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 stateâ€™s highest-ranking leader of Bajrang Dal, a Hindu radical group, described much of it as â€œa spontaneous reaction.â€
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.