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Of hearts and souls and lives

A turf war with communal overtones has erupted in Orissa. Will the government please step in?

india Updated: Aug 26, 2008 21:47 IST

For those of us who need a marker from the past, the murder of a woman in a Christian missionary school in Orissa is reminiscent of the murders of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999.

Almost a decade apart, the latest act of horror is linked to the Staines case. The one obvious connect is, of course, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The battle for hearts and minds — and souls — has been taking place between the VHP and Christian evangelists in tribal belts of Orissa and Chattisgarh for quite some time now.

The rise of the BJP in the late 80s-early 90s led to Hindutva ‘foot soldiers’ panning out in states like Orissa to ‘reclaim’ tribal groups that had been wooed by missionaries. The traditional Congress borough of tribal votes became a precious commodity and Orissa stands out as a prime example of religious politics being played out as turf warfare.

In fact, this latest eruption of violence is more than just a Hindu-Christian confrontation — it is the conflict for caste-based opportunities between Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST).

With more statutory opportunities presented to SCs, the STs are the latest political objects of desire. Which is where the VHP and the Christian missionaries are pulling a people in a violent tug-of-war.

The latest trigger was the murder of a VHP leader on Saturday. While the official finger points at the Maoists, the VHP has latched on to its usual suspects: the missionary mob. The wildfire needs to be controlled.

Already Bhubaneswar and other areas of the state have witnessed attacks on Christians and their properties. The law and order machinery — as anywhere else in the country encountering a communalised atmosphere — has been nervous to act.

It would be wise for the Naveen Patnaik government to act — and be seen to act — to bring law and order, and not to get bogged down in playing a see-saw routine to quell one side. At its most basic level, this is a turf war that has been unleashed again in Orissa. And the government should reclaim this turf that really is its property.