Black Christmas

Print edition : January 18, 2008

The police guarding a church at Darigibadi in Phulbani district, on December 26.-AP

Communal violence mars the peace in Kandhamal district of Orissa around Christmas time.

On December 24, when the world was preparing to celebrate Christmas, the Kui-speaking tribal people of Orissas Kandhamal district were getting ready for a 36-hour bandh beginning the next morning. But even as preparations were on, the bomb of hatred that had been ticking for long went off, ripping the communal fabric of the district.

Trouble apparently began when a section of Hindus opposed the preparations for Christmas. Following this, a group of Christians allegedly attacked Swami Lakshmananda, a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader, who was on his way to perform a yagna in the Brahmanigaon area of the district. Activists of the VHP retaliated by setting ablaze churches and other Christian institutions, and houses belonging to members of the community. The VHP also called for a four-hour, State-wide bandh the next day in protest against the attack on its leader. The bandh coincided with the one that was called by the Kui Samaj Samanwaya Samiti.

The Kui Samaj has been agitating against the alleged granting of Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) status to Dalits in the district, which has a sizable Christian population. The vast majority of the Dalits in Kandhamal are Christian whereas only a small section of the tribal population has embraced Christianity. The divide between the tribal people and the Dalits has widened in recent years with the VHP repeatedly contending that religious conversion was at the root of the trouble in the central Orissa district.

As the agitating tribal people felled trees on all roads leading to the district on December 24 night to enforce their bandh beginning from the next day, VHP activists put their organisations stamp on the Kui Samaj agitation and went about vandalising churches and prayer houses.

Prayers were not held in any church in Kandhamal on Christmas day. One person was killed and over 30 people were injured in the clashes between the two communities.

Caught unawares, the administration imposed a curfew on Phulbani, the district headquarters, and three other towns Brahmanigaon, Baliguda and Daringibadi. Prohibitory orders were enforced in the remaining areas of the district. In Bhubaneswar, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik appealed to the people of Kandhamal to maintain peace and harmony.

It was only on December 26 that the State government took up the matter seriously and deployed additional forces in different parts of the district. The situation, however, did not show any improvement as the police could not enter most of the areas because of roadblocks put up by Kui Samaj members.

When Kandhamal was burning, on December 26, leaders of the ruling Biju Janata Dal were busy at a massive rally in the State capital, Bhubaneswar, on the occasion of the 10th foundation day of the party. At the rally, Naveen Patnaik, who is also the BJD president, reiterated his partys resolve to realise the dream of his father, the late Biju Patnaik, of building a prosperous Orissa.

Patnaik, however, took time off and reviewed the Kandhamal situation at the State Secretariat twice that day. The government said three companies of the Central Reserve Police Force had been called in from other places in the State to restore peace in Kandhamal.

As Kandhamal remained cut off from the rest of the world for the fourth day on December 27, the Chief Minister flew to Phulbani and held a review meeting, which was attended by Director General of Police Gopal Chandra Nanda and top officials of the police and the administration.

On his return, Patnaik told reporters in Bhubaneswar that the situation in the district had normalised to a great extent. Admitting that churches and prayer houses had been damaged or burnt down in the district, he said more than two dozen people were arrested and action was being initiated against the offenders. In reference to the tribal agitation, Patnaik said that his government would look into the grievances and take necessary steps to resolve the issue.

Patnaik, however, appeared to be unaware of the fresh violence that was occurring around the same time in Kandhamal. By evening, reports started pouring in that at least a dozen more churches and prayer houses had been burnt during the day. Besides, three persons were reportedly killed in police firing when an armed mob, said to be VHP supporters, attacked the Brahmanigaon police station. A mob attacked the police station after the police personnel tried to prevent them from attacking members of the Christian community. A senior officer was injured in the police station attack. Fresh trouble began in Brahmanigaon after the body of a child was recovered from the locality earlier in the day.

An All India Christian Council demonstration in New Delhi on December 27 demanding that the safety of Christians in Orissa be ensured.-KAMAL SINGH/PTI

Confirming the death of three persons in police firing, a top official said that the police had opened fire in self-defence. Confronted with reports of the damaging and burning down of more than 40 churches and prayer houses by December 27 evening, he said the exact details were not available. It was difficult for the administration to keep track of incidents taking place in remote hilly areas, he explained.

Police stations were also attacked at Phiringia and Tikabali and many police vehicles were burnt by mobs. It was difficult to assess as to whether the attackers were Sangh Parivar members or Kui tribal people, an official observed.

On December 27, a delegation led by Raphael Cheenath, Archbishop of Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, met the Chief Minister and submitted a memorandum stating that Christians were not safe in Kandhamal. The representatives of the community, who claimed that at least 50 churches had been damaged over the previous four days, also demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the incidents. The VHP alleged that Hindu places of worship were also attacked in some places.

As violence continued in Kandhamal, the Opposition parties and other organisations criticised the government for its failure to maintain law and order. They also blamed Patnaik for being soft on the Sangh Parivar because the Bharatiya Janata Party was a partner in the two-party coalition government.

Four days after Kandhamal smouldered, Patnaik went on a damage-control exercise. He ordered a judicial inquiry into the violence in Kandhamal on December 28. He, however, clarified that only one person had been killed in police firing the previous day and not three persons as had been reported in the media. Only one body had been recovered, he added.

Soon after Patnaik ordered the judicial inquiry, Steel and Mines Minister Padmanabha Behera, who hails from the violence-hit district, resigned from his post. The government also appointed a new District Collector for Kandhamal.

The dropping of Behera from the Cabinet was one of the demands put forward by the Kui tribal people. Behera belongs to the Dalit community. The Kuis have also been demanding the appointment of a direct Indian Administrative Service officer as Collector instead of an officer who was promoted to the cadre.

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