Following the murder of Orissa’s Hindu nationalist icon, Lakshmanananda Saraswati, together with four disciples, in Jalespatta in Kandhamal district on August 23, 2008, Gouri Prasad Rath, general secretary, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, VHP-Orissa, rallied: "Christians have killed swamiji. We will give a befitting reply," continuing, "We would be forced to opt for violent protests if action is not taken against the killers."
Reportedly, the shooting was carried out by a group of armed men. Immediately, without investigation, state authorities alleged the attackers to be Maoists. Condemning the spiral of violence, the All India Christian Council stated that "The Christian community in India abhors violence, condemns all acts of terrorism and opposes groups of people taking the law into their own hands." The sangh parivar held the Christian community responsible even as there is no evidence or history to suggest the armed mobilisation of Christian groups in Kandhamal or any other region in Orissa.
The sangh parivar called for a 12-hour bandh on August 24. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as a member of the governing coalition, supported the sangh parivar’s call to strike and the government of Orissa ordered that educational institutions across Orissa remain closed. Praveen Togadia, international general secretary of the VHP, returned yet again to Orissa to attend Saraswati’s funeral and charged Orissa chief minister, Naveen Patnaik’s government with responsibility for Sarawasti’s death. Subash Chouhan, recently rewarded through his appointment as national convener of the Bajrang Dal, returned to Orissa as well, stating that ‘Christian militants’ were responsible for Saraswati’s death. Hindutva affiliates asked the BJP to sever its alliance with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and contest the forthcoming elections from an immoderate Hindutva platform.
As in the Kandhamal riots of December 2007, yet again the sangh parivar and its allies prioritised extralegal intervention in August 2008, authorising its militias to mob violence in Kandhamal. On August 24, 2008 Hindutva workers staged demonstrations across Kandhamal – at Balliguda, G. Udaigiri and Nuagaon and elsewhere across Orissa, including Bhubaneswar, Balangir, Cuttack, Gajapati, Kalahandi, Kendrapada, Koraput, Sonepur and Talcher. Churches, homes, businesses and Christian organisations, such as Jana Vikash, were attacked in Kandhamal, including in Balliguda, Chakapad, Dangsoroda, Kalingia, Muniguda, Narayanipatara, Padampur, Sambalpur, Talsera, Tangrapada, Tummiibandh, Sarsananda, Kanjamendi Nuagaon, Padangiri, Tiangia, Tikabali and Phulbani.
They targeted the Christian community and churches, businesses and organisations across 200 villages, torching 4,000 homes. A Catholic nun from Nuagaon was reportedly raped. A 19-year-old Hindu woman cook was burnt alive at a church-operated orphanage in Bargarh district. More than 12,539 people sought shelter in 10 relief camps. Despite ‘shoot at sight’ orders, the deployment of 12 paramilitary units, 24 platoons of armed police and other units, including the Special Operations Group, state forces were inefficient in curbing Hindutva’s sadism. Following the death of Saraswati and his associates, officials record the death toll at 13; local leaders at 20 while the Asian Centre for Human Rights noted 50. On August 27, Christian organisations filed a writ petition in the Orissa High Court asking for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry.
Reportedly, a Maoist group claimed responsibility for the killing of Saraswati and his associates. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) disclaimed liability. While this might be proven the work of a Maoist group, Maoists are largely not operational in the area while Hindu communalist groups have witnessed an upsurge in recent years. Hindu activists charged Maoists with the December violence as well. Ideologically, Maoist groups do not have reason to target Christians. While deplorable gendered, violent tactics are used by some Maoist cadre, disproportionate state/majoritarian repression, such as Salwa Judum, fosters insurgent violence-producing cycles of repression. State response to instances of group militancy lacks self-reflection on the ferocity of structural injustices fostered by state institutions.
In June 2006 the government of Orissa banned the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and seven affiliated groups, naming their activities as facilitative of terrorism, inciting Adivasis and ‘weaker sections’ into ‘violence’ and ‘disobedience’. The government identified a wide variety of peoples and groups as ‘Maoist’ and Maoism as uniform and violent, omitting to make distinctions based on politics, ideology and practices.
Hindutva’s violence continues to target Christians, Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis in Orissa. Lakshmanananda Saraswati pioneered the Hinduisation of Kandhamal since 1969. Kandhamal first witnessed Hindutva violence in 1986. The district remains socio-economically vulnerable, a large percentage of its population living in poverty. The Christian community too is economically disenfranchised in Kandhamal. Hindutva ideologues say Dalits have acquired economic benefits, augmented by Christianisation. This is not borne out in reality. A majority of the Christian population, local Christian leaders state, is landless or marginal landholders, with an average holding of half an acre per family. Christian leaders said that the church does not convert under duress or offer money in lieu of conversions.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a thrust in conversions, Adivasis benefited through accessing health care, education and employment offered by Christian missionaries. The politicisation of Adivasis and Dalits leads them to claim that Hinduism is distant to them, ‘outside’ to them. This is dangerous to the sangh parivar’s ideology which uses the notion of ‘Adivasis as Hindus’ to connect Hinduism across time and space and ‘Dalits as Hindus’ to maintain its numeric dominance. Politicised Adivasis and Dalits are named ‘terrorist’, ‘Maoist’, ‘militant’.
Hindutva rumours that Dalits are exploiting Adivasis and that land is a major contention between them. Dalits are posed as ‘dangerous’, as the claiming of the identity of ‘Dalit’ is a politicisation debilitating to the sangh parivar. Hindutva rumours that Dalits have acquired economic benefits, augmented by their Christianisation. This is not borne out in reality, as Dalits remain landless – in Kandhamal, approximately 90 per cent of Dalits are landless. Hindutva rumours that the ‘success’ of the Dalit community is causing economic rift in the area and the success of Christian Dalits is causing communalisation.
In reality it is the Hindu casted business community that maintains economic privilege/dominance in the area. Their economic power is however justified in the interest of maintaining and growing the (‘shining’ Hindu/Indian) nation. In Hinduising Adivasis and polarising relations between them and Dalits in the area, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams (VKAs), instated in 1987, reportedly engineered rivalries between Kondh and Kui Adivasis and Pana Dalit Christians in Kandhamal, instigating against the latter’s campaign for scheduled tribe status. Dalit Christians, under current law, forfeit their right to affirmative action.
After Kandhamal 2008 Hindutva’s discourse labelled Christians as ‘conversion terrorists’. Conversions to Christianity are inflated by the Hindu Right, circulating in retaliatory capacity even within progressive communities. Hindutva leaders rumour: "Phulbani-Kandhamal is a most important Christian area in Orissa with rampant and forced conversions." The Christian population in Kandhamal is 1,17,950 while Hindus number 5,27,757. Orissa Christians numbered 8,97,861 in the 2001 census, only 2.4 per cent of the state’s population. Christian conversions are storied as debilitating to the majority status of Hindus while Muslims are seen as ‘infiltrating’ from Bangladesh, dislocating the ‘Oriya (and Indian) nation’.
The right of individuals to undergo religious conversion is constitutionally authorised unless under duress. Historically, conversions from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam have occurred for multiple reasons, such as being a form of resistance among the elite and as a way to escape caste oppression and social stigma for Adivasis and Dalits. Societal or Hindu ‘feelings’ about conversions to Christianity or Islam does not render these conversions inappropriate, invalid or illegal. It is only in circumstances where conversions occur coercively or are undertaken with the intent of mobilising a culture of hate as, for example, undertaken by Hindutva activists, that conversions must be disallowed.
Conversion strategies of the sangh appear to be shifting in Orissa. The sangh assumes all Dalits and Adivasis to be ‘originally’ Hindu and forcible conversion is understood to be a ‘patriotic’ ‘return’/‘reconversion’ to Hinduism. Hindutva activists reportedly determined to ‘reconvert’ 10,000 Christians in 2007. But fewer public conversion ceremonies were held in 2007 than in 2004-2006. Converting politicised Adivasi and Dalit Christians to Hinduism is proving difficult. The sangh has instead increased its emphasis on the Hinduisation of Adivasis through their participation in Hindu rituals which in effect ‘convert’ Adivasis by assuming that they are Hindu. Such ‘conversion’ tactics are diffused and need not negotiate certain legalities which public and stated conversion ceremonies must.
The BJD-BJP government has repeatedly failed to adhere to the constitutional mandate of a secular state. Hindutva organisations remain entrenched in 25 of Orissa’s 30 districts, with a cadre of a few million. Led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, there are over 25 Hindutva-affiliated organisations operational in the state. The sangh parivar’s formidable presence in Orissa is aided by the BJP in coalition government with the BJD since 2000. Following the Gujarat genocide of March 2002, 300-500 VHP and Bajrang Dal activists burst into the state assembly and ransacked the complex, demanding construction of the Ayodhya temple, with no legal and political consequences.
In 2005-2006 Advocate Mihir Desai and I convened the Indian People’s Tribunal on Communalism in Orissa, organised by the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights and led by Justice KK Usha, retired chief justice, Kerala. The tribunal’s findings strongly warned about the formidable extent of mobilisation by the majoritarian communalist group of organisations in Orissa, including in Kandhamal district. This did not invoke any reflection or determination on part of the government of Orissa or the central government.
The CBI must expeditiously investigate the activities of the Bajrang Dal, VHP, RSS and VKA and apply, as appropriate, relevant provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. The status, actions and finances of communal groups and their affiliates and cadre, and the actions of their membership, must be identified and investigated. These groups must be investigated and monitored and, as appropriate, requisite action must be taken and sanctions be imposed on their activities and reparations be made retroactively to the affected communities and individuals.
The draconian Orissa Freedom of Religion Act (OFRA) 1967 must be repealed. There are enough provisions under the Indian Penal Code to prevent and prohibit conversions under duress. But consenting converts to Christianity are repeatedly charged under OFRA while Hindutva perpetrators of forcible conversions are not. The sangh contends that ‘reconversion’ to Hinduism through its ‘Ghar Vapasi’ (homecoming) campaign is not conversion but return to Hinduism, the ‘original’ faith. This allows Hindutva activists to dispense with the procedures for conversion under OFRA.
In 2003 Subash Chouhan, then Bajrang Dal state convener, had stated: "In the country, Orissa is the second Hindu Rajya. We in the VHP believe that this country belongs to the Hindus. It is not a dharamshala [guesthouse] and people cannot just come here and settle down and do whatever they want. That is not going to happen. We will not let that happen. Whatever happens here will happen with the consent of the Hindus. Whatever happens here, say politics happens, it will have to be Hindutva politics with Hindutva’s consent. India is a world power, what is in India is nowhere else, and we want to create India nicely in the image of Ram Rajya."
The Kandhamal riots of December 2007 and August 2008 drew upon tactics used in Gujarat, including the utilisation of Hindutvaised Adivasis – against Dalit Christians – in December. Crowds carried rods, trishuls, swords, kerosene and crude bombs. They used guns, a first in Orissa, weapons available in the market and makeshift local fabrications. Predominantly middle-class caste Hindus participated in looting, destroying and torching property. They threw bombs to start fires. The breakage was systematic, thorough. Police action was delayed, permitting the sangh parivar to continue rioting.
The state government of Orissa has been unconcerned with and incapable of dealing with these issues and the serious concerns they pose to democratic governance in the state, and of ensuring the security and sanctity of peoples and groups made vulnerable through majoritarian communalism. Political parties, focused on politicking the issue, are ill equipped to respond to immediate and long-term needs of people. The communal situation in the state remains at par with an emergency.
The Kandhamal riots raise fundamental questions about state accountability in preventing violence and administering justice in instances of majoritarian attacks. The delay in enacting the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill 2005 attests to this. The bill, advocated by citizen-motivated efforts for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, as introduced by the Congress government, remains deficient in defining procedures for state answerability. How might we hold the state accountable for acts of omission that enable or continue communal violence, and incorporate adequate measures for bringing justice and accountability with regard to gender and sex-based crimes in the event of communal violence? How might we impose checks and balances on the state and its police and security forces, whose inertia and majoritarianist complicity in communal collisions have been consistent?
Unchecked cruelty instigated by Hindu supremacists enables Hindutva’s brutalisation of minority and marginalised peoples in securing a Hindu state. Systematic disregard for the rights of minority and disenfranchised peoples by the government of Orissa and the central government have gratuitously escalated people’s experience of dispossession and disenfranchisement.
(Angana Chatterji, associate professor of anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, is author of the forthcoming book, Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present, Narratives from Orissa. A segment of this article appeared in the Tehelka news magazine.)