Not many Indians would have known where Kandhamal is on the country's map or even that it is a part of the state of Orissa.
But Kandhamal is burning and the world has sat up to take note.
For nearly two weeks, Dalit Christians have been attacked in this district. Officially, 16 people are dead, hundreds injured, and thousands have fled their villages.
On the ground, Christian groups say, the numbers are higher. From Khurda to Koraput to Jagatsinghpur, Dalit Christian homes and churches have been targeted and burnt to the ground.
It began long ago
Until the 50s and the 60s, before the missionaries and the Hindu groups descended on Kandhamal, the tribals here had their own traditions and beliefs.
The tribes felt free to practice their own beliefs, free of religious aggression and dogma. But now their sheer numbers have made them a major political force. In Kandhamal.
It's a battle of faith with the tilak-annointed Hindus and the cross-worshipping Christians pitted against each other.
The winner gets to keep his god.
On August 23, 2008 unidentified men entered a Hindu ashram in Jalespada and shot dead four men. Among them was 90-year-old Swami Lakshmanada Saraswati, a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader and an open critic of the Church.
"We heard some sound and then all the kids got scared. We heard someone had killed him," narrated Kamalika Kahara, an inmate of the ashram.
The cold blooded murder stoked an inferno in Kandhamal. The main targets were the Dalit Christians mainly from the Pana community who've converted to Christianity.
No one bought the police version that the Swami had in fact been killed by a naxal group.
"The police say the naxals killed him. The Naxals have denied it. It is obvious that people of our faith won't kill him. So who does that leave? Christians, of course!" says Jogendra Kamalo an inmate.
200 villages were targeted across the state. As the riots spread, hundreds of churches - big and small - were burnt down.
Kandhamal has seen clashes between the Dalit Panas and the tribal Kandh community before.
The Sangh Parivar has converted thousands of Kandhs to Hinduism, and wants the Christian Dalit Panas to re-convert to its folds, as well.
The vote bank politics
Political geography further complicates matters. 2 of the 3 constituencies in Kandhamal were reserved for Scheduled Tribes. But 2 years back, the 3rd constituency was also declared an ST seat, prompting Dalit Panas to demand ST status. That lead to more tension.
60-year-old Kadampulo Naik has today lost her husband and her home. The night after the Swami was killed, men dressed in saffron came to her village in Bakingia with trishuls and petrol. The first target was Kadampulo's husband - the local pastor. Naik was stabbed in his chest and the village torched.
"They told my husband that if you become a Hindu we will save you but my husband refused stating that he had travelled across Orissa preaching about Christianity. He reiterated that he would rather die than become a Hindu. So they killed him," said a soobing Kadampulo Naik.
Basanti Pradhan too, watched her brother dying as their house in Suleswar village was burnt down. Today, the people at this village are afraid to admit they are Christian.
Village after village occupied by Christians has been completely burnt down. What was home to a Christian family, now looks like a dump of charcoal with the smell of burnt wood and tin hitting you when you enter Raikia in Kandhamal district.
Malati Digaro, a Christian convert sobs as she looks at what remains of her home. "This is all that is left of my house. It took us four years to build this and look at what has happened to it," she adds with tear-filled eyes.
For four days Malati and her family hid in the forests, like hundreds of others who fled for cover while their homes were being burnt. They survived just on prayers, not daring to come back as they feared for their lives.
Bidyadhar Diggal is another Kandh tribal, worried about the immediate problems on his hand.
"They kept chanting Jai Bajrang Bali, Jai Shri Ram, Bharat mata ki jai. They first burnt the church and then came to our village. My wife is pregnant and may deliver soon and I am worried. There is no food to eat. I don't know what is going to happen!" said Bidyadhar Diggal.
And his fears are not unfounded. Because when he had once tried to reach the Gunjibari village to look for food, he collapsed on the ground in tears at the sight of his burnt house.
Living in fear
Makeshift relief camps are cramped with thousands of Dalit Christians jostling for food, medicines and clothes. Most of them have lost their homes and some, even their families.
Injured, homeless and shocked, these people are only just learning how deep the roots of religious enmity lie. Young Christian children like Kishan Diggal have it already imprinted on their minds that Hindus are the enemy.
"I am very scared. The Hindus used to abuse us, and tell us to become Hindu again," confesses Kishan.
Barely 12 kilometres away, the self-proclaimed saviours of Hinduism are neither aware nor concerned about little Kishan's damning words. They see nothing wrong in Christian-populated villages being destroyed, churches being burnt and lives pontlessly lost.
At the majority Hindu village of Katinga, men like Santosh Pradhan speak from the gut.
"I would say its a good thing that these villages are burning. We were quiet all this while even though they were saying bad things about us Hindus. But when they killed Swamiji and hacked him into pieces, our blood boiled over and we couldn't keep quiet anymore. All this devastation is happening because of what the missionaries have been doing. How long could we keep quiet. Now we have risen and we will destroy them all," he said without fear or remorse.
A day after the Swami's murder, a church in the adjacent village was burnt down.
When the police rushed in, they were thrown out within minutes by stick-wielding, defiant women. The message was strong and clear - leave us alone, we have had enough and now we will fight back!
Convert to Hinduism or be killed
What is it that the Adivasi Hindus of Kandhamal have against its Christians?
Sanjhabati Naik's family which had converted to Christianity, had been on the road for three days. They hid in the forests and alternately took shelter in Christian villages. Finally, they could make it to a relief camp in Tikawal.
"They burnt our houses down. The Hindus are angry with us. They tell us forsake Christianlty and reconvert to Hinduism," she said.
But it is not just as shallow an investigation as that. Scrape the peels and one discovers that this animosity goes back to many years ago.
The Tribal Kandhas make up 55 per cent of the population and the Dalit Panas are about 15 per cent.
But the overall Christian population is 25 per cent and rising fast. Drawn by Christian missionary schools, medical clinics and jobs, the Panas converted to Christianity.
This makes the Hindu Kandhas insecure.
In the 2004 Orissa assembly elections, the Biju Janata Dal, the Congress and the BJP won a seat each in Kandhamal, all three political parties cashing in on the Kandha-Pana communal divide.
Benefits of converting to Christianity
22-year-old Littu Diggal, a Panna from Gunjibari village today holds a college degree, thanks to the International Evangelical Church. When the Kandhas burnt his village a day after Swami Lakshmananda's murder, Littu's school and college certificates were charred too. But Littu insists he will never convert back to Hinduism.
"Some people want us to convert but we will stay as Christians. Because my god saves me from evil. There is no god in Hinduism who will save me from evil," said Littu.
The local pastors Manoj Naik sees nothing wrong in encouraging people to convert to Christianity.
"We don't have to force people. They see us, see the way we behave, and they automatically want to convert. They want to become like us, they start coming to church. Some people get cured after we pray for them and their faith in Christ gets stronger," the pastor said.
Promodini Malik, a Hindu argues that the converts use the reservation quotas reserved for downtrodden and ancient Hindu tribes.
"Even though they convert to Christianity, they have certificates saying they are Hindus and so they get jobs. They don't get jobs when they write they are Christians. Isn't that double standards and injustice?"Malik questioned.
Govind Pradhan, a Hindu said, "Missionaries bad mouth our Gods, Ram and Jagannath. They say ill things about HiGods in churches."
Last year, an attempt was made on Swami Lakshmananda's life. But the violence after his murder, has been the worst ever witnessed in the region.
Two Christian converts, Pratap Diggal and Abraham Naik hid in the Kandhmal forests.
"They told me it was a Hindu state and only the English would practise Christianity. They insisted that our soul was still Hindu and reconverted us to Hinduism. But in our hearts we are still Christians," said Pratap.
After a quick conversion ceremony their heads were shaved off and they were made to write on a piece of paper that they would now live as Hindus.
As a final touch lockets with images of Hanuman were tied around their necks.
Father Probodh Pradhan, a pastor of the Kanjhamendhi church in Kandhamal was on the run for four days, pursued by supposed RSS activists.
"I feel lucky that I am here today. Some times I don't believe that I could made it. They were angry with us and say that we are converting people. But the truth is that Christianity is a religion people flock to. It's the VHP that is forcibly converting people," Probodh launches his attack with a warning that despite the violence people will continue flocking to Christianity.
The self-styled saviours of Hinduism
Deep inside Kandhamal is a hostel and school for girls. It has now become some sort of a pilgrimage spot because this is where Swami Lakshmananda was killed. The tribal girls spend the entire day reading the Gita and Hindu scriptures.
All the girls here are children of poor tribals who couldn't afford to keep them at home. For a lot of them - this is the only world they have known for the last years.
Every day they are fed a strict diet of Hindutva. These are young minds that can be moulded and shaped. They are told they are Hindus and Lakshmananda Saraswati's death has turned him into a martyr who died for the cause of Hinduism.
"I dont know much about Christians but swamiji would say we are a Hindu nation and should stay that way," said Kamalika Kahara, a student in the ashram.
Meenakshi Kahara, another girl student said, "I do not like Christians. I do not like their faith. Christians have killed our swamiji so I hate them. I don't want to see them. "
"If Hindus awaken, there will be no Christians left," warned Kabi Chandra Nath, the man who runs the show in the ashram. He is working towards bringing Kandhas to Hinduism.
"They converted to Christianity by mistake and we shall bring them back into the Hindu fold," he said.
"Like Muslims have jehad, Christians have crusade. Where they are less in number they try to become friends with Hindus. The moment the number increases they convert them to Christianity by force. Ditto with Muslims. They all want to rule India and dominate India," said Nath with an air of authority.
150 kilometers inside the jungle, at Chakapada Ashram for boys, Saroj Das talks more like a radical Hindu than sounding his age.
"Everyone knows Hinduism is the only faith in India. Christians convert by tempting them. But we try to explain to them their mistakes and make them understand that they must come back to their faith. We don't believe in the word conversion. They themselves realise and return to Hinduism," Saroj said philosophically.
Defiant in their faith
In Orissa under the Freedom of Religion Act of 1967 whoever wishes to convert has to first apply to the Collector. Interestingly the collector's office hasn't received any applications for conversion in years even though thousands have converted to Christianity.
The evangelists too carry on their work relentlessly. In the relief camp meant to house threatened Christians, pastors Manoj Naik and Sudhir Diggal use their free time in this relief camp to spread the word of Christ to the Panna children.
Sudhir was a goatherd Panna Dalit before he converted to Christianity, courtesy the evangelists.
"Yes, I convert people as well. My job is to tell the people about the Bible. I tell them whoever follows the Bible gets rewarded. That's all I tell them," Sudhir said almost in defiance.
As long as the two religious preachers and practitioners continue to tug at both ends and the vote bank politics seems alluring to politicians, Kandhamal has little chances of harmony.
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