Communal Violence in Orissa: Trying to Get a Balanced Picture

I’ve never been to Orissa and in general I don’t know much about eastern India outside of Bengal, so sorting out what has been happening in Orissa over the past few weeks is difficult. As I attempt to address this issue, I’m not interested in pointing fingers or arguing with religious zealots; rather, I’m interested in getting a balanced perspective on what is actually happening. (Take a deep breath. Now begin.)

Let’s start out with the New York Times, and focus on some of the basic facts. First, there has been a wave of anti-Christian violence following the vicious murder of a prominent VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four associates. Swami Laxmanananda had been an advocate for local Hindus, and had worked against Christian missionaries and conversion in the area. Here is some of what’s followed:

Here in Kandhamal, the district that has seen the greatest violence, more than 30 people have been killed, 3,000 homes burned and over 130 churches destroyed, including the tin-roofed Baptist prayer hall where the Digals worshiped. Today it is a heap of rubble on an empty field, where cows blithely graze. (link)

There has also been violence between Christians and Hindus in five other Indian states — suggesting that what started in Orissa has the potential to turn into a communal bloodbath at the national level.

A local Bajrang Dal leader is quoted in the New York Times as saying that the violence is just a “spontaneous reaction” to the killing of a locally beloved leader, but whether or not that is so it is unclear whether Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati’s murder was motivated by Christian anti-Hindu feeling or a more generalized hostility towards organized religion associated with Maoism and Naxalism, or some mixture of the two (see this). Adding to the confusion, the Times and other news agencies have reported that local Maoists have claimed responsibility (see the Times of India), but last week three Christian tribals were arrested for the killing. According to the Indian Express, the three were in fact Maoists (as I understand it, the majority of Maoists in the area come from Christian backgrounds.).

Not that all that should matter now — the focus should obviously be on stopping any further violence from occurring, and in rectifying the wrongs that have been committed against people on both sides. The murderers of Swami Laxmanananda should go to jail, as should all those who have participated in recriminatory violence against Christians subsequently.

Another vitally important factor is the local element. This is not just a matter of Hindus vs. Christians. According to the Times, there is a pronounced local and tribal element to the polarization of the communities:

Behind the clashes are long-simmering tensions between equally impoverished groups: the Panas and Kandhas. Both original inhabitants of the land, the two groups for ages worshiped the same gods. Over the past several decades, the Panas for the most part became Christian, as Roman Catholic and Baptist missionaries arrived here more than 60 years ago, followed more recently by Pentecostals, who have proselytized more aggressively.

Meanwhile, the Kandhas, in part through the teachings of Swami Laxmanananda, embraced Hinduism. The men tied the sacred Hindu white thread around their torsos; their wives daubed their foreheads with bright red vermilion. Temples sprouted.

Hate has been fed by economic tensions as well, as the government has categorized each group differently and given them different privileges.

The Kandhas accused the Panas of cheating to obtain coveted quotas for government jobs. The Christian Panas, in turn, say their neighbors have become resentful as they have educated themselves and prospered.

Their grievances have erupted in sporadic clashes over the past 15 years, but they have exploded with a fury since the killing of Swami Laxmanananda. (link)

Knowing about the longstanding hostility between the Kandhas and the Panas in this district changes how we might think of this conflict in certain ways. For one thing, the particular configuration of the tribal relationship to “formal” religion means that it’s unfair to say that the Christian Panas are involved with a “foreign” religion, while the Hindu Kandhas have a “local” religion. In fact, both communities have changed, and tribal religious practices before the entry of formal Hinduism may not have looked much like Hinduism at all (I do not know the specifics here, but this is a common observation by anthropologists who have studied tribals; see Kancha Iliah, for starters).

Given all that, in an ideal world, the conflict would remain a local one, sorted out by local police and the courts. Unfortunately, it does not look like that is going to be the case.

Finally, the Times describes one of the most egregious incidents of recriminatory violence that has followed the murder of Swami Laxmanananda, the murder of a priest and gang rape of a nun:

Two nights after his death, a Hindu mob in the village of Nuagaon dragged a Catholic priest and a nun from their residence, tore off much of their clothing and paraded them through the streets.

The nun told the police that she had been raped by four men, a charge the police say was borne out by a medical examination. Yet no one was arrested in the case until five weeks later, after a storm of media coverage. Today, five men are under arrest in connection with inciting the riots. The police say they are trying to find the nun and bring her back here to identify her attackers.

Given a chance to explain the recent violence, Subash Chauhan, the state’s highest-ranking leader of Bajrang Dal, a Hindu radical group, described much of it as “a spontaneous reaction.”

He said in an interview that the nun had not been raped but had had regular consensual sex. (link)

That last bit just takes the cake.

222 thoughts on “Communal Violence in Orissa: Trying to Get a Balanced Picture

  1. 195 · Kiran said

    You are way behind the curve.. it already is being done, google it and you’ll get the exact figures on how much money comes into india for Christian charities and how it’s spent. What is not tracked is the money fascists like IDF – VHP and the likes raise from the US and else where. This too needs to be tracked. Money ostensibly raised for “charity” by these hindu organizations is diverted in terrorizing minorities. It’s used to buy the support of local thugs during election times and now to attack Christians. In the past these funds were used to attack Sikhs and Muslims too. There always seems to be one standard to measure Hindus and another a more discriminatory one to measure everyone else in India.

    Indeed. Read what I wrote: “all foreign money”. This would include money raised by IDF (wasn’t that IRDF, or some such? I can’t seem to track acronyms very well any more) as well as groups of a more leftist or religious pursuasion.

    Local thugs and “personal” pursuasion during elections is not a monopoly of the hindu political parties. Even in degree, the communists in Bengal have them beaten hollow. Which is why you find sizeable number of BJP supporters among Bengalis who now live elesewhere, and who do not have elderly relatives back home.

    I think there is a lot more awareness of this now and the derivative of the cost seems to be of the correct sign; so things are not entirely bleak

  2. 196 · Soca Chutney Mix said Committee under guidance of current Puri Shankaracharya to decide which Hindus will be allowed entrance to Jagannath Mandir in 2008

    The link seems to be somewhat off topic of whether Dalits and SC / STs are currently denied entrance at the Puri Jagannath temple. It seems to be devoted to what the policy should be for Hindus of either non-Indian origin, or of Indian origin, but residing in “non-Hindu” countries, perhaps for several generations. Essentially hindus who don’t “look” Indian.

  3. In most of these places, people are picked up by looks. If your friends looked and dressed in the standard college kid fashion, and did not look like a black Nigerian, or a white Finlander, they would not stand out.

    Do you think Dalits look somehow different than say OBCs/ upper castes to be easily picked up by looks?. Just curious, how many Dalits do you know?.

    (BTW: I think black Nigerian is a wrong analogy, almost half of Tamilnadu is black. )

  4. 203 · Ponniyin Selvan said

    Do you think Dalits look somehow different than say OBCs/ upper castes to be easily picked up by looks?. Just curious, how many Dalits do you know?.

    Eh? All I was saying is they might have a policy to exclude Dalits, but there is no earthly way to enforce it.

  5. What is not tracked is the money fascists like IDF – VHP and the likes raise from the US and else where. This too needs to be tracked.

    that’s right. But the money raised by IDRF seems like a pittance compared to what the missionaries get First, funding. Nobody seems to know exactly how much money the VHP receives from abroad. The only figure we have is $1.7 million from the India Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) that raises money from individuals and corporations in the United States (including Cisco and Sun Microsystems) to distribute them among a plethora of Sangh parivar agencies, some of whom work for ‘tribal welfare’. On the Christian side, thanks to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, the Home Ministry is in possession of the Annual Report on Foreign Contributions for 2005-06. It lays out in minute detail the funds received by churches and Christian organisations in India. We know, for example, that the top donors are church-based or Christian-inspired organisations from the US, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. We also know that a greater part of the funds — Rs 7,785 crore — goes to mainly Christian and church-based organisations in India.
  6. This takes the cake. Article after article about temple close downs and purificatory rites and cries of anguish after certain types of human beings entered the Mandir, as well as $7,000 US dollars worth of food being thrown out, yet when bats and pigeons decide to flee the Mandir compound (which had become littered (or sanctified?) with their waste, priests are praying for their return taking it to be a bad omen!!!!

    Pigeon feces causes meningytis by the way.

    I know we are supposed to provide links but this one was just too good not to put the whole thing right here for all to read.

    Chemenis Vanish from Puri Temple BY: DEBABRATA MOHAPATRA Oct 08, JAGANNATHA PURI, ORISSA — Next time you pass through the North gate of Jagannath Temple, there is no need to duck your face to avoid the swarm of chemenis (a bat-like bird) hanging on shrine walls and roof. The chemenis, who were in the thousands at the world famous 12th century shrine since time immemorial, have disappeared since Thursday, forcing the priests and temple authorities to search for the cause. “We were shocked to find not a single chemeni at North gate of the temple. The birds were here since many decades,” said a visibly gob-smacked priest Balia Singhari. “I too was surprised on the disappearance of the chemenis from the shrine. I don’t know how it happened,” said Laxmidhar Pujapanda, public relations officer of Jagannath Temple administration. Notably, the North gate of the shrine is also popularly known as chemeni dwar because of the presence of chemenis there. “We assume the birds fled the temple in fear. They were scared after the earsplitting thunders on Tuesday night. We also fear the chemenis flew from here after a minor fire broke out on Wednesday in the make-shift kitchen of Goddess Bimala shrine inside the Jagannath temple. But none of them have returned till Friday afternoon,” said Jogendra Dasmohapatra, another priest. Meanwhile, the disappearance of chemenis came close on the heels of the extinction of pigeons from Jagannath Temple. Until a couple of years ago, the temple was home to a huge number of white pigeons. A number of devotional songs were made on the pigeons of Jagannath Temple, as well. But nobody knows why the pigeons absconded from here. “Pigeons and chemenis were part of the temple. Even though they were polluting the temple premises with their wastes, they were taken as sacred birds. Their absence is certainly a bad omen,” priests observed. Now, only monkeys are left chattering at the Jagannath Temple. Around five to seven thousand monkeys are present here. Last year, the shrine authorities tried to boot out the monkeys from here, as they were tormenting devotees. But priests protested, saying expulsion of monkeys would bring ill omens.
  7. Eh? All I was saying is they might have a policy to exclude Dalits, but there is no earthly way to enforce it.

    :-) Dude, there is no policy. If you go and look at the government officers in charge of many temples, a substantial number of them would be Dalits atleast in Tamil nadu.

  8. The link seems to be somewhat off topic of whether Dalits and SC / STs are currently denied entrance at the Puri Jagannath temple. It seems to be devoted to what the policy should be for Hindus of either non-Indian origin, or of Indian origin, but residing in “non-Hindu” countries, perhaps for several generations. Essentially hindus who don’t “look” Indian.

    Ponniyin, click on the link above and follow directions. If you can, copy and paste the article here. I am unable to pull it up.

  9. Ponniyin, you do like to twist it around a bit don’t cha? It isn’t a *pittance* as you say.. it’s actually quite large… in the multiples of the 1.7 mil quoted in the articlem we’ll never know because it’s not tracked at all.

    I think you’re missing the point. $1.4 million when converted to Indian rupees is 1.4 * 1000,000 * 50 (assuming exchange rate of 50) = 7,00,00,000 Rs that is 7 crore. Compare it with 7700 crores. Don’t you think 7 crores is a pittance when compared to 7700 crores.

  10. Well look at it here on this thread.. this is the educated elite of India and Hinduism.. vehemently denying that those that are oppressed may want to convert to have access to a better chance at happiness in their lives. Look at them argue that “foreign” funds are “Proselytizing” innocent tribals and dalits.. has it ever occurred to you that if you are not a Tribal or Dalit.. you should not even be expressing and opinion on this issue. No tribal or Dalit ever interfered in what nonsense the caste hindus believed in or who they worshiped. Should the US take the same line and ban all expressions of Hinduism here in the US? Why are Hindus are so vicious and such haters.

    You might want to rethink that last bit about who ‘has the right’ to talk about this issue, calling all Hindus, “vicious and haters” and other assorted jibes. In a big fight, you need big allies, not just personal responsibility. Alienating potential allies by calling them names, before you have met them, seems to be the most unproductive strategy one could think of. I really wouldn’t call Ponniyin Selvan part of the american Hindu “elite” either.

    This is not true for all but there are many kids brought up with a nominal Hindu identity here who don’t even have the requisite knowledge of caste/subcaste/jati groupings to discriminate.

  11. Proselytizing keeps getting thrown around here without any reference. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be the main objection:

    It is dishonest if the facilitators promise a higher standard of life, to begin after conversion, and it does not happen.

    This is something you could possibly quantify and argue by comparing material and living conditions before and after, while controlling for factors outside the facilitators control. (my modeling skills are weak…somebody help).

  12. I can understand why Kiran feels the way he or she does. It’s a personal issue for him/her. I’m a Hindu but not a hater. There is a systematic program for missionaries in India though. There is a language school by the name of Landour in North India that teaches hindi. About half of their students are christians from foreign countries who are sent there to learn hindi in order to preach to hindi speaking people. I asked one young woman what she does and she says we are placed in the homes of the mountain people and we form close bonds with them. When they get to the point of accepting and loving us as one of their own we then ask them to accept Jesus Christ as their eternal saviour and convert to Christianity and by that time they feel so bonded to us that they do. Tricky? Maybe. Evil? No. These people are convinced that if they don’t do this then the entire population of (non-christian) Indians will go to hell and it is their compassionate duty to bring them to salvation. They really, really, really believe this. It doesn’t bother me. However, when I attended a sermon by one of the students there who was a pastor from the USA and he lambasted Hindu gods and goddesses and called them “demons”, well, it was comic relief in what was otherwise a pretty boring day. I had no idea there were still pastors out there like that. I thought by now they were trying to incorporate some philosophical thought into their presentations, what with all the Christian motivational speakers that are out there now. At the end of the day who cares what people believe when it comes to religion? Why do hindus cares that some people are converting to christianity and why do christians care if some ex-hindus are converting back to Hinduism? Why would anyone take offense if a poor family goes back and forth at their own convenience in order to get benefits to feed and educate their kids? What’s wrong with that?

  13. Ponniyin Selvan on October 14, 2008 05:12 PM · Direct link · “Quote�(?)

    Kiran: You and me share the same planet, but we live in different universes. Sorry to hear about your experiences buddy. I myself belong to a low caste and I have got close Dalit friends and I have a Dalit relative (my cousin married her Dalit classmate). So I can’t agree with you that I have no idea of Dalits. If you think about it, You and Mayawati live in a different universe too.

    I beg to differ Ponniyin, having a friend and a cousin marry a dalit is nothing like being one. Not every tribal/dalit is a Mayawati.. she is one of a kind.. and you are right She and I live in different universes. I stand by my assertion you will never know the hell that is a tribals or dalits life. Reading your posts it is clear you cannot even come close.. you say you know or act like you do.. is an insult to the suffering and torment tribals and dalits undergo everyday. Write to me when you have lost family to the hatred that someone put out because of your caste or religious beliefs, write to me when someone spits on your face because he thinks you are a low life and and it gets him brownie points with his crew, write to me you can’t celebrate you main holiday because you fear a drunken mob will start an fight.. then may be you will have a vague idea.

    Ponniyin Selvan wrote:

    I have read that missionaries used to meet every year in India in colonial days (maybe they do it even now) and compare their notes and see how successful they are in harvesting souls. Maybe if we can get the minutes of such meetings we’d have some ideas. It is not just the low castes that have converted into Christianity. They have used different strategies for different castes.

    Pooniyin.. this smacks too much like the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion The Hitler and the Nazi’s used it to try and exterminate the Jews in Europe.. the fascists are using it to cleanse india of Christians. There is definitely some sorta ideological connection between the Nazis and Hindu facists.

    It’s this relentless propaganda that the hindu right puts out.. the constant never ending lies and hatred.. I’m glad I don’t live there anymore.

  14. 208 · Soca Chutney Mix said Ponniyin, click on the link above and follow directions. If you can, copy and paste the article here. I am unable to pull it up.

    A google search on the heading you provided is not informative. It talks of Jagannath Temple in Kedargarh (sp?) but not the far more famous one in Puri. It seems to me that it would be impossible, as a practical matter, to exclude Dalits specifically, from the Puri Jagannath temple where most devotees would be anonymous; given essentially no visual difference between Dalits and non-Dalits; actually even between Hindus and non-Hindus.

  15. Kiran, Which tribe do you belong to?

    probably none. its the usual sepiamutiny troll, prema

  16. 141 · Ponniyin Selvan said

    It is not just the low castes that have converted into Christianity. They have used different strategies for different castes.

    For current strategies for your community, search in this website.

  17. @Amradeep

    Do you agree with my main point — that many tribal religious practices were, until fairly recently, outside of the spectrum of Hinduism, and that therefore Hinduism is as much a “foreign” religion as is Christianity for many tribals?

    Just the spin one wanted from the so called libertarians/leftist academia, for every source you can “Google” there are counter examples. I am hoping you will quote Max Meuller/Macaulay, to teach a few things to your fellow “desis” in pardes, and might even succeed in passing off the sheer number to tribal deities present in Hinduism, as something borrowed from the “monotheist/my religion is bigger than yours” zealots.

    Tribal Jagannath as a Hindu deity Sandhya Jain Pioneer (Indias Oldest Newspaper) Tuesday, October 14, 2008

  18. Atleast it is nice to see that Western Countries are becoming godless and closer to Eastern philosophies. I guess christanity will survive in colored people.

  19. To understand the religious culture of present day Puri Temple establishment that prohibits the entry of Muslims into the shrine one has to understand its complex history. A useful source here would be Herman Kulke’s works.

    Since the 1000s the temple has been the center of political power in Orissa. Various Orissan Hindu empires (roughly between 1000s-1560s) used Jagannatha to legitimate their rule in the region. Theirs was a multi-lingual (Oriya, Telegu, Sanskrit) theocratic state built around the deity and the temple establishment at Puri. At various points of time, they were in conflict with Turk-Afghans (in the north) and Vijayanagara (in south).

    In 1568, the empire suffered a major defeat and invading Turk-Afghan generals ransacked the politico-religious establishment of Puri and burnt the deities. For the next two decades the temple stood empty till a local Hindu successor state forged an alliance with Akbar and rebuilt and reinstalled the deities at the temple. In the successive centuries, depending on the Mughal state and its religious policies, the temple withstood near about sixteen raids. [To be historically fair, couple of times the Mughal attacks were led by Rajput officers. Once, a local Muslim subadar frustrated Aurangzeb’s order to burn the deities by coming to a financial understanding with the local Hindu king.]

    During these troubled times, the safety of the temple establishment depended largely on the priests and local power groups. They dealt with the problem by developing a strong akhada culture—priest-wrestlers—who will be able to transport the huge deities at a short notice to distant hideouts and resist any unwanted entry into the shrine for sufficient amounts of time. Secondly, they co-opted the idea of ‘burning/destroying’ and instituted a ritual (nava-kalebara, literally, new-body) in which the deities are burnt down every 12 years or so and re-built. Thirdly, they wrote histories and produced literature projecting the idea of Jagannatha’s invincibility and inextricably tied the history of the Oriya peoples with that of their deity.

    Popular local Hindu memory chose to ‘simplify’ the attacks on the temple and gradually developed a threat-perception. This ‘historical’ threat-perception continues today as a ritual that prohibits Muslims (‘yavana’ is the term used in the 18th century compilation of temple rituals, Niladrimahodaya) into the shrine. From the perspective of the temple establishment, this ritual should be seen together with another ritual, that of Ratha Yatra. Priests actively promote the annual chariot festival as an occasion when all, including yavanas, can have unhindered access to the Lord. Thus, a famous 18th century Muslim devotee of Jagannatha (Salbeg) would talk of his visit to Puri for a ‘darshan’ of Jagannatha.

  20. I know there are a few South Indian Orthodox Christians here and if they could shed some light on South Indian Orthodox Christian history it would be enlightening. So far we are only discussing the later, western,proselytizing protestants. Christianity has been in India for two thousand years, longer than Sikhism and even Buddhism.