Saffron Experiment in Orissa Laboratory

Kalinganagar in January 2006 and now Kandhamal in December 2007 – in both episodes we can see the twin faces of the Navin Patnaik’s BJD-BJP Government in Orissa, in which the most vulnerable sections of the state’s people – adivasis and dalit minorities – are subjected to corporate land grab and police brutality on the one hand and communal pogroms on the other. Heady with Narendra Modi’s victory, the Sangh Parivar seems all set to make Orissa the next saffron laboratory.

Kandhamal is one of the most backward districts of Southern Orissa. They are also a culmination of the violence which has been simmering in Orissa since a coalition government led by the BJP came to power in 1998. 1999 saw the gruesome murder by Bajrang Dal activists of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons. This was followed by other sporadic attacks and murders. An investigation into religious communalism in Orissa by the Indian People’s Tribunal, led by Justice K.K. Usha in 2006 noted the “spread of communal organizations in Orissa, which has been accompanied by a series of small and large events and some riots…such violations are utilized to generate the threat and reality of greater violence, and build the infrastructure of fear and intimidation.”

Bloody Christmas at Kandhamal

On 23 December 2007, Sangh outfits marched through Barakhama village, Kandhamal, “Stop Christianity, Kill Christians”; on 24 December despite police promises to control the situation, Sangh Parivar organisations shut down shops and, at night, cut power and telephone lines and felled trees to build road blocks; on 25 December, Christmas Day, a mob of 400 people armed with trishuls, swords, rods, and some guns – rampaged through the area, breaking down the doors of churches, attacking people at prayer, burning down a total of seven churches, looting and torching Christian houses, hospitals, convents, hostels, and other institutions, and injuring hundreds and killing at least eleven people.

Colonial and Feudal Legacy of Tensions in Kandhamal

Kandhamal (formerly Phulbani) is an area with a colonial and feudal legacy of social tensions. Historian Biswamoy Pati notes that in the 19th century, colonial officials and feudal landed classes recruited tribals of Kandhamal as forced labour, and took up a drive of converting a section of them to Hinduism. The Sangh Parivar’s claim that they seek to ‘reconvert’ the Christian tribals ‘back’ to Hinduism are therefore false; the Hindus in this region too were converts from tribal animism to Hinduism. With time the Hinduised Kandhas began to assert their majoritarian identity, and by the 1950s, tribal Kandhas began converting to Christianity in good numbers to defy Hindu domination. Sections of the dalit Panas too converted to Christianity in the 1950s as a “survival strategy”. Panas were not only discriminated in the feudal caste hierarchy; they were also stigmatized by the colonial regime as a ‘criminal caste’. Writes Pati, “Unlike the sections of the affluent Kandhas and other tribal groups who could get integrated into the caste formation, the poorer sections were “integrated” through terror as outcastes.” In the 1990s, the Hindu converts among Kandhas also began intimidating the dalit Panas to prevent their entry into temples, and clashes ensued. Converted tribals and Panas both are known at the receiving end of the terror campaigns by the Sangh Parivar in the name of ‘reconversion’ or ‘protests against forced conversion’.

While the Christian population from both dalit and adivasi backgrounds (only 2.3% in Orissa today) is declining, it is the Sangh Parivar who are involved in aggressive proselytization -converting Adivasis to Hinduism. All along the tribal belt, from Dangs in Gujarat in the West to Orissa in the East, Hindu Samgams, or congregations, are being held, and thousands of Adivasis threatened and intimidated into attending.

The attack on Christians at Kandhamal was orchestrated by RSS leader Swami Lakhanananda Saraswati, one of main organizer of VHP, Orissa (wanted by police in a case related to communal violence in Rourkela) and founder of a big Ashram in Kandhamal as a joint venture of VHP and Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad. Just one year back a big conference of VHP was organised in this Ashram participated by 50,000 from different parts of our country and overseas Indians from different foreign countries. Dara Singh concentrated his operations in the North-Western part of Orissa (Keonjhar-Mayurbhanj district), while Saraswati selected Kandhamala for his hate campaign.

Another factor was the Kui Samaj, an organisation of Kui-speaking Kandha Adivasis who for over a decade have been opposing the Pana Dalit Christians’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status. Since 2002 “Kuis” have achieved ST status; but the contention is over whether “Kuis” should be interpreted as Kui speakers and thus include Panas or not. Though the Kui Samaj does not directly associate itself with the Sangh outfits, its Kandha members have often been mobilised by the RSS and its affiliates, and its leader Lambodar Kanhar is another of the key organizers of the December violence.

The Build-Up

Reports suggest that 25-30 busloads of people were brought from Kandhamal to Bhubaneswar on 21 December 2007 to attend a Yagya programme. Under the cover of the Yagya all the Presidents of RSS from caste panchayats of Kandhamal district had a secret meeting from 11 AM to 6 PM at an unknown place on 22 December. On 23 December the Yagya was over and all of them went back to their respective places.

Even before that, on 9 December, Swami Lakhanananda came to Bamunigan and had a secret meeting with Bighneswara Banika Sangh affiliated with RSS and VHP. Since then, the situation in Bamunigan was tense, with threats mounting against Christmas celebrations.

Meanwhile the Kui Samaj had given a call for a bandh on December 25 and 26 against the granting of ST certificates to Panas. Apprehensive of this bandh coinciding with Christmas, the Christian Jan Kalyan Samaj of Kandhamal met the Collector and SP on 23 December with a written statement against the bandh, demanding that arrangements be made to guarantee the security of Christians celebrating Christmas. The SP visited Bamunigan, but did not care to deploy any force there.

On 23 December itself Ambedkar Banika Sangh of Bamunigan together with 6 Sarpanches of the area also appraised the situation and sent a fax message to the SP, and met him at Bamunigan. They also went to the police station to discuss the tense situation and reported that the Swami planned to perform a Yagya in front of the Church.

On 24 December early morning 6 Sarpanches together along with village heads went to the police station and requested to allow the market to be opened; the RSS and Bajrang Dal opposed this. The ASI came to the market and told the people to open the market. Still Sangh activists forced the traditional weekly market (Haat) to close and attacked the market goers, and also destroyed Christmas pandals on the road. Two Christians (Sillu & Avinash) were shot and injured.

At 2 pm rumours were spread about an ‘attack’ on the Swami, and he got himself admitted to a local hospital. Some TV channels also promoted this report with an inflammatory ‘interview’ with the Swami, though they failed to show any footage of the ‘injuries’ sustained by the Swami.

At about 7.30 pm a 400-strong Sangh mob, raising slogans of “Jai Sri Ram” and armed with guns, swords & other lethal weapons opened the gate of Balligude Church & abused the Christian youths who were busy decorating for Christmas. They came running, shouting “kill the Christians and destroy the Church.” The youths together with priests, nuns, and hostel residents ran to the jungle to save their lives. The mob then collected furniture, worship materials and all other belonging of the hostel and set them on fire.

This was followed by a chain of violent attacks on churches, convents, Christian hostels and Christian people for two days. There was at least one retaliatory action in which Christians attacked a Hindu hamlet.

Initially the police stayed silent spectators and later clamped curfew. The Navin Government made some ridiculous attempts to spread the fantastic theory that it was “Maoists” who were responsible for the attack.

For the first time since 1947, some 3,000 Christian men, women and children are forced to live in two refuge camps. And even now older people and some women, unable to flee, remain in the villages living in sheer terror.

The similarities with Gujarat are many: the rumour of an ‘action’ (the ‘attack’ on the Swami) to justify a ‘reaction; the mobilisation of adivasis on a communal plank; systematic setting of minority establishments on fire; and forcing minorities to flee the villages and live in refugee camps, for instance.

All left, democratic forces in Orissa raised strong voices of protest against this heinous attack of saffron forces on religious minorities and against the tacit collusion of the BJD-BJP Government with the Sangh Parivar. CPI(ML) organised a powerful protest march on 28 December at Bhubaneshwar and Rayagada. The State Government and administration did not allow any visit by opposition political parties, in the name of ‘preventing’ any new tension or provocation.

In London, the South Asia Solidarity Group, which has vigilantly campaigned against the covert foreign funding of Sangh outfits in India, issued a strong statement of protest. Holding that the Judicial Review Commission set up by the Navin Government to investigate the violence did not inspire any confidence of justice, SASG demanded that the Centre set up a CBI enquiry; sufficient relief to the refugees in camps and safe and speedy return and rehabilitation; and also that the Centre institute an independent inquiry into the Sangh Parivar’s “infrastructure of fear, intimidation and violence in Orissa”. SASG also demanded that the British Government “investigate the international arms of the Sangh Parivar organisations in Britain who support and fund the criminal activities of Hindutva groups in India”.

Events of the last decade reveal that Orissa may be the third major experimental ground after Gujarat and Jharkhand, where the Sangh Parivar strives to develop a strong base among tribal people. As the BJD-BJP Government seeks to grab land from adivasis and the poor to hand over to corporates, and also looks the other way as the Sangh increases its influence, the we face the urgent challenge of building up a powerful people’s resistance, both against the policies of liberalisation and loot as well as against the communal hate campaign. 


CPI(ML) Fact-finding team Visits Kandhamal

On 14 and 15 January, immediately after the lifting of curfew, a joint fact finding team on behalf of CPI(ML) Liberation and CPI(ML) comprising of 17 members. From the CPI(ML) Liberation, the team members included Kshitish Biswal, State Secretary Orissa, and State Committee members Radhakanta Sethi, Tirupati Gomango, Meghanad Sabar, Brundaban Bidika, Dibakar Beharia along with Mahendra Parida and seven others leaders of the Party, and on behalf of CPI(ML) Comrades Gananath Patra, Tapan Misra, and Srikant. This team visited all the major affected towns and villages. The team covered the worst-affected Bamunigan, Gadapur, Dasingbadi, Daringbadi, Baliguda and Barakhama. During this investigation the team visited door to door and collected information from the worst-affected people directly. Their stories were heart rending. Hundreds of homes of poor Christians as well as churches were broken and their belongings either looted or damaged by VHP, RSS and Bajrang Dal rioters. Four people were brutally killed; one Gobind Naik of Barkhama was charred alive by these goons. They were from RSS and Bajrang Dal and mostly outsiders to the area.

From 24-27 December 2007 there was no rule of law in Kandhmal District. Police handed over the situation into the hands of those hoodlums. The main culprit of this communal violence, Swami Lakhanananda, the VHP Marg Darshak, was very much inspired by the Gujarat victory. In the bandh called from 24 to 26 December on the eve of Christmas celebrations, he directed the VHP, Bajrang DAl and RSS cadres not to allow the Christians to decorate their houses and to celebrate Christmas. The goons destroyed the decorations claiming that celebrations were prohibited during the Bandh. Then the rumour was spread that the Christians had attacked Lakhananda and this aggravated the situation. Then the Sangh goons raised the slogan that 'we will make Orissa another Gujarat.'

With this slogan they ransacked the whole area. Being tortured for four days, some Christian community members organized themselves and retaliated in Paik Sahi in Bamunigan, and in Gadapur also.

Surprisingly when Kandhmal was burning, the Orissa Chief Minister instead of taking strong steps to tackle the situation and protect the hapless Christian community, was busy in celebrating his Party's foundation day at Bhubaneshwar, spending crores of rupees (gifts from POSCO, TATA, VEDANTA, etc?). He has not taken any initiative to arrest the main culprit Lakhanananda because his Government is a coalition with BJP as a partner.

Not only that, he also did not allow the other political parties to go there under the pressure from BJP, till January 13. During our visit Monmohan Samal, the BJP revenue minister visited affected areas of Kandhamal. He instructed his officers, including the Collector and Sub-Collector to evict about fifty Christian families from Barkhama Raod-side basti, though they have been settled there since the last 70-80 years. The Minister's pretext was that the lands were settled in the name of some outside landlord.

Some vested interests of ruling parties like, BJP, BJD and Congress have played a very dangerous role in dividing the poor on caste-communal, religious and dalit-tribal lines for their vote bank politics. The fact-finding team found that the people, mostly Christians, are still living in an atmosphere of fear. Though one month has passed normalcy has not yet returned. Relief measures are not adequate. Sufficient help should be provided to rebuild the houses of the affected people. Adequate compensation is needed for the affected and the worst affected. Similarly compensation should be provided to the families of those who have been killed and injured.

- Khitish Biswal

Liberation Archive