The minority Christian community in Kandhamal district, many of whom are forest tribal people and low-caste Dalit converts from Hinduism to to Christianity, say they’ve been targeted by radical Hindu nationalist organisations seeking to put an end to the church and its activities in the region.
This is rejected by the Hindu groups who say the violence is the consequence of local issues unconnected with their presence in the area.
The district has remained under night-time curfew since the tensions erupted and has been largely inaccessible to foreign journalists until now.
Father Ravi Samasundar stands amid the burned out ruins of his church in the town of Bamunigan.
Lakhanananda Saraswati says he was attacked by a mob
“They brought oil, and kerosene, piled everything they could find in the middle of the church and set fire to it. They destroyed or looted everything.”
Across this remote region, deep in the highland forests, the pattern was repeated over and over.
Churches were ransacked, entire villages razed and their inhabitants forced to flee into the forests.
The violence, which began on Christmas Eve, has now largely abated, but the plight of the people has not.
Many are now living in the shells of their burned out homes, all their possessions lost.
The conflict has pitted Hindu against Christian, tribal against non-tribal.
All share some responsibility for what has happened, all have suffered. Years of relatively peaceful co-existence of these communities, living a fragile rural existence, has been shattered.
The Christian community blames the virulently anti-Christian rhetoric of Hindu nationalist organisations; and one person in particularly, a revered local holy man, Lakhanananda Saraswati.
Father Ravi Samasundar seethes with anger at what has been happening. “Saraswati speaks against Christianity, against the priests, against the nuns,” he says.
Hindu activists accuse the local Christian community of stirring up trouble by making “unreasonable” demands – a reference to their attempts to be granted the same preferential access to jobs and education given to low-caste Hindus and tribal communities.
“Political parties or organisations have nothing to do with this. It is a clear social problem”, says Jagabandhu Mishra, editor of Rashtra Deepa – a newspaper in the local Oriya language, which reflects the more extreme views of the Hindu nationalists.
When I met Mr Misra in his office, the front page of a recent addition of the paper lay on the desk between us.
It accused the ‘Sons of Jesus’ of attacking Hindus, and reported on a Christian mob brutally injuring the local Hindu leader Saraswati, an event which triggered much of the worst violence, and which subsequently turned out to be entirely false.
Was there, I asked, a campaign of conversion, or re-conversion of Christians to Hinduism in the area? “If those Hindus who converted to Christianity want to come back,” he told me, “the door is now open to them.”
No side is left blameless in this conflict. After the initial attacks on church institutions and the shops and homes of Christian families, Christian mobs responded in kind.
A Hindu woman walks through her destroyed village
A Hindu woman walks through her destroyed village
In the village of Gadapur, Hindu families, standing amid the charred rubble of their homes, told me how a mob of tribal Christians had descended on them, forcing them to flee into the forest, before destroying every shop and dwelling in the village.
For those now living in makeshift tents, or in the ruins of their old homes, aid from the state government has been limited: a few tents, some plastic sheeting, food and cooking utensils.
But far more is needed on a sustained basis.
Ministers from the Hindu nationalist BJP-controlled state government have toured the area, made promises, but pledged little constructive support for those in most need.
Perhaps more alarmingly, NGOs and church organisations have been banned from offering direct assistance. The official reason given is that by helping one community and not another, they may provoke further violence.
Church and other aid organisations, desperate to help their local communities see sinister motives at work.
Elderly Hindu woman
This elderly Hindu woman lives with her adopted Christian son
“This conflict is fought in the name of religion,” says NGO worker Kailash Chandra Dandpath, “but the real motives are economic and political.
“The business community here, with its links to the Hindu nationalist organisations, were once in complete control here. They’d lend money to the tribals and the Dalits at incredibly high rates of interest, up to 120% per year, and then the debtor would have to sell his farm produce to the lender at a price controlled by the businessmen.”
Mr Dandpath is describing the system still widely practiced in India, of bonded exploitation, where a family might well be indebted to the lender for generations.
“What’s happening now”, says Mr Dandpath, “is that the farmers, the most marginalised of whom are from tribal and Christian communities, are being linked by the NGOs to local banks, lending at perhaps 10% interest a year – ten times less.
“This is clearly a threat to the businessmen. And they are trying to break this link, using religion as an excuse… in India, the easiest method of politics is to take religion to divide and rule.”
The dynamics of conflict are rarely easy to dissect.
There are always economic and social divisions within society to be exploited by those more rich and powerful, particularly when the existing order is threatened.
And there’s no doubt that the diverse communities in Kandhamal district have suffered a terrible tragedy in recent weeks, which threatens to break down the existing delicate social order there forever.
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