial investment.
The police deal with its tough terrain every time they need to rush to a crime scene. The entire district has just 15 police stations with a sanctioned strength of 647 personnel looking after 6.48 lakh people.
“Since habitations are scattered and most roads run through jungles, they can be blocked by cutting just one tree. The attacks, both in 2007 and now, were possible only because the roads were blocked with felled trees.”
“Even though forces were mobilised in time, they could not get to the riot spots in time,” said a senior police officer.