Killing the phoenix

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IT’S BAFFLING how terrifying a simple colour can be. Fluttering tiredly in the balmy wind all over Kandhamal, little flags of saffron have become menacing blotches of impeding danger. It is a call for submission, an announcement of the end of freedom, a mockery of faith. Today, relief camps that housed the victims of the August 2008 anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal are closing one by one. And 22,000 Christians have nowhere to go except back to their charred homes. Welcoming them to their villages is a monochromatic condition. Embrace the saffron, or else.

As we enter Betticola village, a gangly young man in a red striped shirt and sunglasses stops us. His first words: “If you enter, there will be maar-peet (violence).” He rolls up his sleeves in a quick motion. Several questions follow, and then an introduction, “Saroj Pradhan, village youth.” Saroj boasts of having worked in Delhi, and having met BJP’s Rajnath Singh and shaken LK Advani’s hand. Two years ago, he came back to his village and got involved in organising local political gatherings. Today, Saroj doesn’t have a job, but he has eight cases to his name for destroying property, intimidation, murder and communal rioting. It was in his village that a Christian priest, Father Lameshwar Kohon was killed, his neck slashed and large stones dropped on his head.

Saroj’s adult life is a timeline of violence. When riots broke out in Kandhamal on December 24, 2007, churches and Christian missionary schools were looted and razed to the ground. “These foreign people were asking good Hindus to pray to a god who’s not even Indian,” says Saroj, “They needed to be taught a lesson.” Vishwa Hindu Parishad vice president Lakshmanananda Saraswati was murdered on August 23, 2008 at his kanyashram (girls school) at Tumudibandh, about 100 km from Phulbani, the district headquarters of Kandhamal district. Kandhamal exploded the next day, after his body was paraded through 200 km of the main roads. A Maoist group claimed the murder; the state government corroborated this. “These Christians killed our Swamiji,” says Saroj, pointing at the pictures of the firebrand Swami pasted on every door in the village. “The fires and house-burning was started by some 300 outsiders who came into our village. Anger was boiling inside me too, so I only joined them,” he justifies. His friends, also gangly unemployed youth, say there is no place in their village for “cow killers and murderers”. They must convert to Hinduism. “Everyone in India is a Hindu. Sometimes, they need to be reminded,” says Saroj.

Janas Malik too was a resident of Betticola, but now stays with his wife and 4- year-old daughter in the empty stalls of a weekly market. Since the G Udaigiri camp was closed two months ago, Janas moved here along with 50 other families. “We did try to go to our village, but a bunch of Hindu rowdies hung my child on top of a well and blackmailed me. I had to follow 19 rules if I wanted to return,” says Janas. No wearing pants, saying Jai Shri Ram, a ban on using the village well for water and the forest for livelihood, and finally, conversion to Hinduism by drinking a bottle of cow dung water. Janas did it all, but when he was bullied to prove his faith by burning the bike of a fellow Christian, he ran back. “We’re not animals to be treated like this!” says Janas. “I don’t want to be a Hindu. They shaved my head and made me say Jai Shri Ram at knifepoint, but the whole time, I was thinking of Jesus Christ.”

Relief camps for the victims of the riots are closing. And 22,000 Christians have nowhere to go except back to their charred homes

THIS WAS a common scene all over Kandhamal eight months ago. The carnage continued for 40 days, killing 38 people and displacing more than 22,000. However, time has neither healed, nor reformed. The weapons are still around, and so is the fear. As Orissa gears up for both Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections on April 16 and 23, scared refugees are being asked to go back to their villages. Adding to the insecurity — 783 cases against rioters, none convicted. “We need to close the camps some day,” says Kandhamal District Collector Krishan Kumar. “How long can they live in segregation?” Four thousand people have reportedly been identified as possible troublemakers and have been warned. Kumar says there will be heavy deployment of paramilitary forces and voters will be transported by the government to the booth and back. However, the Christian community appealed for a postponement of elections in Kandhamal, but when the Election Commission did not budge, they decided to stay put in the remaining five camps or in makeshift tents. Between holding on to dear life and exercising their franchise, it is an obvious choice.

Electioneering in the district is expectedly centred on the riots and the souring relationship between the erstwhile ruling alliance of the BJD and BJP after their split on March 9, 2008. The BJP blames the BJD for the lack of progress on the Lakshmananda murder case, and calls the BJD’s secular claims opportunistic hogwash. But far worse than any political mudslinging is the odious communal rhetoric. The BJP Assembly candidate for G Udaigiri constituency of Kandhamal is Manoj Pradhan, presently in non-bailable police custody for seven cases of communal rioting. Ashok Sahu, the BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha polls, conducts a mahayagya in all the villages he visits, calling on the Kondh tribals to observe rituals they have never performed before. After the death of Swami Lakshmananda, Sahu was the first to hold the Christians responsible and call for revenge. “People say I’m making Kandhamal a laboratory for experiments, like Narendra Modi did in Gujarat. Well, I’m proud of it,” says Sahu in a BJP rally, to much applause and ululating by the adivasis brought there in trucks from their villages. “I wish a tsunami on the Christians and the missionaries,” says Sahu to TEHELKA.

The Christian community appealed for a postponement of elections in Kandhamal, but the Election Commission did not budge

Bhubaneswar-based human rights activist Dhirendra Panda says this hate propaganda is meant to create a votebank in a district where 52.7 percent of the population is adivasi. “The yagyas are a blatant imposition of a sort of brahminical version of Hinduism on adivasis whose actual traditions are more animist,” he says. The Sangh Parivar calls the forced Hindu conversions ghar-vaapsi, or reconversion, based on the assumption that the adivasis are originally Hindu.

But are the adivasis so impressionable, so easy to manipulate? Not really. The success of the Hindu whitewash in Kandhamal is thanks to a crafty reworking of an existing caste conflict. Kandhas (after whom Kandhamal is named) form 89 percent of the adivasi population in the district, and are scheduled tribes. The other hill tribe here is Panos, who for close to 200 years, served the Kandhas as farm labourers. Considered an oppressed community, the Panos were classified as Scheduled Castes or dalits. It is this community that has seen the maximum number of people convert to Christianity. Unfortunately, due to an anomaly in the definition of SC in the Constitutional (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, SCs who convert to Christianity are no longer eligible for job and education reservations. The Panos have long demanded ST status as hill tribes, but due to desperate need for livelihood, they stopped declaring conversions to Christianity, and reportedly also forged ST certificates. This left the Kandhas, legally STs, seething at having to share their state benefits. Ever since Swami Lakshmananda took charge of the Sangh Parivar’s Kandhamal programme in 1969, the Kandha-Panos conflict became an easy palette to saffronise. In the riots in 2007 and 2008, it was the Kandha tribals that were mobilised to wreak havoc on the Panos Christians.

‘When tractors bring bricks for us to reconstruct our houses, the Hindus block the way,’ says a 27-year-old victim

Even those Christians who have now moved back home from the camps with government compensation of Rs 10,000, 40 kg of rice, sugar, etc. live in constant fear. The relief camps have CRPF guards, the villages don’t. Twenty five families have returned to Pirigada village, and live in tarpaulin tents while trying to rebuild their burnt houses. Across the road are the Hindu houses. “When tractors bring bricks for us to reconstruct our houses, the Hindus block the way,” says 27-yearold Pranay Naik. “Any day now, we expect them to sneak in and kill our children.”

ALSO IN Pirigada are 14 men who underwent the humiliating process of the Lakshmananda brand of conversion to Hinduism. One of them, Siprian Digal still has his red dhoti and a Hanuman-Shiva locket. “They were 700 people. We were 40. The only way to stay alive was to convert,” says Siprian. After sending his wife and daughter to Kerala, he lived in his half-broken house on the Hindu side of the village for three months, unable to draw water from the village well, bathing in the darkness of the night, praying to Mother Mary in private, and Bajrang Bali in public. “One day, I couldn’t take it any more. I went to church, and then moved across the road, where I could be myself,” says Siprian. Christians in Pirigada village realised that the upcoming election will decide how safe they will be. “Congress is the only party at the moment in Kandhamal without blood on their hands,” says Pranay. “The RSS, VHP and BJP were killing us,” says Daud Naik, who lost his brother in the riots. “And because the BJP was an ally, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his party BJD kept quiet. I also realise that the Congress cannot get a majority in Orissa. And I don’t know, will my life change with a change of government? I might as well kill myself instead of spending sleepless nights waiting for a Yuva Vahini thug to stick a knife in my chest.”

As the Orissa administration promises smooth polling in a ‘normal’ Kandhamal, the lead up to the election is already converting the hill terrain into a communal battleground. Different gods are being invoked by different parties, but it is only the demon of paralysing fear that Kandhamal is left with.

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