What does it take to create a communal flashpoint? Some answers are obvious: a precipitating incident, simmering tensions between two religious communities and initial administrative failure to cope with the flare-up. But records and documents relating to the disturbances in Orissa’s Kandhamal district show that, in addition to these, some venerable institutions of the country are also inadvertently responsible for creating tensions, which have been rising since 2002: the legislature, the judiciary and the executive have all contributed to aggravating the situation in Kandhamal at some stage or other, until mindless violence gripped the region in the last week of December and continued for days.
The communal clash was triggered on December 24 by a trivial event at Brahmanigaon. The Christians wanted to put up a Christmas tree and a few decorative gates on a public ground where Durga Puja is traditionally held. The Hindus refused to allow them, and a violent clash between the two communities occurred. Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a revered Hindu religious leader of the area, hearing about the clash was rushing to the spot, when en route he was allegedly attacked. With that, communal fire engulfed the district.
The date of the first clashes, Christmas eve, is significant, but much more so is the fact that this was also the eve of a two-day bandh called by a section of the Kui community, the Kui Samaj Samanwaya Samiti. Why was the bandh called? The samiti, comprising Hindu tribals, was protesting against the granting of Scheduled Tribe status to Kui-speaking Pana Christians. And therein hangs a tale.
Until 2002, the Kuis were included in the list of Scheduled Castes of Orissa. But with the passing of a presidential order that year (which later became an act — the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Orders [Amendment] Act), their status was changed to that of a Scheduled Tribe. Referring to the Kuis, the official press release from the Ministry of Law and Justice said: “The act seeks to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 and the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order 1950, made by the President in terms of the provisions of Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution, to effect transfer of communities from the list of Scheduled Castes (SCs) to that of the list of Scheduled Tribes (STs) as they had been wrongly included in the list of Scheduled Castes whereas they belong to Scheduled Tribes category.”
But the same presidential order, which classified the Kuis as STs, also referred to Panas, who also speak the Kui dialect, as a Scheduled Caste who should not be given ST status. Taradutt, then Orissa’s commissioner, in a clarifying note, wrote, “Pana, Pano, Buna Pana and Desua Pana, which have been specified as a Scheduled Caste, cannot be shown as Kui, a Scheduled Tribe.”
Despite this, the Panas, because they spoke Kui, preferred to believe that they too were now STs. What difference did it make? A good number of the Panas are Christians, all of them converts to Christianity. As SC Christians, they are not eligible for the benefits of affirmative action, reservation of jobs and seats in educational institutions being prime among them. But as ST Christians, they would be, since all tribals enjoy these benefits, irrespective of religion. But any such benefit extended to them is deeply resented by the Hindu Kuis, who fear that there will be more claimants for the limited benefits they enjoy.
A tussle in the Orissa High Court has also compounded the problem. The Kui Janakalyan Sangha moved court seeking ST status for all Kui speakers. In its judgment in July, 2007, the High Court directed the government to “look into the matter and make necessary correction of the Record of Rights in accordance with the presidential order of 2002”. This seemed to suggest that the court had upheld the organisation’s claim.
But soon after, two locals went to the High Court again, appealing to it to ‘recall’ the earlier order. In September, 2007, the court decreed that if the concerned authorities felt Panas should be categorised as SC and not ST, there was no need to make any changes in the Record of Rights!
It all hinges on that ‘if’ and tensions remain.
Soumyajit Pattnaik is Coordinating Editor, Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar