Another attack in Orissa

Print edition : April 10, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

A campaign by militant Hindu organisations provokes fresh attacks against the Christian community in the villages of Orissa.

FOR the third time in four months, the Christian community has come under organised attack in Orissa. The latest round came on March 16, when a hundred members of a tribal community, armed with firearms and other lethal weapons, raided a remote Christian-majority village, Ranalai, in Gajapati district which borders Andhra Pradesh. The attack was allegedly instigated by Hindu fundamentalists. The assailants fired gunshots and showered flaming arrows on the Christian residents. In the clash that followed, 12 persons were severely injured and nearly 160 huts belonging to Christian families were set on fire. Before the attack a cross etched on a hillock, about 18 km from the block headquarters, was obliterated.

The incident took place within two months of the gruesome murder of Australian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his two sons on January 23 at Manoharpur in Keonjhar district. Earlier, on December 8, a 2,000-strong mob attacked a Christian locality at Ramgiri-Udaygiri, which is close to Ranalai, and set on fire houses belonging to Christians. Earlier in the day, they broke into the local jail, dragged out two Christian prisoners and burnt them alive.

In the aftermath of the Ranalai attack, the newly installed Giridhar Gamang Ministry has been under intense fire from the Opposition. On March 18, two days after the incident, the Assembly witnessed noisy scenes. The Chief Minister announced that the investigation into the incident would be handed over to a one-man commission consisting of Kishore Chandra Jagdev Ray, a retired Judge of the Orissa High Court. Ray is investigating the Ramgiri-Udaygiri incidents too.

Ranalai village in Gajapati district after its Christian residents were attacked on March 16.-EASTERN PRESS AGENCY

Church leaders have accused the Bharatiya Janata Party and other organisations of the Sangh Parivar of instigating the Ranalai clashes and rebutted the Chief Minister's statement made in the Assembly on March 18 that the clashes were provoked by someone from the Christian community. Gamang said that Hindus in the village had for long resented the presence of a cross that had been etched on a rock on a hillock. A peace committee had been formed to resolve the issue.

According to Gamang's version, a hundred Hindus went to the hill on March 16 to erase the cross, as decided by the peace committee. On the way back they found several Christians waiting on the road. It was a Christian who hurled the first stone, which hit a Hindu and set off the violence, the Chief Minister said.

The main Opposition party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), questioned the propriety of Gamang's statement in view of the fact that a judicial probe had been ordered. The Opposition parties alleged that Gamang was trying to appease his vote bank among the tribal people by implicating Christians. The House was adjourned for an hour after Opposition members staged a walkout.

On March 22, under pressure from the Opposition, the Chief Minister presented a detailed report on the incident in the House. The report contradicted his earlier version. Gamang denied that he had accused Christians of provoking the clash; he maintained that initially he had only made a statement of fact that someone from the Christian community threw a stone and it hit a Hindu boy.

According to media reports, affected residents of Ranalai linked the violence to a public meeting organised by the BJP in the locality on February 1. Chants of " Jai Sri Ram" rang out as the mob set the houses on fire. Although the Chief Minister was silent on this aspect in his first statement, he later clarified that he had been waiting to "ascertain facts". In his second statement, Gamang admitted that a BJP leader had said at the meeting that the mark of the cross could easily be changed to that of a trishul.

A two-member team of the National Commission on Minorities (NCM), which inquired into the incident, has accused the BJP of provoking the attack. It blamed the police for failing to protect the Christian community. In a public statement, NCM Vice-Chairman Bawa Singh and member James Massey said that a senior BJP leader had fuelled religious passions at the recent rally. They said that the BJP leader had asked Hindus to paint a trishul over the cross on the hillock. According to the NCM team, the figure of the cross, which had been on the hillock since 1972, had never been a source of dispute. "It all started after the BJP rally," said Bawa Singh. The NCM members said that the Ranalai violence was "planned" and was not a stray incident. "The pattern of attack and the fact that some people from outside the village were instrumental in it are all strikingly similar to incidents that had taken place in other parts of the country. It is all linked. Within a couple of hours over 160 Christian houses were burnt down. This could be possible only in an organised and planned attack," a Commission member said.

K. Rajaratnam, president of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), visited Ranalai along with a group of Christian leaders. They said that the clashes fitted into the pattern adopted by the Sangh Parivar. Decrying the attempt to use the "bogey of conversions" and "international conspiracy", Rajaratnam said that the mainline churches were opposed to conversions and that population figures showed that the number of Christians was on the decline in India.

According to the 1991 Census, Gajapati district, which was carved out of Ganjam district in southern Orissa, has 1,21,197 Christians. Its Christian population was the second largest in the State after Sundergarh district. Most of these Christians were converts, who belonged to either the Scheduled Castes or the Saura and Kui tribes. Samuel S. Choudhuri, vice-president of the Gajapati Christian Association, an umbrella organisation of 10 Churches and charitable missionary organisations, said that a fresh census would establish that the number of Christians had come down and that there had been no attempt by the Churches to force conversions.

Serango, another Christian-dominated village in the district, appears to be going the Ranalai way. A fresh dispute over a cross on top of a hill threatens to spark off violence at Serango, which is not far from Ramgiri-Udaygiri. Tension gripped the village recently when Christians found that the cross had been uprooted. The police claimed that they were prepared to put down any trouble, but the Christian community is jittery. After uprooting the cross, "Hindu tribals" have claimed that the hill is their holy place and have threatened Christians with dire consequences if they perform any religious rites there.

MOUNTING pressure at home and from abroad, the numerous conspiracy theories that float around and the continuing attacks on Christians have made the investigation into the Staines' murders a challenging task. The investigators, however, remained focussed on their objective, which is to arrest all the 31 suspects, including the main accused, Dara Singh alias Ravindra Pal.

Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang visits the village.-EASTERN PRESS AGENCY

Investigations indicate that Dara Singh and 30 others had carefully planned the murders. The investigators have reconstructed the crime and identified 14 of the 30 persons who took part in a secret meeting convened by Dara Singh to work out its details. It has also been established that Dara Singh, who came from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh and settled in Keonjhar in 1986-87, was not just a petty criminal but was associated with the activities of militant Hindu organisations. He had taken part in the Goraksha movement against cow slaughter. He had allegedly attacked Muslims in the area. Some people say that he worked for the local BJP unit. A couple of Bajrang Dal activists who knew Dara Singh have been arrested.

Surprisingly, even as the police hunted for Dara Singh, he was interviewed by a private television channel on March 29. The airing of the interview rocked the Assembly. Opposition leaders asked how the police could not trace Dara Singh but a local journalist could interview him. The Opposition alleged that this was a clear indication of the collapse of law and order in the State.

Home Minister Prasad Harichandan admitted that he was aware of the interview, but he said that he could not confirm whether the interviewee was actually Dara Singh. The Minister said that several criminals had introduced themselves as Dara Singh for reasons that were not clear to the Government.

The State Government has sought the master cassette from the television company.

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