Hindutva's production of culture and nation is often marked by savagery. On 23 August 2008, Lakshmanananda Saraswati, Orissa's Hindu nationalist icon, was murdered with four disciples in Jalespeta in Kandhamal district. State authorities alleged the attackers to be Maoists (and a group has subsequently claimed the murder). But the Sangh Parviar held the Christian community responsible, even though there is no evidence or history to suggest the armed mobilisation of Christian groups in Orissa.
After the murder, the All India Christian Council stated: “The Christian community in India abhors violence, condemns all acts of terrorism, and opposes groups of people taking the law into their own hands”. Gouri Prasad Rath, General Secretary, VHPOrissa, stated: “Christians have killed Swamiji. We will give a befitting reply. We would be forced to opt for violent protests if action is not taken against the killers”.
Following which, violence engulfed the district. Churches and Christian houses razed to the ground, frightened Christians hiding in the jungles or in relief camps. Officials record the death toll at 13, local leaders at 20, while the Asian Centre for Human Rights noted 50.
The Sangh’s history in postcolonial Orissa is long and violent. Virulent Hindutva campaigns against minority groups reverberated in Rourkela in 1964, Cuttack in 1968 and 1992, Bhadrak in 1986 and 1991, Soro in 1991. The Kandhamal riots were not unforeseen.
Since 2000, the Sangh has been strengthened by the Bharatiya Janata Party's coalition government with the Biju Janata Dal. In October 2002, a Shiv Sena unit in Balasore district declared the formation of the first Hindu ‘suicide squad’. In March 2006, Rath stated that the “VHP believes that the security measures initiated by the Government [for protection of Hindus] are not adequate and hence Hindu society has taken the responsibility for it.”
The VHP has 1,25,000 primary workers in Orissa. The RSS operates 6,000 shakhas with a 1,50,000 plus cadre. The Bajrang Dal has 50,000 activists working in 200 akharas. BJP workers number above 4,50,000. BJP Mohila Morcha, Durga Vahini (7,000 outfits in 117 sites), and Rashtriya Sevika Samiti (80 centres) are three major Sangh women's organisations. BJP Yuva Morcha, Youth Wing, Adivasi Morcha and Mohila Morcha have a prominent base. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh manages 171 trade unions with a cadre of 1,82,000. The 30,000-strong Bharatiya Kisan Sangh functions in 100 blocks. The Sangh also operates various trusts and branches of national and international institutions to aid fundraising, including Friends of Tribal Society, Samarpan Charitable Trust, Sookruti, Yasodha Sadan, and Odisha International Centre. Sectarian development and education are carried out by Ekal Vidyalayas, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashrams/Parishads (VKAs), Vivekananda Kendras, Shiksha Vikas Samitis and Sewa Bharatis — cementing the brickwork for hate and civil polarisation.
This massive mobilisation has erupted in ugly incidents against both Christians and Muslims. In 1998, 5,000 Sangh activists allegedly attacked the Christian dominated Ramgiri-Udaygiri villages in Gajapati district, setting fire to 92 homes, a church, police station, and several government vehicles. Earlier, Sangh activists allegedly entered the local jail forcibly and burned two Christian prisoners to death. In 1999, Graham Staines, 58, an Australian missionary and his 10- and six-year-old sons were torched in Manoharpur village in Keonjhar. A Catholic nun, Jacqueline Mary was gangraped by men in Mayurbhanj and Arul Das, a Catholic priest, was murdered in Jamabani, Mayurbhanj, followed by the destruction of churches in Kandhamal. In 2002, the VHP converted 5,000 people to Hinduism. In 2003, the VKA organised a 15,000- member rally in Bhubaneswar, propagating that Adivasi (and Dalit) converts to Christianity be denied affirmative action. In 2004, seven women and a male pastor were forcibly tonsured in Kilipal, Jagatsinghpur district, and a social and economic boycott was imposed against them. A Catholic church was vandalised and the community targeted in Raikia.
Change the cast, the story is still the same. 1998: A truck transporting cattle owned by a Muslim was looted and burned, the driver’s aide beaten to death in Keonjhar district. 1999: Shiekh Rehman, a Muslim clothes merchant, was mutilated and burned to death in a public execution at the weekly market in Mayurbhanj. 2001: In Pitaipura village, Jagatsinghpur, Hindu communalists attempted to orchestrate a land-grab connected to a Muslim graveyard. On November 20, 2001, around 3,000 Hindu activists from nearby villages rioted. Muslim houses were torched, Muslim women were ill-treated, their property, including goats and other animals, stolen. 2005: In Kendrapara, a contractor was shot on Govari Embankment Road, supposedly by members of a Muslim gang. Sangh groups claimed the shooting was part of a gang war associated with Islamic extremism and called for a 12hour bandh. Hindu organisations are alleged to have looted and set Muslim shops on fire.
It is Saraswati who pioneered the Hinduisation of Kandhamal since 1969. Activists targeted Adivasis, Dalits, Christians and Muslims through socio-economic boycotts and forced conversions (named ‘re’conversion, presupposing Adivasis and Dalits as ‘originally’ Hindus).
Kandhamal first witnessed Hindutva violence in 1986. The VKAs, instated in 1987, worked to Hinduise Kondh and Kui Adivasis and polarise relations between them and Pana Dalit Christians. Kandhamal remains socio-economically vulnerable, a large percentage of its population living in poverty. Approximately 90 percent of Dalits are landless. A majority of Christians are landless or marginal landholders. Hindutva ideologues say Dalits have acquired economic benefits, augmented by Christianisation. This is not borne out in reality.
In October 2005, converting 200 Bonda Adivasi Christians to Hinduism in Malkangiri, Saraswati said: “How will we… make India a completely Hindu country? The feeling of Hindutva should come within the hearts and minds of all the people.” In April 2006, celebrating RSS architect Golwalkar’s centenary, Saraswati presided over seven yagnas attended by 30,000 Adivasis. In September 2007, supporting the VHP’s statewide road-rail blockade against the supposed destruction of the mythic ‘Ram Setu’, Saraswati conducted a Ram Dhanu Rath Yatra to mobilise Adivasis.
In 2008, Hindutva discourse named Christians as ‘conversion terrorists’. But the number of such conversions is highly inflated. They claim there are rampant and forced conversions in Phulbani-Kandhamal. But the Christian population in Kandhamal is 1,17,950 while Hindus number 5,27,757. Orissa Christians numbered 8,97,861 in the 2001 census — only 2.4 percent of the state’s population. Yet, Christian conversions are storied as debilitating to the majority status of Hindus while Muslims are seen as ‘infiltrating’ from Bangladesh, dislocating the ‘Oriya (and Indian) nation’.
The right to religious conversion is constitutionally authorised. Historically, conversions from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam have been a way to escape caste oppression and social stigma for Adivasis and Dalits. In February 2006, the VHP called for a law banning (non- Hindu) religious conversions. In June 2008, it urged that religious conversion be decreed a 'heinous crime' across India.
‘Reconversion’ strategies of the Sangh appear to be shifting in Orissa. The Sangh reportedly proposed to 'reconvert' 10,000 Christians in 2007. But fewer public conversion ceremonies were held in 2007 than in 2004- 2006. Converting politicised Adivasi and Dalit Christians to Hinduism is proving difficult. The Sangh has instead increased its emphasis on the Hinduisation of Adivasis through their participation in Hindu rituals, which, in effect, ‘convert’ Adivasis by assuming that they are Hindu.
The draconian Orissa Freedom of Religion Act (OFRA), 1967, must be repealed. There are enough provisions under the Indian Penal Code to prevent and prohibit conversions under duress. But consenting converts to Christianity are repeatedly charged under OFRA, while Hindutva perpetrators of forcible conversions are not. The Sangh contends that 'reconversion' to Hinduism through its ‘Ghar Vapasi’ (homecoming) campaign is not conversion but return to Hinduism, the ‘original’ faith. This allows them to dispense with the procedures under OFRA.
The Orissa Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1960 should also be repealed. It is utilised to target livelihood practices of economically disenfranchised groups, Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, who engage in cattle trade and cow slaughter.
In fact, a CBI investigation into the activities of the VHP, RSS and Bajrang Dal is crucial as per the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Groups such as the VHP and VKA are registered as cultural and charitable organisations but their work is political in nature. They should be audited and recognised as political organisations, and their charitable status and privileges reviewed.
The state and central government's refusal to restrain Hindu militias evidences their linkage with Hindutva (BJP), soft Hindutva (Congress), and the capitulation of civil society to Hindu majoritarianism. How would the nation have reacted if groups with affiliation other than than militant Hinduism executed riot after riot: Calcutta 1946, Kota 1953, Rourkela 1964, Ranchi 1967, Ahmedabad 1969, Bhiwandi 1970, Aligarh 1978, Jamshedpur 1979, Moradabad 1980, Meerut 1982, Hyderabad 1983, Assam 1983, Delhi 1984, Bhagalpur 1989, Bhadrak 1991, Ayodhya 1992, Mumbai 1992, Gujarat 2002, Marad 2003, Jammu 2008?
The BJD-BJP government has repeatedly failed to honour the constitutional mandate separating religion from state. In 2005-06, Advocate Mihir Desai and I convened the Indian People's Tribunal on Communalism in Orissa, led by Retired Kerala Chief Justice KK Usha. The Tribunal’s findings detailed the formidable mobilisation by majoritarian communalist organisations, including in Kandhamal, and the Sangh's visible presence in 25 of 30 districts. The report did not invoke any response from the state or central government.
In January 2000, The Asian Age reported: “‘One village, one shakha’ is the new slogan of the RSS as it aims to saffronise the entire Gujarat state by 2005.” Then ensued the genocide of March 2002. In 2003, Subash Chouhan, then Bajrang Dal state convener, stated: “Orissa is the second Hindu Rajya (to Gujarat).”
We all know what has happened in Kandhamal December 2007, and again now. The communal situation in Orissa is dire. State and civil society resistance to Hindutva’s ritual and catalytic abuse cannot wait.
The writer is associate professor of anthropology at California Institute of Integral Studies and author of a forthcoming book:
Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India's Present, Narratives from Orissa
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 36, Dated Sept 13, 2008