Friday, August 29, 2008

Prelude To Carnage?

The killing of VHP’s Swami Laxmananda Saraswati in Orissa has set off a wave of communal violence


COMMUNALLY-SENSITIVE Kandhamal district, the site where India’s worst-ever anti-Christian violence broke out last December, is a lit fuse fast inching into conflagration after the gunning down of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Laxmananda Saraswati and five other persons last week.

Mourning Children paying homage to Swami Laxmananda Saraswati

Eighty-five-year-old Sarsawati, who was an active campaigner for converting the state’s Christian tribals to Hinduism, had been a guest at an ashram for girls in Jalasapeta village in Kandhamal’s Tumudibandha block. On the evening of August 24, armed assailants entered the ashram and fired indiscriminately; along with Laxmanananda, two women and a child were also among those killed. The assailants are suspected to have been Maoists — a letter found at the spot bore the name of one Azad, said to be from the Bashadhara Committee of the CPI (Maoist), and stated that the VHP leader “had to pay the price for last year’s riots”. State Director-General of Police Gopal Chandra Nanda was, however, cautious about assigning responsibility for the assassination, stating only that it appeared to have been the work of “extremists”.

The VHP, however, has been quick to blame Kandhamal’s Christians, reopening the floodgates to the poison that swept the district in the last weeks of 2007. Saraswati was at the centre of that conflagration as well with a rumoured attack on him last Christmas Eve providing the impetus for the riots that killed at least four people and damaged over 800 homes. Most of those affected were families below the poverty line, the average economic profile in this deeply under-developed region. As of this writing, in the upsurge of rage that has followed Saraswati’s assassination, a lynch mob has reportedly burned one person (a paralytic) alive; at least three prayer houses and 10 homes are said to have been gutted as well. An orphanage in Phutapali in Bargarh district was set on fire. A pastor was hurt in the fire, but 20 children escaped unhurt. Road and rail blockades and demonstrations across the state have prompted the issuing of prohibitory orders in Kanhamal, while the rest of Orissa is on high alert.

Saraswati, a member of the VHP’s central advisory committee, had apparently anticipated an attack for some time. Last Friday, he had sought security cover from the Tumudibandha police station. Who he was in apprehension of is not immediately known, but, after last year’s riots, while Christian groups blamed the VHP, he, in turn, accused local Maoists of fomenting communal tensions. Just before his arrival in Tumudibandha, he had been an active participant in a state-wide agitation over the Amaranath shrine land row.

Bordering the notoriously impoverished Kalahandi, Kandhamal shares in its neighbour’s indigence. The district’s population is numbered at over six lakh, more than half of whom are Kandh tribals, who are mainly Hindu. Dalit Panos form another 18 percent of the population; of them 70 percent are among the district’s 1,50,000 Christians. Communal animosity here is thus steeped in the added venom of tribe versus under-caste, locked in contest for the advantages that accrue from reservations. Flashpoints have erupted between the two for 20 years now. VHP belligerence over conversions, however, has a history here of more than four decades. Saraswati’s main ashram at Kandhamal’s Chakapad was established in the late 1960s. It has been stoking anti-Christian sentiment in the region ever since.

This week will be a tense time not only in Kandhamal but across Orissa. The state’s politicians, bureaucracy and police have been blamed in the past for the deep communal polarisation said to be entrenched in their ranks. In the days to come, Saraswati will be hailed as a martyr while Orissa’s minorities will wait in dread. The political will of Orissa Chief Minister Navin Patnaik to prevent the state from descending into carnage is now under great test. •


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