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Communal cauldron: At cross purposes

As Kandhamal Christians face a ‘Gujarat-like’ situation, the community says state officials are misusing Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, reports Soumyajit Pattnaik.

india Updated: Jan 02, 2008 01:22 IST
Soumyajit Pattnaik

The lush green landscape has been scarred forever. And two communities who once lived together in a hard-earned peace now find themselves looking warily at each other over dark walls not of their making.

The mayhem of the past few days in Orissa’s picturesque Kandhamal district, a swathe of dense forests and rich mines, has left a trail of vandalised and burnt churches. And Christians, who constitute nearly 16 per cent of this tribal-dominated district, have lost confidence in the government’s ability or willingness to protect them.

Worse, Orissa’s largest religious minority fears matters could get worse. Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Bhubaneswar-Cuttack archdiocese believes that the “Gujarat experiment” is being replicated in Orissa as Assembly elections are due in early 2009.

Says the archbishop, “It is my personal opinion that the Gujarat experiment is being tried out in Orissa and minorities will be targeted to get votes. Nothing else can explain the government’s total negligence.” He says the authorities were all too aware of the impending trouble but looked the other way.

“On December 22, the Kandhamal collector was informed about the threats to the Christian community. I personally met the Director General of Police Gopal C. Nanda and handed him a letter too. He assured me the police would maintain communal peace and harmony. But no effective measures were taken when the attacks began,” he says.

Police denies the allegations made by the Archbishop and say the peculiar terrain of the area hindered police movements and efforts to reach the hot spots in time. Kandhamal, which has an area of 8,021 sq km, has only 15 police stations with a sanctioned strength of 647 personnel, who cater to a population of 6,48,201 (as per the 2001 census).

“Since the habitations are scattered and most of the roads run through jungles, they can be effectively blocked by just cutting down a tree. That’s what happened in Kandhamal,” says a senior IPS officer who did not wish to be named.

On the other hand, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders claim “surreptitious conversions” by missionaries have kept the communal pot boiling in Kandhamal district and it spilled over after locally revered Hindu religious leader Swami Laxmananda Saraswati was attacked, allegedly by Christian groups, on December 24 in Daringbadi block.

Alleges Gouri Prasad Rath, state general secretary of the Viswa Hindu Parishad: “In the name of providing service to the poor, the missionaries are getting funds from foreign countries and luring poor tribals into conversions through monetary inducements. There are more than 900 churches in Kandhamal and conversions are taking place in violation of the law. Such conversions are widening the chasm between the communities.”

According to Rath, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati is also running a number of educational institutions and health centres in Kandhamal district. Besides, the VHP and its affiliates are running 1,100 Ekaka Vidyalayas (one-teacher schools) in the state to educate poor children. “But we cannot match the foreign funds of the missionaries,” says Rath.

Religious conversions and strife have taken place in other districts too. And Kandhamal shares some similarities with Keonjhar district, where Australian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his two minor sons were burnt alive at Manoharpur village in January 1999. To begin with, both districts have sizeable population of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes. Of Kandhamal’s 6.48 lakh population, scheduled tribes constitute 3.36 lakh or 51.96 per cent and Scheduled Castes, 1.05 lakh or 16.89 per cent. In Keonjhar district, 44.5 per cent of the 15.61 lakh population are Scheduled Tribes and 11.62 per cent, Scheduled Castes.

According to the Orissa Human Development Report 2004, Kandhamal and Keonjhar districts have per capita incomes of Rs 4,743 and Rs 5,286 respectively. The state average is Rs 5,264. While employment opportunities in Keonjhar have increased now due to Arcelor-Mittal’s plans to set up a 12-million tonne steel plant at an investment of Rs 40,000 crore, Kandhamal is wallowing in neglect in the absence of any industrial investment, even though it is rich in graphite, manganese, bauxite and coal deposits.

VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders allege that, because of its low per capita income, the tribals of Kandhamal district have become “easy targets for missionaries”. But residents in Daringbadi and Chakapada blocks of the district explained why they decided to convert. One such man in Daringabadi who converted to Christianity (and who did not reveal his name), says, “World Vision (one of the churches attacked) was helping us when no one else bothered. They were helping our kids get education and clean water. They distributed food to us on August 15 and January 26 and not on Christmas or New Year Day.” He argues: “If they are to be attacked for aiding the spread of Christianity, then the traders who attacked them were no different. The traders may belong to a different religion, but in this Christian-dominated town, they were selling statues of Jesus Christ and door-screens with photographs of Jesus Christ and making profits. Are they not spreading Christianity too?”

Hindu activists argue that the conversions are taking place on the sly and are “illegal” because they violate provisions of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act (OFRA), which distinguishes between legal and illegal conversions. Under OFRA, a conversion can be deemed legal only after the district administration certifies that the ceremony has been free of coercion, monetary allurement and any other kind of inducement.

But Christian leaders allege that OFRA is being selectively used to promote re-conversion of Christians into Hinduism. Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, says, “OFRA has to come to mean Freedom To Restrict Activities of Christians. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution extends the freedom to practice, profess and propagate one’s own religion to all citizens.”

“This country has a long history of propagating one’s own religion and that should not be curtailed. Even Emperor Ashoka went about propagating Buddhism after the Kalinga War. When the VHP wants to convert people to Hindusim, permission is granted to them,” he adds.

Indeed, the campaign to bring back converted Christian tribals into the Hindu fold has already intensified. As the conversions game goes on, those caught in the middle, as always, are bearing the brunt.