K.N. Panikkar


The incidents of August show that communalisation of Orissa is taking place very fast. Communal violence is not new in Orissa, or for that matter in any part of the country. But the latest incident is different, just as what happened in Gujarat in 2002. It is by far the most violent, brutal and widespread incidence of communal attack in the history of Orissa.


It is not a riot but a unilateral assault on the life and property of minorities by the members of Hindu communal organisations. Nor was it sudden or spontaneous. Behind it is an effective organisation and careful planning with a view to demarcating and isolating religious minorities from the national mainstream. It is also part of a larger political scheme of imparting a Hindu identity to the nation. There is a long preparation behind it, dating back to the 1940s when Hindu communal organisations struck root in the State. Since then, communalism found its public articulation through expression of hatred towards minorities in manifold ways and through incidents of localised violence.


Communal consciousness has slowly but surely colonised society, constantly innovating its modes of social intervention. Several social activists who have noticed this alarming development have cautioned against the emerging communal situation in the State.


The testimonies of the victims of communalism from Orissa before an Independent People’s Tribunal in Delhi during March 20-22, 2007, contains the record of the intimidation, persecution and physical assault perpetrated by members of the Sangh Parivar against the minorities in the past few years. Fear and helplessness were writ large on the faces of those who took courage to appear before the tribunal (see Rise of Fascism in India: Victims of Communal Violence Speak, New Delhi, 2008).


One of the victims described what she experienced as follows: “A whisper, a look, a comment are weapons in the hands of the powerful that make us shiver. The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] men look at us when they circle our village. They come and go as they please.  They taunt us in the bazaar. They beat the men and women. They whisper about us. They look at me and I feel sick. My children are afraid. When it is time, we know that the Sangh will act. Sometimes, I think what they might do. We are prisoners, slowly being pushed into darkness.”


The anticipated darkness has engulfed Orissa, sooner than expected. Most victims believed that a Gujarat is in the offing, for communalisation of Hindu community, just as happened in Gujarat, was taking place very fast. As a result, the incidents of August were not entirely unexpected. As feared by several secular activists, Hindu communalism has succeeded in establishing its second laboratory.




The communal trajectory of Orissa has very closely followed the Gujarat prototype. What the Sangh Parivar organisations successfully experimented with in Gujarat was to launch a series of religion- centred programmes and institutions. Their aim was to create religious solidarity on the one hand and religious antagonism on the other. A variety of methods were adopted for achieving this objective. Among them, a very effective input came from social and cultural organisations. There is no reliable count of such organisations working in any one region in India. But there is hardly any social or cultural sector in which the Parivar has not failed to set up its “outlet”.


It is estimated that in Orissa it commands about 1,700 cultural organisations. Their activities and a large number of their publications are directed at the demonisation of the minorities as enemies. While in Gujarat, Muslims were cast in this role, in Orissa it was the turn of Christians to be accorded that status.


Although riots had occurred in the past against Muslims in Rourkela and Bhadrak, the communalisation of Orissa was primarily based on an anti-Christian project. All activities of Christian organisations and institutions were represented as steps towards evangelisation.  Although the Christian population has not marked any increase in the past two decades, Christian missionaries were depicted as a threat to the future strength of the Hindu community.

Conversion, therefore, became a very emotive issue, which the Parivar invoked to close the ranks of the otherwise caste-differentiated Hindu community.


The ignorant and unsuspecting members of the community not only believed this canard but also swelled the fighting band of the Parivar. Particular attention was devoted to the tribal people who were recruited to the Parivar fold through different strategies of Hinduisation. One of the main reasons for the attack on Christian missionaries was to eliminate them from the tribal areas.


Slow, steady and continuous work, according to Professor Angana Chatterji, a political scientist working in California, has resulted in at least 12,000 of 20,000 villages in Orissa coming “under very strong influence” of the Parivar. In these villages, more than the RSS, it is the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that command greater influence by recruiting the unemployed youth.


An important feature of the process of communalisation has been that it has occurred unobtrusively, even when its expansion has been rapid. It is the result of a conscious strategy so that communal forces get enough space to operate in its initial stage. This is not to suggest that the communal forces had not struck before. In fact, there were several instances of communal assertions, some of them very violent, like the murder of Graham Staines and his children, followed by several communal incidents and riots in different parts of the State.


These incidents, primarily coercive in character, were intended to prevent conversions and to bring back to the Hindu fold those who were already converted. Much of these coercions are not known outside the locality and do not appear even in the local language press. Lately, the Parivar has used force on the converts in a variety of ways. The converted women are taken to the village square, stripped and tonsured.


Samjukta Kandi of Kilipal, one of the many women who was subjected to such humiliation, described her experience as follows: “We were alone in the house with my two children and my sister-in-law. The men barged into our house and grabbed me. They dragged us to the square of the village and there in front of everyone, tonsured our heads. The children and my sister-in-law managed to escape to the forests. A VHP activist got up on the square and told us that he would be the second Dara Singh and would kill every one of us.” In many cases, economic boycott forced the converts to flee their villages. The instances of rape, which the victims referred to with tearful eyes, were many.




The VHP’s work is centred on forced reconversions in the tribal areas where Christian missionaries have been active through their philanthropic work. The VHP’s case is that conversions to Christianity are not voluntary and are effected with the lure of money.


Angana Chatterji’s study shows that generally the converts do not  gain any benefits from converting. “As they are Dalits, oppression  makes them all the more dissatisfied with the Hindu religion and  further acts as a stimulant for converting them to Christianity or  Buddhism in order to escape the discrimination that Hinduism inflicts upon them.”


Whatever the causes of conversion, the minorities have become the targets of social discrimination and economic marginalisation.  Instead of looking inward, the Hindu communal organisations have taken the easier route of blaming other communities for conversion.


Retaliation for the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, the VHP claims, is the reason for the widespread communal violence. Who killed the swami is uncertain. Is it the Maoists, or the Christians who were provoked by the swami’s anti-Christian tirade, or those who were looking for easy money? Praveen Togadia and the VHP would like to believe that it is the handiwork of local Christians. As in the case of the Godhra incident, was the murder of the swami the occasion rather than the cause?


The Hindus, at least a section of them, were so much communalised and arraigned against Christians that the attack would have taken place even if the murder had not occurred. The suggestion in the media that the swami was chosen as a useful scapegoat by the VHP itself cannot be dismissed lightly, given the fascist track record of the Parivar.  At any rate, unlike in the past, this time the violence was not localised. Although Kandhmal is the epicentre of the violence, seven other districts were affected simultaneously, indicating careful planning and organisation. No accurate estimate of the loss of life and property can be made now.




Yet, it is reported that more than a 100 Christian institutions have been destroyed and about two dozen lives have been lost, including that of the woman who was burnt alive. Thousands of people have escaped to the forest to save their lives. Like their counterparts in Gujarat, they will be doomed to spend their lives in makeshift tenements in future. Orissa is yet another example of the failure of the state to contain communalism. It is to be expected that the government of Orissa with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as one of its partners would be soft towards communal elements. But the Central government has not shown any urgency or willingness to address the issue of communalism even though it came to power on a secular platform.


Even the much-touted Bill for the prevention of communal violence has not been passed. In fact, no step has been initiated in the past four years to contain the communal virus that is spreading across the country. If anything, the leading partner in the coalition, the Congress, has adopted a soft Hindutva posture whenever it suited its political interests.


Even now when Orissa is burning, the Central government has refused to take any initiative to quell it, taking cover under some legal formalities. That is precisely what the BJP did when the Gujarat riots happened. Given its communal track record, it is understandable. But then the Congress claims to be a secular party.


What is happening in Orissa is not just another communal riot, caused by some local differences between the members of two communities, as has often happened in the past. It is part of a larger plan of which Gujarat was the first expression. That is why the Orissa government, under the BJP’s influence, has not taken adequate steps to bring the situation under control.


The Prime Minister-in-waiting, L.K. Advani, who has so far remained silent, would be hoping that Orissa would emerge as the second link in the communal chain. Such a contingency can be avoided only through the intervention of civil society.


(Frontline, September 13-26, 2008)

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