Another inflammatory funeral procession planned for Sunday, in spite of ban.
BHUBANESWAR, September 5 (Compass Direct News) – Asserting that most area Hindus are tolerant and peaceable, victims of ongoing anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa blamed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and other extremist groups for the terror of the past two weeks.
“The mobs that attacked our parishes and institutions were largely composed of extremists from the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal,” said Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of the Behrampore Catholic diocese.
At least four parishes, a presbytery and a youth hostel were destroyed in Munniguda town in Rayagada district under the Behrampore diocese in the spate of violence that began following the killing of a VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates in Kandhamal district on August 23. Christian leaders say more than 100 lives have been lost and thousands of houses, churches and institutions damaged or destroyed in the violence.
The state government attributed the assassination of the VHP leader and his associates to Maoists who have since claimed responsibility for the murders, but the Hindu extremist groups continue to blame Christians.
Asked if he condemned the violence on Christians, VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath told Compass that he categorically did not.
“You should ask me to condemn the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his associates with AK-47s by Christians,” he said.
While the Global Council of Indian Christians says more than 100 people have been killed in the violence, the Kandhamal District Collector’s Office told Compass that the death toll is only 14 people. The office reports 22,685 people are in relief camps in Kandhamal. The same office has also reported that 2,400 buildings have been destroyed in the mayhem, though Christian leaders believe the total is much higher.
Hindus Protected Christians
Father Mathew Puthyadam, a Catholic priest in Phulbani town in Kandhamal district, told Compass that local Hindu families gave him shelter.
As mob of around 4,000 people was carrying the body of Saraswati in a procession outside his church on the night of August 24, he said, he first sought shelter with Christians.
“When the mob was destroying my parish [Christ the King Church], I went to the house of parish workers nearby and hid in a broken bathroom,” Fr. Puthyadam said. “The mob somehow came to know that the house belonged to Christians, and they launched an attack on it. They beat up the two boys who live there, but they managed to escape. Thankfully, they did not come to the bathroom.”
About an hour after the mob left, Fr. Puthyadam came out to the street to see if it was safe for him to leave.
“A Hindu lady told me some extremists were still roaming around,” he said. “She asked me to hide in her kitchen and gave me food to eat.”
Later, Fr. Puthyadam fled to a forest, and finally came to the Archbishop’s House in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.
“Many among the mob were goons and thieves who were seemingly led by extremist groups,” he recalled, saying he felt he had gotten a “second life” as he could have been killed.
Another priest who managed to reach Bhubaneswar after a seven-day journey from Onjamundi village in Kandhamal district praised local Hindu families for protecting him.
“On the evening of August 25, a mob of 300 people who were armed with pistols, chisels and sticks, started burning houses and churches,” said Father Laxmikant Pradhan, a Catholic priest. “We could see thick smoke rising from all around. But Hindu families in the village asked Fr. Prabodha Kumar, my associate, and I to hide in their homes.”
Ravindranath Pradhan, a 45-year-old former soldier of the Indian Army, told Compass that VHP supporters attacked Christian houses in his village of Gadragaon in the Rupagaon area of Kandhamal.
“We know the attackers – they are from the VHP,” he said. “We have named them in our police complaint.”
Pradhan and 113 others reached Bhubaneswar on August 28 after walking for four days from Gadragaon. The homeless Christians were given shelter in a YMCA center in the capital city.
Creating a Rift
Some Orissa locals believe the extremists meant to create a rift between Christian missionaries and lower-caste tribal peoples known as “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs).
Prabhu Kalyan Mahapatra, a local Hindu and freelance journalist, told Compass that he did not think the violence was the result of what media are portraying as a Hindu-Christian “clash.”
In Kandhamal, there are OBCs who are lower castes but not “outcasts,” Mahapatra said, noting that the OBCs were mainly traders, while Dalits and tribal peoples were laborers and the poorest of the poor. He said the OBCs exploited Dalit and tribal people.
“However, Christian missionaries provided education to Dalits and tribals, which was not liked by the OBCs for obvious reasons,” he said, pointing out that several people from Dalit and tribal backgrounds had risen to become bureaucrats and members of parliament because of education provided by Christian institutions. “And the VHP took advantage of the situation and created a rift between OBCs and Christian missionaries.”
Mahapatra said that locals’ tolerance for Christian converts made Hindu-Christian conflict an unlikely reason for the violence. A Christian convert, Madhusudan Das, was recognized by the people of all local communities as the “father of modern Orissa,” he said.
Das, a lawyer, social reformer and patriot, worked for the political, social and economical uplift of people of eastern India, especially Orissa, and contributed numerous articles and poems both in Oriya and English.
“If the people of these communities respect a convert [Das], how can you say the Hindus of Orissa are not tolerant?” he asked.
Mahapatra explained how the VHP extended Saraswati’s funeral procession to incite violence.
“The funeral was taken from Saraswati’s ashram [religious center] in Jalespeta to his other ashram in Chakapada in Kandhamal, covering around 134 kilometers, when the distance between the two ashrams is merely 70 kilometers,” he said.
The attacks on Christians began during the funeral procession, he added.
New Tensions Feared
The Orissa government yesterday put a ban on rally planned by the VHP to take the ashes of Saraswati in another public procession throughout Orissa villages beginning on Sunday (September 7), according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
The ban was announced by the state government in hearing of a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa in the Supreme Court of India. The state government, however, fears fresh trouble on Sunday, as it is believed that the VHP may still go ahead with the processions.
“The state government has decided to rush additional force to the riot-affected areas in view of VHP’s proposed ‘kalas puja’ [worship of the remains of a deceased] of slain Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati,” reported The Indian Express newspaper today.
According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, mobs led by extremist groups are “roaming in Kandhamal and threatening the Christians to ‘reconvert’ or face death.”
Christians from various denominations will fast and pray for the Christians in Orissa on Sunday.
The VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a partner of the ruling government led by the Biju Janata Dal party, continue to blame Christians for the killing of Saraswati and four others in spite of the Maoist claim of responsibility for the assassination.
Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal during last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.
The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.
Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 3.7 million people.
Report from Compass Direct News