The demand for reservation added fuel to the communal fire, which had engulfed Kandhamal district in the last few days. Under the existing rules, people belonging to Scheduled Tribes (ST), who converted to Christianity, continue to enjoy the reservation benefits meant for STs. But the same does not apply to members of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) who converted to Christianity.
After conversion, SCs are deprived of reservation benefits. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, issued by the President under Article 341 says: “No person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.”
Of the more than one lakh Christians in Kandhamal district, 60 per cent have converted from SCs and they are locally called Pana Christians. But the Pana Christians speak the Kui language like tribal Kondhs. Because of this linguistic affinity with tribals, Pana Christians have been demanding ST status. They have based their demands on the Presidential Order of 2002. This has been opposed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) as well as some prominent political leaders of Kandhamal who bank on Hindu tribals to sustain their support base in the area. Of Kandhamal’s total 6.48 lakh population, 51.96 per cent are tribals.
The district administration is yet to make an official estimate of the loss caused to particular communities in the clashes. But preliminary reports suggest the Pana Christians have been targeted the most.
In 2002, the President issued an order, which mentioned Kui in the ST category. After the order, Pana Christians are demanding a correction of their Record of Rights (RORs). In the RORs, Pana Christians want their ST status to be mentioned, while the Orissa government is interpreting the presidential order differently.
Taradatt, commissioner-cum-secretary of the ST and SC Development Department, issued a clarification on September 18, 2007 to all district collectors. The clarification said, “It is a well-known fact that Khond/Kond/Kandha tribes in Orissa speak Kui. It will not be permissible to include all Kui language speakers as Scheduled Tribes.”
VHP state general secretary Gouri Prasad Rath told Hindustan Times, “If Pana Christians are demanding ST status because they speak Kui, there are people from general castes who speak the language. If speaking Kui is the only yardstick for ST status, it should be uniformly applied.”
Former steel and mines minister Padmanav Behera, who resigned from the state cabinet on Friday said: “Under no circumstances, can the Kui-speaking Panas be given ST status.”