Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Religious violence in Orissa

Religious violence in Orissa refers to  religious unrest and riots in remote forest region surrounding Kandhamal in Orissa in India.

Parts of Kandhamal are tribal reservations where only tribal people can own land. Tribals and tribal land are protected by “The Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act”. The largest community in Kandhamal is the Kandha tribe. Most Kandha tribal people follow  Hinduism and nature worshippers. They respect all religions. However, the socio-economic and political landscape is dominated by the second largest community non-tribal Panna who are mostly converted  to Christianity. The region is also home to a Maoist terror group which is the largest terror group operating against India and responsible for 3338 deaths in India in five years from 2004 to 2008. Maoist has proclaimed Hindu nationalist organizations to be their natural enemy and many local Kandhamal maoist terrorists are Panna-caste-Christians. Major Issues in Kandhamal are Violation of "The Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act” like forcible occupation of tribal land, fake issuance of tribal certificates, illegal building of places of worship mostly churches on tribal land etc., religious conversions, re-conversions and terrorism. Apart Pannas plans of commercialization and industrialization of forest lands and disrespect to the nature always irritated Nature Loving Kandha tribals. This has also resulted in religious unrest and tensions in 1986, 1994 and 2001.


Historical background of conversions
Franciscan missionary Friar Odoric visited India in the 14th Century and wrote about his visit to Puri in a journal which he later published in Europe. In the journal, Odoric wrote in detail about a huge chariot in Jagannath which taken out annually rathyatra. Odoric has scant respect to the Indian beliefs, he misinterpreted  a few accidents happened at the time of rath yatra and preists words of those dying under rath going to heaven, saying  people sacrificed themselves to the Hindu God. The Friar's account of the human sacrifice spread throughout Europe and by the 19th century the word 'juggernaut' began to be associated with an object of such proportions capable of destroying everything in its path. At the time Orissa was known in Europe as the region where the oft-mentioned Juggernaut was located.
Baptist Christian missionaries first came to Orissa in 1822 during the British rule.
As one of the poorest regions of India, Orissa has been fertile ground for missionary work. In several districts the people have been open to conversion, where they today form a significant fraction of the population.

0. R. Bachelor gives a description of missionary work in Orissa in 1856:
"OUR first missionaries. Brethren Phillips and Noyes, with their wives, having arrived in India, spent the first six months, while engaged in the study of the language, laboring in connection with the English General Baptist missionaries; ...They preached and distributed books as extensively as they were able, and there laid the foundation for our boarding-school system. Six starving children were given them by their parents or relatives, and with them our school commenced.... Not long after, others were rescued from death, in a time of famine 5 and their number increased to fifty."
The missionaries ran into opposition from the local Brahmin community who opposed their work:
"Another obstacle is found in the power and in fluence of the Brahmans, the hereditary priests of Hinduism. They are the most intelligent, the best educated, and the most influential class.... They l opposed the missionaries work in the name charity and subverting all the Indian systems, coercing and converting people into Christianity by giving them various benefits of materialistic life.”
This marked the beginning of the confrontation between the two communities. 0. R. Bachelor expressed satisfaction at the achievements of missionaries in the first few decades:
"Where for ages past the heathen trod in idolatrous procession, where heathen rites and ceremonies from time immemorial had been celebrated, there a new song is sung, and the God of the Christian is, we hope, worshipped in spirit and in truth"

After India's independence

The communal disharmony arose even before Indian independence in 1947 on aforementioned issue of religious conversion. Conversions have been legislated by the provisions of the Freedom of Religion Acts (acts replicated in numerous other parts through India). Orissa was the first provinces of independent India to enact legislation in regards to religious conversions. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, mentions that no person shall “convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means”. Christian missionaries have argued that spreading their faith is a religious duty of Christianity. Christian missions have been in action in Orissa among the tribals and backward Hindu castes from the early years of the previous century. Hindus have alleged that the increase in the number of Christians in Orissa has been a result of exploitation of illiteracy and impoverishment by the missionaries in contravention of the law, instead of free will.

Conversion controversy

Behind the clashes are long-simmering tensions between equally impoverished groups: the Kandha tribe, who are 80% of the population, and the Pana. Both are original inhabitants of the land. The Indian tradition of 'untouchability', where Dalits, so-called 'lower caste' people, are subject to social 
and economic discrimination is outlawed in the Indian constitution. The prejudices remain and 'conversion' out of 'untouchability' has been a push factor for millions of such people to escape from their circumstances through joining other religions. The Panas have converted to Christianity in large numbers and prospered financially with the moneys given by Church. Over the past several decades, most of the Panas have become Dalit Christians.

It is blamed by various social work organizations working in that area is Christian organizations invoked violence through their blatant religious conversions. Conversions have been legislated by the provisions of the Freedom of Religion Acts, replicated in some of the states in India. Orissa was the first state of independent India to enact legislation on religious conversions. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, stipulates that no person shall “convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means”. Various social organizations allege that the Christian missionaries were converting poor tribal people by feeding them beef, which is taboo in Hinduism and indulge in various fraudulent methods of offering them cash and gifts. Also, the missionaries would upgrade the mud houses of the converts into brick-lime. It is further alleged that the increase in the number of Christians in Orissa has been a result of exploitation of illiteracy and impoverishment by the missionaries. The Census of India shows that Christian population in Kandhamal grew from around 43,000 in 1981 to 117950 in 2001. Conversion from Hinduism is frowned upon by various organizations.

December 2007

Attack on Laxmanananda

Swami Lakshamanananda, a Hindu monk, was on his way to visit a trouble spot. However, a bus belonging to Mr. Sugriba Singh, Panna Christian leader and BJD Member of Parliament (Lower House) obstructed the road and Swami was attacked on that spot injuring him, driver and security guard. In his statement Swami blamed Mr. Radha Kanta Nayak, Congress Member of Parliament (Upper House) and chief of Christian group World Vision. He further stated that this was for the seventh time that they failed to kill him. This led to further clashes between Hindus and Christians. It is strongly believed that these Christian leaders collided with Maoists to kill this swami for a long time as the service activities of the swami have be very affective in stopping tribals being attracted towards Christian missionaries. Since his activities have directly affected missionaries further conversion activities, they started targeting to eliminate.

The authorities imposed a curfew in order to control the situation
Concerned with rising violence,after their assault on the Swami, some Dalit Christian leaders lodged a complaint with the Police for protection.

Provocation by Christians
Christians put up Christmas Decoration on Hindus’ land, on the very site used by the Hindus to celebrate the Durga Puja festival in October. The outbreak of violence started on 24 December 2007 at 8.00 a.m. at Bamunigam village. When  Hindu activists asked them to remove the Christmas decoration which some local Christian businessmen had put up,. This was followed by violence between the two groups.

Swami had earlier demanded a high level probe into illegal beef trading in Kandhamal. VHP had also called for Kandhamal bandh over this issue. In protest against the attack and illegal beef trading, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati demanded action against the accused. Three persons were killed: one Christian and two non-Christians, as per the subsequent NCM Report.

Intervention by CRPF
By 30 December, rioting was got under control by the security forces such as the CRPF. The total number of security personnel deployed was about 2,500 police and paramilitary. The total number of people taking shelter in relief camps increased to 1200.

Stoking of violence by Christians with the help of Maoists
On 1 January 2008 further violence was reported at several places. Police said at least 20 houses and shops were torched at Phiringia, Khajuripada, Gochapada and Brahmanigaon by rioters on Tuesday night (1 January 2008)

Jacob Pradhan, general secretary of the Kandhamal district chapter of the Christian Endeavour Union, stated that around 100 houses belonging to Hindus were burnt in Brahmanigaon, Godapur, Barakhama and some other villages on 26 and 27 December. He suspected that these houses were torched by sections of “misguided Christians” possibly incited by Maoists.

August 2008 violence

 Swami Lakshmanananda murder

On the evening of Saturday, 23 August 2008, the octogenarian Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, a leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad was killed at his Jalespata ashram in Kandhamal district in Orissa, along with four others; three fellow leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and a boy. The attackers, estimated at thirty gunmen, were suspected of being Maoist insurgents. Both the manner of attack and a letter found at the attack provided the basis for this. The government announced a special investigative probe into the attack.

 Kandhamal Riots

However, Hindu groups in the state, including the BJP, blamed Christians for killing Lakshmanananda. They cited Lakshmanananda's claims that Christians were trying to eliminate him for his opposition to conversion, and had attacked him eight times before.
On August 25–28, Hindu mobs, allegedly incited by leaders like Manoj Pradhan, an elected state legislator from the Bharatiya Janata Party, set fire to many Christian settlements, and at least 38 people were killed. In addition, more than 25,000 Christians were forced to flee their villages "after their houses were attacked by rampaging mobs."

On 28 August, a letter of denial was received by a some media outlets, the VHP office in the Gajapati District of Orissa and the Bajrang Dal from a Maoist group. While the letter denied that the Central Committee of the Kotagarha branch of the Maoists had approved the attack, it claimed that some Maoists may have been lured by "nefarious elements" to launch the attack. Sources within the police force have said that Maoists could have carried out the operation. Soon after the appearance of the aforementioned letter, Azad, a leader of the Maoist People's Liberation Guerrilla Army, claimed responsibility for the murder of Lakshmanananda. Azad was suspected by the police of leading the attack himself. On 9 September 2008 the Maoists, who work underground, made an official press release claiming responsibility for the killing of Lakshmanananda. Many Maoist sympathizers of south Orissa had initially denied the role of CPI-Maoist in the murder of VHP leaders that sparked off communal violence in Kandhamnal district. Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader Sabyasachi Panda claimed that they killed Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples at his Jalespeta ashram on 23 August.  On 7 October 2008, the Orissa police announced they arrested three Christians in connection with the murder of the Swami.

On 16 October in an in interview to PTI the IG police Mr Arun Ray told that "Maoists were given money to train certain youth of a particular community to eliminate Saraswati," The plan to eliminate Saraswati was made immediately after the December 2007 communal violence in Kandhamal, he added. Elaborating the probe by the crime branch, Ray said investigations also showed that a Christian group had collected money from some villages in Kandhamal which was given to the Maoist group to train their youth for the purpose. The police said that they already arrested three persons, including two Christian tribal's and others who belong to the extremist groups and efforts were now on to arrest the other accused.

False Rape of a Nun

On 30 September, various news sources reported an alleged case of rape which occurred on 25 August. These incidents took place at K. Nuagaon in Kandhamal district. While a police complaint was lodged soon afterwards, no action was taken for over a month, adding to accusations of police misconduct. Eventually, four men were arrested for the attack, and a senior police office suspended over the delayed investigation. During the recording of her statement, which was done in presence of two witnesses, she had denied any occurrence of rape. Later she gave a written complaint stating that "one man from the mob" had raped her. During a press conference she alleged that a group of unidentified persons, dragged her along with the priest and took them to a deserted building. The priest was doused with petrol and beaten up. She also alleged that the crowd paraded her on the streets in the presence of a dozen policemen. After the launching of the complaint, police had medical examination of the nun carried out, which showed she had been raped. Police had sent the clothes of the said nun to State Forensic Laboratory for further verification. Kandhamal police chief Praveen Kumar confirmed the rape. Police arrested nine people in connection with the crime while the nun in case was in hiding for fear of reprisals. The Crime branch took charge of the probe following a government decision after the medical report, which was collected 38 days after it was carried out.

On 22 October 2008, the Supreme court of India, rejected Sister Meena Lalita's appeal for Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe and asked her to participate in the test identification parade of the accused to nail the culprit with state police.

On 25 October 2008, Sister Meena Lalita came out before media persons for the first time, describing her shocking experience and demanding a CBI probe into the incident. While doing so she refused attend the identification parade.

The nun's appearance before the media sparked off a hot debate among the clergy and the laity about the Church's propriety in making her do so. Several analysts see it as a church propaganda against Hindu groups as the church still refuse to go for identification parade as it will reveal their evil intentions of fake rape charges against Hindu groups.

12,539 people were fed in 10 relief camps, 783 people got the facilities in two relief camps in Rayagada district. In all, 12 companies of para-military forces, 24 platoons of Orissa State Armed Police, two sections of Armed Police Reserve forces and two teams of Special Operation Group (SOG) were deployed to control the riots.[83] On 4 September 2008 in Tikabali, Kandhmal over 300 Hindu tribal women protested in  a relief camp in front of a relief camp set up for christians. They accused government's bias treatment saying Christians' having provisions in relief camps while the Hindu community was not so provided.
On 7 September 2008 VHP leader Praveen Togadia announced that an All-India agitation would be launched if the killers of Lakshmananda were not arrested. The Church in turn demanded dismissal of the state government.

On 15 September 2008, NDTV reported attacks on two Hindu temples in Orissa's Sundergarh district. One was attacked on the night of 14 September, and the other 2 weeks earlier.

Political fallout
The ruling government of Orissa, headed by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, was a coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). In the 147-member state assembly the BJD-BJP combine has 93 members, 32 of whom are from the BJP.
Some BJP legislators blamed the government for not providing adequate protection to Saraswati, despite other attempts on his life. They called for withdrawing support from the government, which would lead to its collapse.
On Wednesday 4 September 2008, India's Supreme Court issued an order on a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath seeking a CBI enquiry and dismissal of the state government. The order asked the Orissa state government to report on steps taken to stop a wave of communal rioting that has claimed at least 16 lives. The supreme court also asked the Naveen Patnayak government to file an affidavit by 4 September explaining the circumstances under which it allowed VHP leader Praveen Togadia to carry out a procession with the Saraswati's ashes, an act that would clearly inflame further communal tension. Togadia said that he never proposed to carry the "ashes" of Saraswati and alleged that Archbishop Raphael Cheenath had "lied under oath to the apex court". The dead body of Swamiji was not cremated as his was a samadhi, where a holy man is entombed on death. So the claims of the 'asthi-kalash yatra' (carrying of ashes), were not true.

Total damage

310 villages were affected with 4,104 homes torched. More than 18,000 were injured and 50,000 displaced. Another report said that around 11,000 people are still living in relief camps, as of October 2008. Some of the tribals even fled away to border districts in neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh and took shelter in churches of those districts. There are allegations as government has not provided sufficient relief to those hindu tribals they are being lured by Church with relief and funding their housing.

Later Continued violence by Christian groups

Against Hindus

On 6 November[, Dhanu Pradhana, a VHP activist was murdered in Kandhmal. Dhanu Pradhana was shot when he was at a school in Kumbharigaon. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader of Eastern Orissa, Prabhat Panigrahi, Hindu activists allege, was killed by Christians and Maoists in late March 2009, though Maoist rebels were suspected. Disturbingly, Hindus have also been attacked by members of their own faith, due to having Christian relatives. One woman, who is herself a Hindu, says she was gang raped by her grandparent's neighbors due to her uncle's refusal to renounce his Christian beliefs.

Summary of events before the riots

Kandhas and panhas were two separate groups; Kandhas were scheduled tribes whereas Panhas are Dalits. They did not mix much, never inter-married. Christian missionaries set up at kandhamal and converted panha tribes. They built churches in surrounding area and built 'pucca' houses for the converts. Laxmanananda started his ashram in kandhamal, as an answer to the missionaries and preached hinduism to kandhas. Intolerance between Kandhas and panhas strengthened. Panhas appealed to make their status 'tribal', which would allow them to access forest land belonging to kandhas. Continued maligning of Forest by Panas infuriated the Nature worshipping kandhas, as they saw it as an invasion. Moreover, there were some controversial beef eating drives organised by the missionaries, which angered kandhas and also ashram activists In December 2007, a Christian gate was erected near a Hindu place of worship, which kandhas felt as a 'slap on their face'. Hindu kandhas, not withstanding, burnt down the Christmas gate and from there started the violence.

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