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Why Orissa's fragile peace is in tatters

CNN-IBN
Aug 27, 2008 at 09:30am IST

Religion has split Orissa and the divide is murderous. Several people have been killed in communal clashes in Kandhamal district after the murder of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader on Saturday.

The VHP called for a statewide shutdown in the state on Monday during which churches, prayer houses and vehicles were attacked in many places.

The communal tension began after Swami Laxmananand Saraswati, a member of VHP’s central advisory committee, and four others were murdered by suspected Naxals in Kandhamal district.

Police and paramilitary forces are on guard in towns of Kandhamal district. Section 144, which prohibits the assembly of four or more people, has been clamped across Kandhamal.

Saraswati was leading a campaign against cow slaughter and religious conversion in the communally sensitive district. Rightwing Hindu groups allege that Christians killed Saraswati because he opposed conversion. Christian organisations reject such allegations.

In one of the worst attacks, a Christian woman died and a priest was severely burnt when a mob set fire to an orphanage run by Christian missionaries in Bargarh district on Monday.

The incident again brought shame to the state. Nine years ago, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burnt alive by a Hindu mob in Keonjhar district.

What has caused the communal divide in Orissa? Is religion to blame or politics? Are conversions pitting Hindus against Christians? CNN-IBN’s Sagarika Ghose asked this on Face The Nation.

The guests on the show were: RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav, Reverend Dr Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, and Professor Manoranjan Mohanty, of the Council for Social Development.

Madhav was infuriated at allegations that Hindu groups were targeting missionaries and Christians in Orissa. “The situation is quite different. Hindus are at the receiving end. A highly respected saint was killed. There is enough evidence to prove the complicity of Christian organisations in the murder,” he claimed.

Howell rejected the Madhav’s allegation and claimed conversion has become an excuse to attack Christians and malign them. “The VHP gets the maximum amount of money India than Christians. Christians have used money to serve and empower the poor and marginalized. Not a single case has been proved till date in the courts of forced conversion (by Christian groups),” he said.

The issue is not religion but poverty, said Professor Mohanty. “Kandhamal is one of the poorest regions in the country. Seventy per cent people here are below the poverty line; 51 per cent are tribals and 16 per cent are Dalits,” he said.

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“It is a situation of poverty and landlessness, both among Hindus and Christians. Orissa has become the experiment ground of globalisation, economic reforms, mega projects and Hindutva politics.”

Hindu groups are not to blame for the violence and the state is in turmoil because of Christian missionaries, alleged Madhav. “Every conversion in Orissa has to be registered with the local police or magistrate but no such thing happens. Where is the chance for Hindutva politics when missionaries are going about aggressively and alluring people,” he said.

The Sangh Parivar doesn’t hate conversions as much as it does Christians, alleged Howell. “An ideology of hatred has been propagated by some sections of the Sangh Parivar. They don’t hate Christian service; it is the very identity of being a Christian that is hated. There are just 2.4 per cent Christians in India and we too have contributed to the growth of the country.”

Christians are not hated, insisted Madhav. “Every religion is respected in this country but Christians criticise and attack Hindu religion. It this attitude of Christians which is leading to tension in this country,” he alleged.

The communal divide in Orissa’s tribal districts is the result of poverty and “competitive politics”, said Mohanty. “The shrinking rights of tribals over forests and land and the coming of mega projects is the economic issue there. They are all poor there and poverty is being diverted to communalism. It is competitive politics,” he said.

Madhav called such an analysis wrong. “There is a clear cut division between Hindus and Christians and it is because of their (missionaries) wrongdoing and Congress leaders. A holy person is killed and the very next day the Congress tables a no-confidence motion against the state government—what does it suggest? The Congress is a part of a larger political conspiracy,” he alleged.

Howell announced Christian institutions in the country would close on August 29 to protest against the attacks in Orissa. “I hope the civil society wakes up before it’s too late,” he said.

Madhav said Christian groups were free to shut their schools and institutions but they must also shut “proselytization” activity.

“Do not make this a Christian versus Hindu issue. We must go into the sources of violence,” said Mohanty.

SMS poll on ‘Are conversions pitting Hindus against Christians?’

Yes: 91 per cent, No: 9 per cent.

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