Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Orissa, India: Hindu fundamentalists foment violence among the people

20 April 2008. A World to Win News Service. Over many years a large number of Dalits ("untouchables") in the eastern Indian state of Orissa converted to Christianity to escape the Hindu caste system in which they are considered subhuman. In the last decade, and especially the last year and a half, life has become hell for them. In December 2007, Hindu supremacist forces lead a riot in which many of the Dalit Christians were killed and their homes and churches were burned by tribal people at least as poor as the Dalits. The Hindu monk Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishnu Hindu Parisad (VHP) party, was said to have been behind the attacks. The VHP is part of a broader movement of organisations identified with the word "Hindutva" ("Hindu-ness"), that fights, in parliament and often in the streets and villages, in the name of opposition to communism, Islam and Christianity.

After Saraswati was killed in August of last year, in an attack attributed to guerrillas under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the Hindutva parties launched even more ferocious attacks on the Dalit Christians. In the district of Kandhamal, deep in the forested interior of Orissa, many of them are now living in makeshift camps after their homes were destroyed. Hindus have been forbidden to hire them as day labourers anymore, or even to talk to them, and their children cannot go to school. This level of violence against Christians has not been seen since India's independence, and it has been encouraged and organised.

A local leader of the allegedly more mainstream Hindu party, the BJP, recently bragged to a reporter: "A maximum number of Christians were killed, yes, it is a matter of fact, but why? The Hindu sense of dignity has come to the surface in a spontaneous manner and they want to protect that sense of dignity." (BBC, 13 April 2009) Note that the affront to "Hindu dignity" justifying the massacre is turning one's back on the Hindu religion. The BJP is one of India's two main parties. The other, the rival and currently ruling Congress party, has done little to oppose these attacks and the reactionary ideology they are driven by, and little or nothing to help the Kandhamal refugees living in tents and shacks.

The following article, titled "Beat Back the Fascist Onslaught in Orissa", by Ujjwala, has been slightly edited. It originally appeared in the January-March 2009 issue of the Indian publication People' s Truth.

The recent and ongoing violence on Dalit Christians in Kandhamal once again highlights the need to fight the fascist Hindutva forces and thoroughly expose the governments, both central and state. The state and central governments' refusal to restrain fanatic Hindu militias evidences their linkage with the Hindutva BJP and the soft Hindutva Congress party, and the capitulation of a section of civil society to Hindu majoritarianism. The current violence started immediately after the killing of the notorious goon in saffron, Swami Laxmanananda, a VHP leader who was working in this area for more than 30 years solely for the consolidation of the Hindutva forces. He along with his four associates was shot dead by the people's guerrillas on 23 August 2008.

The people's guerrillas had left a note on the spot explaining the reasons behind the elimination of Laxmanananda Saraswati and stated, "We have decided to punish anti-people, fanatical leaders like Saraswati because of endless persecution of religious minorities in the country. There will be more such punishments if violence is continued against religious minorities in the country." In spite of this clear statement, Hindutva forces used this incident to carry out massacres on Dalit Christians, holding them responsible. Whenever the anti-displacement [a movement to resist land grabs by India's biggest corporations] leaders and activists are branded as Maoists, the Sangh Parivar people [a grouping of Hindu nationalist organisations, including the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP parties] are the first ones to join the chorus. They also demand firm action against such leaders and activists. But in this case even after the Maoists took the responsibility, these cowardly gangsters were afraid to confront the Naxalites [Maoists], and preferred to hit soft targets, like Christian priests, women and children.

The violence started immediately after that incident. Attacks on innocent Adivasis [tribals], Dalits, women and children belonging to minority community were planned, led and carried out by the Sangh Parivar without any limit. They began by raping nuns, lynching innocent women and men, disabled persons and others. Hooligans under the direct command of the BJP and RSS leaders went on to burn Christian houses, shops, schools, orphanages and churches [many of them for a second time, after the December 2007 attacks] and some NGO offices. They lynched a girl student of a Kany ashram and a priest at Baragarh, and killed three persons in Kandhamal in the presence of police forces. As of today more than 20 persons have been killed for no fault of their own. Thousands and thousands of people who are no way connected to the killing of Saraswati, including pregnant women, toddlers and old ones, were forced to leave their homes and are languishing inside the forests amidst rains without food, water or clothes.

There is enough ground to believe that there was a deliberate move by a section within the government that crippled the administration and police, leading to the complete breakdown of governance systems. The violence is not confined to Kandhamal district alone and started spreading to other districts. In several districts of Orissa there is tension and fear of further violence. Already the situation in Koraput district, particularly in Jeypore, is very serious. Many people have fled from their homes and villages and have been in the jungles for many days without any food, medical care and shelter.

Profile of Kandhamal District

Kandhamal was constituted as a district recently, in 1994. It has 2,515 villages spread over 7,649 square kilometres. The terrain is inaccessible, full of hills and narrow lanes crisscrossing the villages. There isn't a single industrial unit here. There are no railway lines, and so no trains come here. Close to eight hundred thousand people live in this doleful land. In terms of castes and tribes, the Kandha tribe constitute more than half the population of Kandhamal. The Panas, who are the Dalits, form the next big chunk. It is on this Kandha tribe the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is concentrating for bringing them into the Hindutva fold. The Panas are where the Christian community gets its numbers. The percentage of Christians in Kandhamal – 25 percent – is astonishingly high compared to the 2.44 percent for the whole of Orissa. In percentage terms, Orissa has the third largest concentration of Hindus in India (nearly 95 percent in the 2001 census). Muslims are barely two percent. Kandhamal remains socio-economically backward, a large percentage of its population living in poverty. Approximately 90 percent of Dalits are landless. A majority of Christians are landless or marginal landholders.

Hindutva ideologues say Dalits have acquired economic benefits, augmented by Christianisation. This is not borne out in reality. The demographic profile of Kandhamal suggests that in the last 40 years, the population of outsiders having migrated into the district has increased by 140 percent. They are all non-tribals and non-Dalits, and mostly belong to the upper castes – Brahmins, Karans, Telis, Sundhis, Kumudis, etc. They do trade and business with tribals and Dalits. The stories of oppression involving them can be narrated separately. Most of the fertile lands in the district are under the control of these trading communities. They are the people who provide a good base to all the Sangh Parivar outfits that operate in the district and play an active role in every outbreak of communal violence.

The RSS activist Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, who was heading the VHP movement in Kandhamal, was not a sadhu [holy man] as is being projected. He was a member of the VHP's Kendriya Margadarshak Mandal, a powerful decision-making panel. He operated largely from two ashrams 150 kilometres from each other. To his followers, Saraswati was the incarnation of Parashurama, the first warrior saint in Hindu mythology. Saraswati saw himself as the saint who would vanquish the Christians. Saraswati was a member of what are now called the Most Backward Castes [in India's official classification whose claimed purpose is to overcome the effects of the supposedly illegal caste system]. He had to quit his job because of some irregularities and a police case for murder and criminal conspiracy was pending against him. He managed to escape many previous attempts on his life.

The rise of Hindutva forces in Orissa

What has happened in Kandhamal is not an isolated event. It's an outcome of a sustained effort of the Sangh Parivar to spread the poison of communal hatred in Orissa. A series of anti-Christian crusades, such as the gruesome murder of Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999 [burned alive in that missionary's car], marked the onset of aggressive Hindutva in Orissa.

The Sangh's history in post-colonial Orissa is long and violent. Virulent Hindutva campaigns against minority groups reverberated in Rourkela in 1964, Cuttack in 1968 and 1992, Bhadrak in 1986 and 1991, Soro in 1991. The Hindutva forces had witnessed a phenomenal rise after the Bharatiya Janata Party's coalition government with the Biju Janata Dal came to power in 2000.

However, we can't put the entire blame on the BJP alone for the consolidation of communal forces. The role of all mainstream political parties is equally condemnable. The local leaders of the main opposition [in Orissa] Congress party are mostly with the Sangh Parivar, which is the reason why violence against minorities could not be prevented even in pockets where the Congress party has good influence. The local leaders of the Congress always extended good help to Swami Laxmanananda whenever the Swami organized yajnas or other communal rituals. If one recalls the kind of role that the Congress played during the Gujarat riots [a huge Hindutva massacre of Moslems in 2002], and in the days following [when the Congress-led central government did nothing to help the refugees], one would find a similar role played by the Congress in Orissa in the Kandhamal situation.

At present the VHP has claimed 125,000 primary [the current nation-wide parliamentary elections] workers in Orissa. The RSS is said to operate 6,000 shakhas with a 150,000 plus cadre. The Bajrang Dal [youth wing of the VHP] has 50,000 members working in 200 akharas. BJP workers number above 450,000. The BJP Mohila Morcha, Durga Vahini (7,000 outfits in 117 sites) and Rashtriya Sevika Samiti (80 centres) are three major Sangh women's organisations. BJP Yuva Morcha, Youth Wing, Adivasi Morcha and Mohila Morcha have a prominent base. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh manages 171 trade unions with a membership of 1,82,000. The 30,000-strong Bharatiya Kisan Sangh functions in 100 blocks. The Sangh also operates various trusts and branches of national and international institutions to aid fundraising, including Friends of Tribal Society, Samarpan Charitable Trust, Sookruti, Yasodha Sadan, and Odisha International Centre. Sectarian development and education are carried out by Ekal Vidyalayas, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashrams/Parishads (VKAs), Vivekananda Kendras, Shiksha Vikas Samitis and Sewa Bharatis – cementing the brickwork for hate and civil polarisation.

The real reasons behind the "communal violence"

The present violence in Orissa is not exclusively religious. It must be seen as part of the evolving social, economic and political conditions in the country in general and in Orissa in particular. Orissa has a share of 6.6 percent of total value of the mineral resources but constitutes only 1.6 percent of the national industrial production. These huge mineral resources obviously make Orissa a lucrative destination for the world's biggest multinational companies and private capital. The Orissa government has ruthlessly pursued land acquisition for mining companies and for exploitation of other natural resources through brute force, as witnessed in Kashipur, Kalinganagar, Jagatsinghpur and Hirakud, to honour the commitments that it has made to various corporate houses both native and foreign.

On the other hand we can also see the rising people's resistance to these globalization policies and economic plunder by imperialists. The ruling classes, aware of this reality, are finding ways to contain the mass opposition. The Sangh Parivar is working precisely for the imperialists through its divisive politics of creating communal tensions and pitting the most marginalised groups against each other, in this case the Adivasis against Dalits, the majority of whom happen to be Christians. The Sangh Parivar makes false claims that Christian missionaries and Muslim traders are responsible for the illegal acquisition and grabbing of lands of Adivasis. The notion that Dalit Christians are responsible for the landlessness of the Adivasis is untrue. The fact is that there is a real decline in the actual number of available employment and income-generating opportunities in the area, despite the ruthless mining and industrialization in some areas.

The Sangh Parivar is also trying to emulate the example of Gujarat in Orissa by Hinduizing the huge tribal population. Orissa has about 22 percent tribal population and in some districts like Koraput, Keonjhar, Phulbani, Sundargarh and Kandhamal, they are a majority. The tribal people are also an important base for the Maoists who are spearheading the fight against the mining mafia.

The present violence in Orissa must be seen as part of overall strategy of ruling classes to divide the people and contain the rising people's movements. The acute worldwide economic crisis will have serious repercussions in India, particularly in an already impoverished state like Orissa. The resulting impoverishment will lead to more virulent revolts of the people against their oppressors. The Sangh Parivar's job is to divert this into internecine battles in order to save the rulers and the moneybags. It's not surprising that their coffers are filled with funds from these sources they work for. The Sangh Parivar, with the help of government, is already making plans to set up reactionary militias in Orissa with tribal people along the lines of the "Salwa Judum" [in Chhattisgarh, where the authorities force tribal people to live in repressive camps and join militias to fight other rural insurgents] for suppressing the people's movements. No doubt, as in Chhattisgarh, they will be given a fitting reply by the masses led by the Maoists.

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