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Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Foreign Correspondent
Members of the Christian community hold a candlelight vigil in Kolkata last year to protest against the attacks on Christians in Orissa. Sucheta Das / AP
New Delhi // In the eastern state of Orissa, where an uprising against Christians raged for more than two months last year, minority Christians are calling for the postponement of next month’s elections because, they say, many are still displaced and will not be able to cast their ballots.
A delegation of the riot victims led by human rights activists met India’s Election Commission officials in New Delhi last week and requested next month’s general and state elections be deferred in Kandhamal district, the epicentre of last year’s riots.
Despite a police investigation revealing Maoists to be behind the Aug 23 killings of a Kandhamal-based Hindu monk and four of his associates that sparked the riots, Hindu organisations, claiming that Christians had murdered the Hindu leaders, began the anti-Christian campaign, which left 43 Christians dead and 79 missing.
The riots, during which hundreds of homes and a number of churches were destroyed, led to more than 3,000 Christians reportedly being forced to convert to Hinduism at gunpoint. Many others were driven from their villages. Threats from radical Hindus still exist in Kandhamal and “25,000 to 30,000 Christians” are still unable to return to their villages, Christians and human rights groups say.
“A large number of [Christian] people are still forced to live away from their homes on the face of threats. Hindu groups are also making hate speeches against Christians to polarise the votes in the communally sensitive area,” Teesta Setalvad, the secretary of the Mumbai-based Citizens for Justice and Peace who led the Orissa Christian delegation to the EC, told Indian media.
“This would mean thousands of voters would be unable to exercise their franchise.”
The delegation, called the Kuidina Forum for Peace and Justice and supported by Ms Setalvad’s organisation, alleged that Hindu activists were not allowing Christians to return to their villages unless they converted to Hinduism.
Kadamfula Naik, 36, who now lives in Orissa’s Baliguda refugee camp, told the media in Delhi that after they killed her husband in September the Hindu militants drove her away from her village.
“They butchered my husband with a sword before my eyes. Then they said I could not be allowed to live there unless I converted. I ran away with my children,” she said.
“Recently I tried to return to my village. But they said only Hindus would be allowed to return. ‘You can return home only if you convert and pledge to vote for our party [BJP],’ they said. It is clear that they are still in charge and it is impossible for us to return to our villages now.”
Villagers can cast their ballots only at local polling booths in their native villages.
Another delegation member who lost her husband in the rioting, Priyatama Naik, alleged that police and other government agencies were not helping the Christians and elections had no meaning for the community.
“My husband, who was burnt alive, named the Hindu culprits in his dying statement. Yet the police have not been able to arrest them. What is the meaning of taking part in an election if the whole system has failed?” Ms Naik, 35, who is from Kandhamal’s Barapali village, told Indian television networks.
“Christians cannot vote freely. We know, if we vote for rival parties and they [Hindu activists] just guess it, they will turn against us exactly as they did after the killing of the Hindu leaders last year. We are living under fear. Elections are meaningless to us.”
The riots angered Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa, so much that he chose to part ways with his political ally, the BJP, which he believed supported the riots.
Since the 11-year-old alliance between Mr Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal [BJD] and the BJP broke apart this month, Hindu organisations such as the Viswa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and others have begun campaigning to elect a party or political alliance that will “protect Hinduism” in the state.
Christian leaders fear that would lead to the consolidation of radical Hindu political groups that could be preparing for another phase of “ethnic cleansing” in the region.
Sajan K George, the president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said extremist Hindu groups and their supporters were determined not to allow the Christians to live in the region and they are desperate to get BJP candidates elected.
“The radical Hindu groups have already swung into action to ensure the victory of the BJP leaders in national and state elections with an aim to keep the whole region under the control of the Hindu groups. In that situation police and other government agencies would become tools in their hands,” Mr George said.
“The government says that normality has returned, which is not true at all – 25,000 to 30,000 Christians are still unable to return to nearly 315 of their villages in Kandhamal. [Hindu] saffron flags have been hoisted on top of the looted and destroyed Christian houses, and on many walls of those houses they have posted a stern warning like: ‘Don’t ever dare to think to return to your home’. I don’t think that the Christians of Kandhamal can return home or vote on their own free will any time that soon.”
Others are also not so pessimistic.
“Since, the Hindu groups have to a large extent succeeded in polarising the district along communal lines, the BJP candidates are likely to win in both elections in Kandhamal where for every Christian voter there are five Hindu voters,” said Anjan Basu, the executive editor of Kolkata newspaper Pratidin.
“But for his clean image Naveen Patnaik is extremely popular among educated and secular Hindus who form a big part of the electorate in Orissa. It means [Mr Patnaik’s] BJD has a possibility to form the state government. And if BJD rules Orissa, Christians can hope for justice.”