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At the headquarters of rage, an island of calm

The Daringibadi area saw no rioting when the rest of Orissa’s troubled Kandhamal district was burning. It has zero tolerance for religious hatred. And it wants peace for votes, reports Rajesh Mahapatra.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2009 01:31 IST
Rajesh Mahapatra

There was one island of peace in Kandhamal last August, as Hindu activists looted homes, burnt churches and chased Dalits-turned-Catholics out of their homes across the troubled district in south-east Orissa.

The residents of Daringibadi, a block spread over 272 mountain villages, held regular meetings to ensure the violence did not spill over from the rest of the district.

It was the only block of the 12 in Kandhamal that saw no communal unrest. Residents have chosen social harmony over the ethnic divide after a social movement that helped them beat back moneylenders and poverty, after decades of impoverishment.

Now, as sporadic violence continues and more than 3,000 displaced Christians remain in relief camps guarded by Central forces, the people of Daringibadi are asking politicians to trade peace for votes in Kandhamal.

“The party and candidate we will vote for must promise that they will work to restore peace,” says Deepika Pradhan (27), an active member of a women's self-help group in Darsingibadi village.

Their approach has already forced many local politicians to tone down speeches that earlier harped on ethnic divides.

“There are people in our community who may also be members of [radical Hindu groups] the RSS or VHP, but the Kui Samaj has never believed in violence,” says Lambodar Kahnar, whose social organisation was until recently pasting posters and pamphlets across the district condemning converts.

There is not much economic activity in Kandhamal, where only 4 per cent of cultivable land is irrigated and most people live off forest produce. It was much the same in Daringibadi, till the early 1990s.

The farmers here owned very little of what they produced, because most of them were indebted to moneylenders and traders.

A turmeric or pepper grower, for instance, would typically get only a third of the price his commodity fetched on the wholesale market, because the rest went to the trader, from whom money had been borrowed for the cultivation.

The change began with women self-help groups and a sustained campaign to end dependence on moneylenders.

Groups like Jagruti, a local voluntary organisation, helped expand the network of self-help groups, which now totals 640 in Daringibadi. The result: The traders’ share in trade has fallen sharply, and so has the debt burden of farmers in the area.

The changing political economy of Daringibadi has, in turn, created an excellent and efficient social network among its people, says Kailash Chandra Dandapat, secretary of Jagruti.

That network came in handy when the violence broke out.

Even today, village heads remain alert against any incident that could blow up into a conflict.

Recently, in mostly Hindu Tirkuti village, residents handed one of their own over to the police because he was trying to instigate other villagers against Christians.

“We have zero tolerance for such things,” says village head Pushpanjali Pradhan.