Religious Rift Tears at Orissa Communities

Chris Morris, BBC News, April 13, 2009

Hundreds of people have gathered in the darkness in the town of Raikia.

Candlelight flickers across their faces as they sit quietly on the floor. They chant and pray as a priest leads them in worship.

For Christians, Easter is a time of hope. But in Kandhamal, deep in the interior in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, hope is in short supply.

This is a community still traumatised by a sudden burst of violence last year, described as the worst anti-Christian rioting in India since independence.

Dozens of people were killed, and hundreds of churches and houses were damaged or destroyed.

Tiny shacks

Utsva and Minati Digal have come to celebrate midnight Mass in Raikia, where the parish church still stands.

Last year they were burnt out of their home. Their local church was left in ruins. Prayer, they say, is all they have left.

Derelict homes in Kandhamal

An hour’s walk down the road, they now live with 11 other families in a field. The whole group lives in a single tent, next to a collection of tiny shacks made of wood and plastic sheeting.

Utsva and Minati say no-one will employ Christians as day labourers any more, and the children cannot go to school.

“We are having a very hard time living here,” Utsva says.

“We have no protection and there is a sense of fear that at any time someone can attack us. So we try to sleep in the day and take turns to guard our place at night.”

Minati also complains that they have not had enough help from the government, and they do not have enough rice to feed everyone properly.

“There are too many of us,” she says, as her daughter tugs at the hem of her sari.

“Now we just want to go to any place where we can get our life back. Here we are constantly threatened and targeted.”

Thousands of Kandhamal’s Christians are still living a makeshift life, and their former neighbours are refusing to let them go back to their homes.

Only if they renounce their faith, convert to Hinduism, and drop charges against anyone allegedly involved in last year’s pogrom will they be allowed to return.

In one village Hindus have been told that anyone even talking to the Christians would be fined more than 1,000 rupees ($20; £14).

We went looking for Hindu villagers, and found a small election rally for the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP.

Orissa goes to the polls in the first round of India’s general elections on Thursday.

‘Dignity’

We followed the BJP candidate, Ashok Sahu, to another tiny hamlet, past the ruins of another broken, abandoned church.

But it is the Hindus, Mr Sahu insists, who face discrimination. Hundreds have been arrested, he says, since last year’s riots.

“I don’t justify violence, but there are two types of violence,” he explains. “One is planned violence and the other is spontaneous violence.”

“A maximum number of Christians were killed, yes it is a fact, but why? The Hindu sense of dignity has come to the surface in a spontaneous manner and they want to protect that sense of dignity.”

Ashok Sahu is now facing charges for inciting hatred against Christians in one of his campaign speeches. He insists that he is the victim of a political conspiracy.

“If I’m arrested,” he warns, “a volcano will erupt.”

Two days after issuing his warning, Mr Sahu was taken into custody by Orissa police.

Divisions

All of which is not much comfort to another 43 Christian families who are camped out in a market on the edge of the town of G Udayagiri.

On market days, they are simply pushed with their belongings into a corner.

More than eight months after violent rioting shook this district, there is little prospect that political change will make things any better.

“There are peace committees,” says Praful Mallick, one of the men living in the market.

“But the peace committees are full of the people who led the riots. What difference is that going to make?”

A local priest, Father Ajay Singh, says: “In this place where we are sitting presently, you can see they have been neglected by the administration and the public, nobody bothers about it.

“People are divided along caste lines and religious lines, and this election will only make the situation worse.”

The plight of Kandhamal’s Christians has received international attention. And yet they are still living in a state of great uncertainty.

The roots of the violence here are complex–last year’s pogrom broke out after the murder of a local Hindu leader.

But many Christians have simply fled from this region altogether, and there are signs that Hindu activists would like to force the rest to leave as well.

In this election season, Kandhamal remains a test of India’s commitment to secular politics, and religious freedom.

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