Terror, Blatant as Well as Covert

(Serial blasts in our cities have become a grim, grisly, script that is played out again and again: claiming innocent lives and shedding innocent blood, and spreading terror among the people at large. The natural grief, anger, and fear engendered by terrorist attacks becomes handy political fodder for vested interests. However, investigations and response by the State and ruling class parties beg more questions than they answer or resolve. The profiling of entire communities as ‘anti-national,’ torture of innocent people accused of terrorism, and the clamour for draconian laws is in contrast to the deliberate blind eye turned to evidence of involvement of RSS affiliates in acts of bombing. And side by side with the ‘covert’ terrorism of bombs, with its shadowy players, we have the open, naked terrorism of communal pogroms, performed with impunity by political groups that even masquerade as ‘nationalist’! From Kandhamal and Gajapati districts of Orissa to Mangalore and other parts of Karnataka, as well as in violent incidents in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, the Sangh Parivar’s offensive against the Christian minorities has continued for weeks. And of course, it must be noted that both Orissa and Karnataka are states where powerful mining lobbies call the shots of the ruling class parties and Governments. The deeply anti-people policies of these NDA and BJP-ruled Governments are matched by their free hand to communal violence against minorities. – Ed/-)

Orissa Burning:

‘Nero’ Navin Must Resign

The Sangh Parivar has, for long been working on the project of turning Orissa into a genocide-laboratory like Gujarat. The spree of violence targeted at Christians in December last year, exploiting the social tensions between the Kandha and (Dalit) Pana groups had been a major step in this direction. Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati (as reported in Liberation February 2008, was a VHP leader mainly responsible for the communal violence in December, and had spent several decades (since 1967) fomenting communal hatred among the poor people of Orissa. Some 3000 Christians had been chased out from their homes in December and many of them remained in relief camps even six months after the December attacks. The murder of Saraswati and four of his disciples on 23 August 2008 was the pretext for the present round of violence.

Who killed VHP leader Saraswati? There have been conflicting reports in the media – some claiming the Maoists have taken responsibility for the killing, others saying the Maoists have denied responsibility. There have also been rumours that some militant Christian youths might have tied up with the Maoists to do the killing. While the Sangh Parivar targeted the churches for the killing, the Orissa Government deliberately downplayed the background of the killing – i.e Saraswati’s role as mastermind of the organised attacks on the Christian community; a role that went unpunished in spite of recommendations of the NHRC and ample evidence of his guilt. Clearly, Saraswati had played with fire – and got burnt in the process. Had the State arrested and prosecuted him after the December violence, the unfortunate incident of the murders in the Ashram might never have had a chance to occur.

The Scale of the Violence

The Sangh Parivar called for a 12-hour bandh on 24 August; BJP despite being a constituent of the coalition government in Orissa, supported the bandh, and the Government of Orissa ordered educational institutions to remain closed. The bandh was the signal for all-out violence by the Sangh militia against Christian institutions and communities across the Kandhamal – at Balliguda, G. Udaygiri and Naugaon and across other parts of Orissa including Bhuvaneshwar, Balamgiri , Cuttack , Gajapati, Kalahandi, Kendrapada, Koraput, Sonpur, Talcher etc. Churches and Christians across more than 200 villages of 20 blocks in Kandhamal were attacked, nearly 4000 houses torched, more than 150 churches (more than 127 in Kandhamal itself) vandalised; 4 convents, 5 hostels damaged; a Catholic nun from Naugaon raped; a 19-year-old Hindu woman working at a church-run orphanage in Bargarh district burnt alive. At least two dozen people were killed, and several tortured, publicly humiliated, severely injured.

State Machinery: Silent Spectators

Notorious VHP leader Praveen Togadia was allowed to attend Saraswati’s funeral and use the occasion to fan up the communal violence at ground zero; but leaders of other parties, human rights activists, and even the Union Minister of State for Home Jayprakash Jaiswal were not allowed to enter the troubled spots on the plea of security threat! The Navin Patnaik Government allowed the VHP’s funeral procession for Saraswati – which, predictably, was used to flag off the violence all along its route. The SP of Kandhamal, Nikhil Kumar Kanodia, was suspended under pressure of BJP ministers, as he was creating some hurdles for the Sangh’s mob violence. The Chief Minister was prompt to visit the Swami’s Ashram and condemn his murder; he took an entire ten days even to declare that the violence against Christians was ‘unfortunate.’

Conversion Bogey

The Sangh Parivar’s hate campaign focuses on the supposed ‘forced conversions’ by the Christians – branding the latter as ‘conversion terrorists,’ and terming their own ‘reconversion’ campaigns as ‘Ghar Vapasi’ (returning home). We can recall that after the Bajrang Dal’s act of burning alive an Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two small sons in Orissa in 1999, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had called for a ‘national debate’ on conversions – thereby neatly inverting the status of the Christian victims into that of criminals!

Incidentally Orissa was the first state in India to enact a legislation restricting religion conversion – the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967. This Act was followed by similar legislations in difference states – MP (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Gujarat (2003), Chhattishgarh (2003), Rajashthan (2005), Himachal Pradesh (2006) and Tamilnadu (enacted in 2002 by Jaylalita and repealed by the DMK government in 2004).

Even before Indian independence, some princely states enacted anti-conversion laws like the Raigarh State Conversion Act 1936; Sarjuga State Apostasy Act 1942, and Udaipur State Anti Conversion Act, 1946. These Acts lapsed after independence, but the anti-conversion sentiment continued, leading to a commission being set up to enquire into the funding and activities of Christian missionaries in MP. This report provided the basis for Orissa’s 1967 law.

The basic premise of the Orissa Act went against the Constitutional provision of freedom to profess and propagate one’s religion, since it held that “conversion in its very process involves an act of undermining another faith. This process becomes all the more objectionable if when this is brought about by recourse to methods like force, fraud , material inducement and exploitation of one’s poverty, simplicity and ignorance.” This premise is also discriminatory towards the poor, adivasis, and dalits: presuming that these sections are gullible, ignorant and incapable of making conscious decisions. Such a premise undermines the ability and right of dalits to be aware of the discrimination they face at the hands of Hindu caste hierarchy, and to choose to resist it.

The MP Act introduced an additional provision requiring that whoever coverts any person must send an intimation to district magistrate; failure to do so would invite imprisonment up to 1 year and a fine.

Both the Orissa and MP Acts were challenged in the respective High Courts. The Orissa High Court declared that the Orissa legislation had violated the Indian constitution (rights ensured by Article 25). The court also held that state legislation had no legislature competence to enact such a law which could only be enacted by Parliament under Entry 97 of Union list under 7th Schedule of the Constitution. Both the states defended their competence in terms of Entry 1 of list 2 (State list) dealing with public order.

A 5 Judge Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court heard the appeals against these 2 verdicts and upheld both the acts. This verdict, displaying a deep-seated communal bias, acted as the green signal for other states to enact anti-conversion laws.

Beyond these legal debates or interpretations of the Constitution, we can raise some further basic questions. First, the emergence of any particular religion and process of reform within it or shaping of any new religion are all related with social processes. So, if religion conversion has really emerged as a phenomenon it can be only understood in terms of ongoing social dynamics, not as some external ‘conspiracy’.

Second, caste-ridden Hindu society is not only discriminatory but also oppressive, prompting several reforms within Hindu society like Vaishnavism, etc, or emergence of new religions like Buddhism, Jainism etc. But Hindu revivalism time and again co-opted the reforms and assimilated them within the basic framework of the Hindu value system. People of the oppressed castes, particularly Dalits, sometimes adopted a new religion as a sigh of relief or a mode of rebellion. It is another matter that the caste structure is so pervasive in society that in India discriminatory caste structures has insinuated even Islam and Christianity in lived practise.

Third, is ‘conversion’ always conversion of Hindus to other religions, and ‘re-conversion’ to Hindu religion a ‘return to the original Hindu fold’? Branding adivasis as ‘vanavasis’ and treating them as part of Hindu society is a distortion of history to serve the scheme of the Sangh Parivar. Historian Biswamoy Pati (author of Identity, Hegemony, Resistance: Towards a Social History of Conversions in Orissa, 1800-2000) correctly observes, “It is indeed amazing that most of the reports on Kandhamal wrongly assume that tribals are Hindus. In fact, what the Sangh Parivar has been attempting in Orissa — their post-Gujarat laboratory — is large-scale conversion of tribals to Hinduism. This is skilfully combined with terrorising sections of Dalits – who had opted to convert to Christianity after suffering social discrimination – to reconvert to Hinduism. This ‘common sense’ makes the conversion of tribals appear as ‘re-conversion’. And this has been skilfully woven with terror directed against Dalit Christians over quite some time.” (Biswamoy Pati, ‘In a crucified state,’ Hindustan Times (September 2, 2008)

Pati concludes with an important observation on the conflicts between Kandha and Pana communities in this region, noting that “This ‘common sense’ has enabled the VHP to make serious inroads in Orissa, even as the world debates the conflicts among Dalit (Panas) Christians and the adivasis (Kandhas) over diverse issues. The real problem in Kandhamal is related to the aggressive drives to convert tribals to Hinduism, including terror directed at Dalit Christians, who are the stumbling blocks in the path of the Sangh Parivar and the VHP.”

Navin Patnaik Must Resign

CPI(ML) has demanded that Navin Patnaik, the Chief Minister who has allowed the Sangh to run riot over democracy and human lives, must resign. Charges must be filed against the DM and SP of Kandhamal district. Compensation should be ensured for all those who have lost family members, property, or suffered injury. Immediate steps must be taken to reconstruct the demolished churches and other Christian institutions. A time-bound judicial enquiry should be set up to investigate the offensive on minorities in Kandhamal from December 2007 to August 2008.

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