The Hindu-Christian conflict in Orissa has opened a new chapter in the story of India’s unending ethnic conflict. While in the West, Muslims and Christians are at loggerheads, their relationship in India has been largely conflict-free. The emerging patterns of India’s ethnic conflict show that Hindu fundamentalists are against Muslims and Christians. But the absence of Muslim-Christian conflicts in India indicate prevalence of natural solidarity between them. But this is not the case.
The murder of Graham Staines in Orissa in 1999 brought global attention on the violence against Christians. While it was mistakenly seen as an isolated incident, the violence against Christians in December in 2007 in Kandhamal and the recent violence there suggests a political design by Hindutva forces led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal.
Kandhamal, one of the 30 districts of Orissa, was created in 1994 by the then Chief Minister Biju Patnaik, father of present CM Naveen Patnaik. According to the 2001 Census, 52 per cent of Kandhamal’s population are Scheduled Tribes (STs) and 17 per cent are Scheduled Castes (SCs). Out of 100,000 Christians, 60 per cent are converted from SCs, locally known as Pana Christians. The region is called Kandhamal because it is land of the Kandha tribes. The word ‘Kandha’ means hills. The per capita income in the district is Rs 4,730, whereas Orissa’s per capita income is Rs 5,264. It has only 15 sanctioned police stations with a capacity of 647 personnel looking after 648,000 citizens.
While Naveen Patnaik runs a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), his father had opposed alliances with Hindutva parties. In the 1989 national election, when all major non-Congress parties had electoral alliances with the BJP, Biju Patnaik opposed the move, and yet won a majority of the Lok Sabha seats in the state for his party. The electoral history of Orissa elections indicates the rise of the BJP from the 2000 election. In 1980, the BJP garnered only 1.36 per cent of the vote; in 1990, the BJP fielded 63 candidates, garnered 3.56 per cent, won two seats and lost deposit in 54 seats. In the 2000 election, however, 38 out of 63 of its candidates won, and it got 18.20 per cent votes, and in 2004, it won 32 seats and got 17.11 per cent votes. But the BJP’s presence has created advantages for Hindutva organisations to consolidate their base. While Naveen Patnaik may claim that the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) represents the legacy of Biju Patnaik, the fact is the most important legacy of secularism is being deeply compromised by the BJD by first being part of the coalition and then not being able to control the recurring violence against Christians.
The ethnic violence in Orissa between Hindus and Muslims was never as frequent and widespread as in Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat or Maharashtra. There are good reasons for this. Orissa’s Muslim population is only 2.1 per cent and mainly concentrated in regions like Bhadrak, Kendrapada and Cuttack. These regions have seen occasional communal disturbances, but it acquired alarming proportions as in Gujarat or Mumbai. Even after the Babri Masjid demolition, only minor incidents were reported. The anti-Christian violence is a new phenomenon and has spread to different regions. There are clear signs that violence now is far more organised and contains genocidal agenda of the Bajrang Dal and and VHP.
Orissa’s religious violence is intriguing because Oriya sub-nationalism was never rooted in Hindu religion. Instead, it grew around the Oriya language. It was Lord Jagannath and his cult which defined the mainstream Oriya religious traditions. The statement once made by an unknown Bengali writer, “Oriya ekta bhasa naye (Oriya is not a language)” became a rallying cry for a separate state movement leading to the creation of Orissa on April 1, 1936. Madhusudhan Das, a noted barrister, led a mass political movement through his political party, Utkal Sammilani, which was independent of the Congress Party. The idea of Orissa, along with Sindh, as a separate state, was floated in a White Paper prepared by British in 1933, as a sequel to the report of the Simon Commission. Thus, Orissa is the first state to be created on the basis of a separate language and inspired state reorganisations across linguistic lines in post-independent India.
This is the second time that Kandhamal has seen violence against Chris-tians, the first was in 2007. While the assassination of Swami Laxmananda is cited as a provocation, the Hindutva agenda to decimate missionary activities is the real factor. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal are key players but their sister organisations also push the Hindutva agenda. In western Orissa alone, the VHP has set up 390 Hindu Ekal Vidyalayas and runs 50 orphanages identical to the ones set up by the missionaries.
A consensus for this violence among Hindutva parties is evident in their decision to pass anti-conversion laws in certain states. These laws stand against constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom and offer the required ideological justification for the violence. Their abrogation alone would help enrich the meaning of minority rights in India. The manner in which violence has spread over to other parts of the country indicates that there are enduring threats to religious freedom as well as a clear possibility of genocide against minorities.
There is a strong case for banning the Bajrang Dal and the VHP. But that will not be enough for the defeat of Hindutva politics. A concerted campaign is required in which the media and civil society must play a proactive role in a systematic and long-term fashion.
Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi