For Orissa’s poor, an expensive peace
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For Orissa’s poor, an expensive peace

Ethnic groups are pitched against each other. Hindu nationalists are targeting non-Hindus. Christians want a province. Politicians are hiding away issues of governance in Kandhamal, India’s crucible of ethnic conflict, reports Rajesh Mahapatra.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2009 21:17 IST
Rajesh Mahapatra
Rajesh Mahapatra
Hindustan Times

Like angry brothers, they fought and lived together for years but never gave up on each other.

Now the Panas, one of the two main ethnic groups of Orissa’s central Kandhamal district, live in the thousands in relief camps after fleeing violent attacks on them last August, too terrified to return to their land dominated by the Kondhs, the region’s indigenous tribes.

This is India’s newest churning ground of ethnic conflict. Out in the countryside, away from the white tarpaulin tents of the relief camp at Tikabali, 220 kilometres west of Bhubaneswar, Hindu nationalist groups are lying in wait for the Panas, Dalits converted to Christianity who are now asking for a separate enclave for Christians.

So in one of the poorest districts of India, everything but poverty is on the agenda ahead of simultaneous national and Assembly elections. The identity question is centrestage and years of social unity has collapsed.

“Earlier we fought, but we made up because we lived together,” says relief camp resident Nalini Nayak, 55 and mother of four, blaming Hindutva campaigners for destroying the century-old harmony.

Her pastor husband Fiden Nayak was killed in riots that rocked Kandhamal last August, when Hindutva activists burnt churches, killed Christians and looted Panas homes in the worst communal violence in Orissa’s history.

“I know the politics of the Oriyas very well. They want us out of here,” she says, as other villagers huddle around her, eager to tell their stories.

The riots followed the killing of Hindu leader Laxmananda Saraswati, who had been running a long campaign to convert Christians in the area into Hindus. Saraswati was killed by the Maoists, but Panas, the community to which Nayak belongs — became the target of revenge attacks.

“The conflict helped turn attention away from the real issues of economic and social deprivation,” said Bijoy Patnaik, a lawyer and special prosecutor in the riots-related cases.

Kandhamal counts among India’s poorest districts: It tops the chart in malaria deaths and nearly half of its 2,500-odd villages have no healthcare facilities within 10 kilometres.

Literacy is at 53 per cent and school dropouts are high, as 45 per cent of villages have no middle school within 5 kilometres. Only 4 per cent of cultivable area is irrigated and most people live off forest produce.

“Nobody wants to talk about these issues,” Patnaik said. “But a festering dispute over identity, on the other hand, helps the political elite.”

Ask why she thinks she is not Oriya, Nayak responds in chaste Oriya: “I am not saying it. They (the rioters) say I am a Christian.”

About 40 kilometres south of Tikabali, where Nayak is camping, the headwoman of Tirkuti village Pushpanjali Pradhan says she is neither a Hindu nor an Oriya.

“I am a Kondh,” Pradhan says, matter-of-fact.

So it is time to rake up festering questions.

Why should a Pana, who has turned Christian, be allowed to benefit from government measures meant for scheduled castes? Who will give certificates identifying a Kondh? Should there be some surnames that only a Kondh can use?

The Congress, which has long dominated the region’s politics, played around the identity question, followed by splinter groups of the Janata Dal, whose leader Biju Patnaik renamed Phulbani district as Kandhamal — the land of Kondhs.

Now the Bharatiya Janata Party has joined in. The president of the Hindu Jagran Samaj (Hindu Awareness Society), a local group, is BJP’s candidate for the Lok Sabha seat from here.

Even the previously apolitical Kui Samaj, a local social group named after the dialect spoken by both Panas and Kondhs, is in the electoral fray.

The riots were a high point in the decades-old face-off between the Kondhs and the Panas — who make up 53 per cent and 17 per cent respectively of Kandhamal’s population of 6.4 lakh.

The economic prosperity of Panas – partly due to missionary education and better job opportunities — has long been grudged by the Kondhs.

But differences never escalated into violence of the scale seen last year.

In recent years, many of the animist Kondhs in eastern part of the district have joined Hindutva groups.

Nayak’s village Breka is one such place. Her family was driven away by Kondh converts to Hindutva.

To return, she must leave Christianity and embrace Hinduism but she has other ideas.

“Why should I?” she says “In a democracy I have a right to choose my religion.”

First Published: Mar 25, 2009 00:36 IST