Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Cauldron of Communal Violence

Image courtesy The Hindu
State inaction against communal elements has exacerbated an already polarised region in Orissa.

Communal violence is becoming a regular feature of Orissa society, differing from much of the rest of the country only in that it is the Christian minorities rather than Muslims who are at the receiving end. The violence against Christians and the community-run institutions in Kandhamal district following the murder of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activist Lakshmanananda Saraswati and four others comes less than a year after a string of attacks in Kandhamal district by the Sangh parivar on Christians on Christmas eve of 2007. At that time the conflagration was a culmination of various factors: the issue of conversion and re-conversion, demands for scheduled tribe (ST) status by some groups, and, of course, the underlying poor socio-economic status of the people in the mostly tribal area in an already communally affected Orissa.

Investigations are still under way to identify the murderers of Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Despite rumours and “beliefs” that the attack was conducted by Maoists, no concrete proof has emerged. The subsequent rioting and burning of Christian missions, schools and households and deaths of around 10 people at the time of writing reveal that the Sangh parivar has few qualms in directing violence at the poor of other communities.

Kandhamal district has, over the years, emerged as a cauldron for rival communal groups who are engaged in proselytism and “re-conversion”. Lakshmanananda Saraswati was a VHP activist who was based in the region for close to four decades. A lynchpin of the Sangh parivar’s efforts to forge a presence in the tribal areas of Orissa, he was involved in activities such as “re-conversion” of non-Hindus back to the “Hindu fold”, apart from running institutions for Hindutva groups. Much like in December 2007. Saraswati’s murder produced a predictable reaction in the communally fragile region. In these sensitive tracts, action such as the targeting of religious symbols by communal organisations on both sides has time and again resulted in violent reprisals by the other side.

The communally charged atmosphere has turned all the more tense because of certain caste issues. As in some of the states in the south, many in the dalit community who have become Christians have not been able to claim scheduled caste (SC) status to achieve social mobility through employment in the government apparatus because the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 prevents them from availing of reservations. Those among the dalit Christians in Orissa who speak the Kui language are instead demanding ST status, since tribal groups irrespective of their religion can utilise reservations. The antagonism between the Christian dalits and others has only increased because the kandh tribals who have been accorded ST status feel threatened by the demand from the dailt groups for a similar position. These antagonisms have become exaggerated in a region mired in poverty, state inaction, poor governance and where social provisions and functions such as education and health are hegemonised by communal groups. This is not to mention the fallout of political rivalry between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress who have been openly allying with communal groups to build up electoral support.

It goes without saying that the state government has to reassert its presence, punish those responsible for communalising the situation and bring back normalcy to this violence-prone region. The presence of the BJP as a partner in the Navin Patnaik-led coalition has tied the government’s hands, if indeed it wanted to respond to the situation. That the government has been lax in punishing those engaged in communal violence even as the death of Lakshmanananda Saraswati has given the BJP an opportunity to further whip up communal sentiments is there for all to see.

The State has to reclaim the space where it has a major part to play in development and in the provision of social services. The government has been hitherto more concerned with promoting a model of development in which commercial interests are given free rein over the resources traditionally under the control of the tribals. The communal forces have used the vacuum left by the state to “win over” tribals in the name of their upliftment and have used this to establish themselves in the region to further their narrow and divisive agenda.

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

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