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In a crucified state

Orissa is in the news yet again. Except that unlike in December 2007, the news of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati’s death is real. Nevertheless, very much like the last time, the VHP has gone berserk again. Political murders and killing of Christians (as ‘imagined murderers’) or vandalising churches is unacceptable to any democratic society. The violence inflicted has been meticulously planned and executed over two-three days when the Orissa government and its affiliated agencies seemed overwhelmed by what was going on, writes Biswamoy Pati.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2008 22:26 IST

Orissa is in the news yet again. Except that unlike in December 2007, the news of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati’s death is real. Nevertheless, very much like the last time, the VHP has gone berserk again. Political murders and killing of Christians (as ‘imagined murderers’) or vandalising churches is unacceptable to any democratic society. The violence inflicted has been meticulously planned and executed over two-three days when the Orissa government and its affiliated agencies seemed overwhelmed by what was going on.

When Mahatma Gandhi had visited coastal Orissa in 1921 he had said: “I was prepared to see skeletons in Orissa but not to the extent I did. I had seen terrible pictures but the reality was too terrible.’ (Young India, April 1921). In fact, if he had visited western Orissa or the Kandhamal region today, he would have echoed this sentiment.

We are talking about a region that has a predominantly tribal and Dalit population, with 70-75 per cent of the people living below the poverty line. In fact, western Orissa is an amazing ‘hinterland’ of contradictions. Along with acute poverty, the region also harbours mega-projects associated with the mining of bauxite needed to produce aluminium. Unfortunately, successive governments in Orissa have been extremely careful about saving their ‘marriage’ with international capital, but have ignored the serious impact of these mega-projects on people’s lives and the region’s environment.

The current BJD-BJP government has suppressed popular initiatives that have questioned the displacement of people and highlighted hazards to the environment. At the same time, it is puzzling that the government is neither interested in nor is serious about maintaining law and order in this western hinterland. And going by Saraswati’s murder and the subsequent killings, political scientists may well argue that what is being witnessed today indicates the breakdown of civil society. However, the deeper question is: has this tract ever seen civil society?

Whoever is responsible for the murder of Saraswati is definitely not interested either in tribals or Dalits. This heinous act would most certainly boost the VHP in a manner comparable to LK Advani’s rath yatra. After all, Saraswati was a major Sangh parivar functionary who had been working among poor tribals since the late 1960s. He had been associated with the schools and ashrams, working with the idea of improving the lot of the poor tribals.

This needs to be located in a context where the government has virtually abdicated its responsibility of providing basic features of civil society like education and health. In the absence of any land reforms or serious governmental interventions to improve the condition of the poor, the schools and ashrams provide meagre alternatives, along with institutions run by Christian missionaries and NGOs.

Ironically, the activities of the VHP correspond to what they accuse the Christian missionaries of doing in western Orissa. Both work to attract and convert people to their respective faiths – something that is allowed under the Indian Constitution. Moreover, both have access to resources — internal and external — to be used towards the uplift of the poor. But then how does one explain the way in which the term ‘conversion’ appears to be synonymous with Christian missionaries? This might appear to be a profound question. But this is precisely where the Sangh parivar’s hegemonic hold needs to be loosened.

This is sustained by poverty, lack of land struggles and reforms and the virtual non-existence of either civil society or the state in this area; further clothed by a finely-crafted ‘reality’ created by the VHP. One could cite two clear examples to illustrate this point: (a) that tribals are Hindus and Christian missionaries are the villains, who are spreading Christianity through inducements and converting the poor and ignorant tribals; and (b) that the VHP has the right to re-convert them to their original faith. It is indeed amazing that most of the reports on Kandhamal wrongly assume that tribals are Hindus. In fact, what the Sangh parivar has been attempting in Orissa — their post-Gujarat laboratory — is large-scale conversion of tribals to Hinduism.

This is skilfully combined with terrorising sections of Dalits – who had opted to convert to Christianity after suffering social discrimination – to reconvert to Hinduism. This ‘common sense’ makes the conversion of tribals appear as ‘re-conversion’. And this has been skilfully woven with terror directed against Dalit Christians over quite some time. More significantly, the majoritarian orientation of such conversion drives and their ancillaries – viz the ghee-burning shuddhi karan (re-conversion) rituals as seen through the electronic media — hides the real agenda.

This ‘common sense’ has enabled the VHP to make serious inroads in Orissa, even as the world debates the conflicts among Dalit (Panas) Christians and the adivasis (Kandhas) over diverse issues. The real problem in Kandhamal is related to the aggressive drives to convert tribals to Hinduism, including terror directed at Dalit Christians, who are the stumbling blocks in the path of the Sangh parivar and the VHP.

(Biswamoy Pati is the author of Identity, Hegemony, Resistance : Towards a Social History of Conversions in Orissa, 1800-2000)