A run-in at Raikia

Published : Oct 08, 2004 00:00 IST

The attack on a church in Raikia over a local dispute involving traders is symptomatic of the growing intolerance of Hindu fundamentalist elements in the tribal pockets of Orissa.

in Bhubaneswar

KANDHAMAL district in Orissa, which is dominated by tribal people, is known for its turmeric cultivation and backbreaking poverty. But in recent years, it has earned infamy for the frequent communal conflicts involving the Sangh Parivar and the church. The latest incident was an attack on a 50-year-old Catholic church in the panchayat headquarter town of Raikia, and it had its roots in a dispute over the encroachment of government land outside a school run by the minority community.

The local administration of Raikia apparently failed to gauge the growing discontent among a section of the local traders over the encroachment. The simmering tension reached a flashpoint on August 26 when the traders attacked the church near the school. Since then the Hindu fundamentalists and the Christian clergy have engaged in a war of words and the communal polarisation seems to be complete. While additional security forces have been deployed in the town, the police and the local administration seem to have sullied their image in the eyes of the people, particularly those of the minority community.

On August 2, the church authorities are said to have put a wire fence around the land and some local traders objected to this. In September 2000, the administration had demolished the 80-odd shops constructed illegally on this land and relocated the traders' establishments near the local bus terminal.

On August 4, the traders staged a dharna outside the office of the Block Development Officer and submitted a memorandum addressed to the District Collector of Kandhamal demanding removal of the encroachment. The same day the Tehsildar of Raikia visited the spot and removed a portion of the wire fencing. At a peace committee meeting convened by the administration the next day, it was resolved that the fence would be removed and people from both the communities would plant saplings at the disputed site. The resolution did not make it clear who would coordinate the removal of the fence and the planting of saplings.

No action was taken to remove the fence and plant saplings. On August 26, the traders were holding a meeting (a routine on the last Thursday of every month) when they were told that the church authorities were strengthening the fence. This sparked tension in the area and a truck parked near the church was set on fire by miscreants. The truck belonged to a sympathiser of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in the locality and incensed traders rushed to the spot and attacked the church adjacent to the school. Although three policemen were present on the spot, the traders and their supporters desecrated the church, burnt the Bible, and damaged the statues, furniture and musical instruments.

Raphael Cheenath, Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, and V.V. Augustine, a member of the National Commission for Minorities, condemned the incident in Bhubaneswar the next day and held Hindu fundamentalists responsible for it. They also met Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and underlined the need for the setting up of a Minorities Commission in the State.

Senior government officials and top brass of the police rushed to the spot and on the basis of complaints filed by members of both communities two cases were registered. Twelve persons - seven from the minority community and five from the majority community - were arrested and released on bail.

The peace committee met again under the chairmanship of the Revenue Divisional Commissioner (South) and observed that the situation took an ugly turn because the earlier resolution on the removal of the fence and the planting of saplings had not been implemented.

While it resolved to restore peace, members of both communities continued to engage in the blame game. An organisation owing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar even demanded that the government stop allotting land to minority organisations to run any community service. While Christian leaders say that the attack was planned and carried out at the instance of the Sangh Parivar leaders, the organisations having links with the Parivar maintain that it was an outburst of the people's anger.

Leaders of various Opposition parties visited Raikia jointly and blamed the Parivar for the attack on the church. They criticised the Bharatiya Janata Party-Biju Janata Dal coalition government for being soft on Sangh activists and demanded the arrest of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati who works in the area. A BJP delegation, too, visited the place and its leaders said in Bhubaneswar that the incident related to land grabbing by the church and had nothing to do with the communal divide. They demanded that the government repair the church without delay and take steps to improve the relationship between the two communities.

"Although the Raikia incident had its roots in the encroachment of government land, the administration should not take it lightly as the incident has widened the gap between the two communities," said Rabi Behera, secretary of the Ambedkar-Lohia Vichar Manch, a Bhubaneswar-based human rights group. Behera, who led a six-member team to Raikia, demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation or a probe by the NCM.

While the Sangh Parivar is out to capitalise on the hostility created by the Raikia incident, the government needs to remain vigilant to avoid recurrence of such incidents elsewhere, particularly when the Parivar is gaining strength in the tribal pockets of the State.

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