Christians made an offer they can’t refuse
Most of Orissan Christians were offered a deal: they could return to their villages and have their property back if they became Hindus, reports Vijaita Singh.india Updated: Oct 10, 2008 00:08 IST
Days after he fled his home, there was something that stood between Hari Chand Digal and his home, his paddy field, two cows and 15 goats.
He had to give up his faith if he wanted his home.
So one morning 15 days ago, Digal, 42, finally gave in and lowered his head. A barber shaved off his hair, holy water was sprinkled on him, and in a chatter of mantras, he was made a Hindu again.
He could now have his life back, village leaders said.
Mobs of hundreds of Hindu chauvinists have ravaged villages in Orissa’s hilly central district of Kandhamal since the end of August, in cascading attacks that have killed at least 35 people.
It is the worst violence India has witnessed against the Christian community, with the state and central governments seemingly looking the other way.
Now, even though there are no reports of fresh communal violence, there is no respite for the estimated 14,000 people living in relief camps.
Many of them want to return to their villages. They say they have been asked to embrace Hinduism, or else they would be either killed or treated as pariahs.
Digal, a Christian villager, was among those who lost their homes on August 26 in his Minia village, 250 kilometres east of Bhubaneswar, the state capital. It was gutted by arsonists.
He and his family had to take shelter in the nearby jungles. He stayed in a relief camp for days, like the other displaced people huddled in shelters in Kandhamal district, Bhubhaneshwar and Cuttack.
Then, he and 70 other families were offered a deal: he could return to his village and have his property back if he became a Hindu.
Caught in the thick of a battle over conversions to Christianity, Orissa is the epicentre of anti-Christian violence in India. It is the state where Christian missionary Graham Staines was burned alive in 1999 with his two minor children, killings that shook India but failed to bring them under control.
"A few days ago I decided to go back to my village. When I went there, I was told by the panchayat leaders and my Hindu friends that if I wanted to continue living here, I will have to become a Hindu,” Digal whispered at his village home, sitting wearing a loincloth.
“I agreed as I was fed up with living at a relief camp," he said. His father was an animist — a worshipper of animals, plants and elements of nature — who converted to Chistianity.
Around him, his home still bore the scars of arson — He has since repaired the roof but the thatched hut still has burnt walls and charred remains of utensils and husk strewn around.
His hands trembled when he picked up the burnt Bible lying near the door. "This was the only religious book I had when I was a Christian. Now even that is no more. I may have turned a Hindu but my heart will never accept this religion," he said.
Next door, Digal’s neighbour Prashant Digal, 28, also a Christian, sports a red tilak on his forehead to show he is now a Hindu. Prashant was Christian until 15 days ago.
"This is our land, how can we let it go?” he angrily asked.
“I do not have anything else to fall back on. If converting to a different religion ensures safety for my family and me, then let is be so."
First Published: Oct 10, 2008 00:02 IST