Project Orissa

Print edition : September 26, 2008

The Sangh Parivars brutal attacks on Christians in Orissas Kandhamal district are part of a political project.

in Bhubaneswar & Kandhamal

At Minia Village in Kandhamal district, Thomas Digal in his house, which was burnt down by Hindutva hordes.-BISWARANJAN ROUT/AP

THE greenery and the low clouds caressing the thickly forested hills, which greet one as one drives into Kandhamal district, are in stark contrast to what lies ahead: deserted villages where houses have been burnt down. Their residents have fled the worst communal violence Orissa has seen, which claimed at least 30 lives.

The carnage began at midnight on August 23-24, hours after Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples were shot dead at around 8 p.m. at his ashram at Jalespata, under Tumudibandha police station limits, in the same district. The assailants, numbering about 30, used automatic weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles.

The police suspected the hand of the Communist Party of India (Maoists), and Director General of Police Gopal Chandra Nanda told mediapersons as much on telephone at 11 p.m. The news soon spread and in no time protesters from Sangh Parivar organisations, including the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, were out on the streets erecting roadblocks at many places, including the capital, Bhubaneswar, and Cuttack.

Over the next two weeks, thousands of houses were looted and burnt down by the attackers who targeted members of the Christian community. Kandhamal district was the worst affected, with the local administration confirming 16 deaths.

The situation took a serious turn when Sangh Parivar leaders rejected the police theory suspecting Maoist involvement and said militant Christians were behind the killing of Lakshmanananda. As if signalling the violence, protesters set fire to a private bus in Bhubaneswar around midnight on August 23 and also attacked several churches there.

By next morning, at almost all district-headquarter towns, activists of the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagarana Samukhya and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) staged demonstrations and blocked roads demanding the arrest of the swamis killers. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal gave a call for a Statewide 12-hour bandh on August 25. The bandh brought life to a standstill that day. Many trains were held up at stations en route and not a single passenger bus or commercial vehicle was seen on the roads.

Business establishments and banks downed their shutters and all educational institutions remained closed as ordered by the State government. Barring the arrest of some protesters, throughout the State the police largely remained mute spectators to the harassment of people who ventured out of their houses during the bandh.

In Kandhamal, informed sources said, houses belonging to Christians were set on fire and pastors and members of the community were attacked and burnt alive. Scores of churches and prayer houses were burnt down in Kandhamal district. Outside Kandhamal, an orphanage was attacked in Bargarh district.

Rajni Majhi, a 19-year-old Hindu girl who studied in a local college but worked in the orphanage as an auxiliary nurse, was burnt alive and a priest was beaten up badly.

Kandhamal district was virtually in flames by August 24. Serious trouble started when the Naveen Patnaik government succumbed to VHP pressure and allowed followers of Lakshmanananda to take out the funeral procession from the swamis ashram at Jalespata to the one at Chakapad, passing through hundreds of villages.

The procession started from Jalespata on August 24 afternoon and reached Chakapad the next afternoon after halting at Phulbani, the district headquarter town, for the night. Leaders of the Sangh Parivar, including Suresh Pujari, president of the BJPs State unit, participated in the procession.

Hundreds of people had gathered en route to pay their last respects to Lakshmanananda. All hell broke loose when incensed crowds in the localities that the procession passed through attacked Christians there. Christians, who were perceived to be Congress supporters, were targeted everywhere; in some places many Hindu families were also attacked because they were Congress supporters. The attackers included activists of the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and other Sangh Parivar organisations, and workers of the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), parties that are partners in the government headed by Naveen Patnaik.

The violence also saw attacks on Christians who belonged to the Scheduled Castes and on people who claimed tribal status on the grounds that they spoke the Kui language of the Kondh tribal people. The Kui Samaj, which unites members of the native Kondh tribe in Kandhamal, was found to be very much on the side of the VHP and the ruling alliance.

Informed sources said the policemen on duty at various police stations made no attempt to prevent the protesters from attacking Christians and their property. The fact that the police did not open fire anywhere in Kandhamal district to stop the dance of death gave rise to the suspicion that they were acting on the instructions of their political bosses.

The protesters also attacked government officials and offices and damaged vehicles of the police and the civil administration. Prohibitory orders were clamped in the entire district and curfew was imposed in several towns.

As the additional police force made available in the district was engaged in protecting government establishments and facilitating the funeral procession, protesters continued with their aggression by felling trees and blocking roads that led to the interior pockets of the district. In many places, informed sources said, even neighbours turned enemies and burnt alive members of Christian families. People from neighbouring villages also joined in, looting and torching the houses of Christians, who fled into the surrounding forests and hills.

Many of the victims hid in the jungles for up to seven days and came out only when the police reached there and assured them safety. Soon the relief camps that the administration had set up were not enough to hold the homeless and the government set up more camps. At the overcrowded camps people were enquiring about the whereabouts of their near and dear who were missing even 10 days after the violence erupted.

Lakshmananandas body was cremated at Chakapad late on the afternoon of August 25 in the presence of three BJP Ministers of the State, several Members of Parliament, legislators, and leaders of the VHP, including Praveen Togadia, and other Sangh Parivar organisations. Togadia travelled from Bhubaneswar to Chakapad by road despite the curfew that was in force in several towns of Kandhamal district. He claimed that Christians were behind the killing of the swami and that conversion was the root cause of the unrest in the district.

In Bhubaneswar, he criticised the Naveen Patnaik government for its failure to protect the swami though the latter had informed the police about a threatening letter that his ashram at Jalespata received a day before the attack.

If Togadia was allowed to enter the district when violence was at its peak, Union Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal and other politicians as also human rights activists were denied entry much later. Among those who were prevented from visiting the riot-hit region were Brinda Karat, Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a team of Congress leaders of Orissa and a four-member team of Left Members of Parliament led by Gurudas Dasgupta of the Communist Party of India.

The entry restrictions were lifted on September 3 when Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil visited Kandhamal and reimposed the next day.

Several political parties and organisations demanded a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the swamis killing and the subsequent violence. But Patnaik said the Special Investigation Team set up to probe the killing of the swami and four others was capable of bringing the guilty to book. He did not say anything about the cases relating to the killings and the destruction of property in the violence at various places.

On the other hand, the BJP put pressure on the government to arrest those involved in the murder of Lakshmanananda. In the face of criticism from the VHP, the partys legislators even stalled proceedings in the State Assembly for a day in support of their demand. In what seemed like a well-organised drama, a section of BJP legislators also demanded that the party pull out of the government and support it from outside. However, the scenario changed soon and senior leaders of the party met the Chief Minister and assured him that the BJP would remain a part of the ruling alliance.

While all organisations of the Sangh Parivar insisted that conversion was the main reason for the communal tension in Kandhamal, the BJP urged the Chief Minister to implement strictly the laws pertaining to conversion and the ban on cow slaughter.

Meanwhile, the situation in the interior areas of Kandhamal remained tense even a fortnight after the outbreak of violence despite the governments claim that the law and order situation was under control. Stray incidents of violence continued in remote pockets that remained inaccessible because the roadblocks were still in place.

In the prevailing circumstances in Kandhamal, the return of peace and harmony between the different communities is unlikely unless the government makes its presence felt at all levels of the administration and solves the problems of the poor among the tribal and the non-tribal population.

On the political front, a joint initiative by all political parties could restore peace and communal harmony in the district. But that is unlikely to happen as elections to both the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly are scheduled for next year.

The record of the BJD-BJP government shows that it has never been serious in its approach to ensure peace in Kandhamal. In fact, the district witnessed communal violence for more than a week in December last year following an attack on Lakshmanananda Saraswati a day before Christmas. At least four persons were killed and hundreds of houses of Christians were burnt down. A Hindu village, Brahmanigaon, was also attacked by members of the minority community.

The State government ordered a judicial inquiry into the violence and the commission, headed by retired High Court Judge Basudev Panigrahi, is continuing with its hearings.

Now, the government has ordered a judicial inquiry, headed by Sarat Chandra Mohapatra, a former High Court Judge, into the killing of Lakshmanananda and the communal violence that followed.

By the time the reports of the two commissions see the light of day, Kandhamals communal clashes may well have acquired a new dimension because of the interplay of social, political and cultural factors.

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