Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 36, Dated Sept 13, 2008
In the name
VIJAY SIMHA examines the consequences of lessons taught
by men of religion, among the desperately poor in Orissa
Marooned The faithful
ponder the future over
the ruins of a church
PHOTOS: SHAILENDRA PANDEY
WHEN THEY came for Narmada
Digal, she wasn’t
there. She had fled, five
children and mother-inlaw
in tow, to the safety of
the jungles a kilometre away. So, they set about
what she left behind. A framed picture of Jesus,
a Bible in Oriya, utensils in the kitchen, some
clothes, and linen. By the time Narmada
tiptoed back, her home was gone. What was
left was still hot from the ashes, and smoking.
The neighbours came to commiserate. Narmada
took a good look, stood erect, and pulled
her sari over her head. She began to pray.
“Lord, forgive us our sins. Jesus, you are the
only one. Save us from our misfortune. Free us,
Lord.” The words are tumbling out. Narmada’s
children have joined her. She is weeping as she
pleads for deliverance. So is everybody else. It’s
a simple bond that no human wrath can sever,
a woman and her God. “I will die. But I won’t
stop being a Christian,” Narmada says.
This is in the heart of Kandhamal, a district
at the geographical centre of Orissa, ravaged by
probably the worst fighting in India between
Hindus and Christians. Kandhamal is young,
constituted as recently as 1994. It has 2,515
villages spread over 7,649 sq km. 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. Buses are rare. It’s so far
behind that even the official website of Kandhamal
says, “Overall, the district is ranked as a
backward district in the state of Orissa .”
In this doleful land live close to eight lakh
people. In terms of castes and tribes, the Kandha
tribe constitute more than half the population of
Kandhmal. The Panos, who are the dalits, form
the next big chunk. The Kandha tribe is almost
fully under the control of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh (RSS), an 83-year-old socio-political
organisation, which is the fountainhead of many
Hindu outfits in India. The Panos are where the
Christian community gets its numbers.
In terms of population, nearly a quarter of
Kandhamal are Christians, the rest almost
wholly Hindus. 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.
The rise in the number of Christians in
Kandhamal is offering radical Hindu outfits
like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) the
perfect alibi to launch an aggressive anti-
Christian movement. The movement has two
aims: to reconvert Christians to Hinduism, and
to stop the alleged slaughter of cows.
An 81-year-old RSS activist, Swami Lakshmananda
Saraswati, was heading the VHP
movement in Kandhamal. He operated largely
from two ashrams 150 km from each other. He
was a member of the VHP’s Kendriya
Margadarshak Mandal, a powerful decisionmaking
panel. On August 23, Saraswati was
gunned down in one of the ashrams at night
while celebrating Janmashtami. It was the tenth
attempt at killing Saraswati, a figure disliked by
the Christians, but revered by a band of fanatic
Hindu male followers in his ashram.
Three villages in Kandhamal are
brave enough to stay calm
SUDDENLY, THERE is a church intact
in Kandhamal. In three
villages, Dolukamba, Sugudabadi,
and Bradabadi, Hindus and
Christians are not fighting. Together,
1,100 people live in these villages.
They attend each other’s funerals and
celebrate festivals. “It’s a tradition we
have been passed down from our
forefathers,” says Amit Mallick, a
Christian who is a part-time teacher.
With Mallick are Pramod Mahapatra and Surya Mahapatra, both Hindus,
and Samarendra Nayak, a Christian
student looking for work. Behind
them is Kanta Behera, 81 years old
and still fit. In clear English, Behera
says, “Hindus and Christians are
equal. I hope they keep it this way.”
They are preparing for the festival
season beginning with Ganesh
Chathurthi on September 3. “It won’t
be the same fun as in the past. But,
we will celebrate as always,” says
Surya Mahapatra. But, the peace
from these three villages hasn’t travelled
far. In hamlets barely a kilometre
from Sugudabadi, the Christians
are leaving their homes for the relief
camps. Mallick and his friends have
laid boulders across the roads to keep
the aggressors away. Tonight they’re
safe. Tomorrow is another story.
Few know who killed Saraswati. But, there
are some theories. The Orissa Government says
the Maoists (who are trying to build a base in
Kandhamal) killed him. The government claim
is based on two statements purportedly released
by the CPI (Maoist), taking responsibility for the
murder. The second statement said: “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.” It is
too pat for the Orissa Government. And, if true,
the statements would mean that the Maoists
have entered the religious conflicts of India.
A second theory is coming from the VHP.
After Saraswati’s murder, VHP International President Ashok Singhal issued a statement
saying, “Once again the cruel face of the Christian
missionaries has been exposed. Swami Lakshmananda
Saraswati was working for 45 years
among the tribals by building hospitals, schools
and hostels. He was neither a capitalist nor an
anti-social. Because of his work, the tribals were
awakened to our culture and religion, which was
an obstacle only for the Christian missionaries.”
Christian bodies, on the other hand, have a
third view. They say they have nothing to do
with Saraswati’s murder and have sought an
inquiry by the Central Government. The
National Secretary of Public Affairs of the All
India Christian Council, Dr Sam Paul, said, “The
Christian community in India abhors violence,
condemns all acts of terrorism, and opposes
groups of people taking the law into their own
hands. We have had major differences with Mr
Saraswati, the deceased VHP leader. It was the
hate campaigns of the Sangh Parivar [the RSS is
often referred to in this fashion], which led to
untold misery for Christians — including the
unprecedented violence last Christmas in
Orissa. But, we wish peace to everyone and urge
everyone to follow the rule of law.”
Whatever the truth, the murder inflamed
passions. Even those who do not support the
RSS were disturbed by media reports that 30
people in masks and hoods had come to kill
Saraswati, and that they hacked at his legs after
shooting him. When the Orissa Government
allowed Saraswati’s funeral procession to pass
across 150km in Kandhamal, reason went out.
By August 25, hordes of Hindu militants were
attacking Christian homes and places of worship
in Kandhamal. The attacks were mainly at night.
On September 1, the Orissa Government told
the story in figures: 16 persons killed, 35 injured,
185 arrested; 558 houses and 17 places of
worship burnt; 12,539 fed in 10 relief camps; 12
companies of paramilitary forces, 24 platoons of
the Orissa State Armed Police, two sections of
the Armed Police Reserve Force, and two teams
of the Special Operation Group deployed.
The human story is worse. VHP International
General Secretary Praveen Togadia, who trained
to be an oncologist but who likes nothing better
than to drive non-Hindus out of India, reached
Kandhamal for Saraswati’s last rites (he was
buried in a sitting position — the padmasana —
in his Chakapada ashram, where he ran a school
and hostel for boys). Togadia said a Christian
sect had killed Saraswati. It was enough to
trigger murderous assaults on Christians in
Kandhamal and elsewhere in Orissa. Hundreds
of Christian homes were set ablaze, a few pastors
were slain, and warnings were issued asking
them to return home as Hindus, or never.
IN SOME cases, the terror works. In the jungles
off Sankarakhol village, one of the first
targeted by the militant Hindus, a group of
RSS whole-timers are reconverting 18 Christians
to Hinduism. It’s a daytime ceremony.
The RSS Mandal Mukhiya (head of the Mandal
unit) Sudhir Pradhan, a slim bearded man, is
in charge. There are 30 Hindus to make sure
that the 18 Christians don’t change their mind.
Each of the Christians has brought a Bible,
in Oriya, along. They have also brought a coconut
each, and some incense sticks, red thread
to tie around the wrist, and vermillion for their
foreheads. The Christians first burn their Bibles
in a small bonfire. They sit in a circle. In the
middle are the coconuts, each one signifying a
Christian, and the other paraphernalia. The
God of the Hills is appeased first in a prayer.
Ashes to ashes This
woman’s son is still
hiding in the jungles
Then, a Christian rises. He has a coconut in
his hand. “I swear that I have become a Hindu
today. After today, if I ever become a Christian
again, may my dynasty perish,” he says. He
breaks the coconut on a stone. The other
Christians follow, each one making the same
promise. Some murmur, some are loud. A
Hindu priest begins to apply vermillion on the
foreheads of the Christians-turned-Hindus.
One of them protests, but it is too late. There’s
a red streak on his forehead as well.
Sudhir Pradhan then takes over. Eyes closed,
spine firm, and voice ominous. There is a deep
and rhythmic chanting of Om followed by the
Gayatri Mantra, a sacred chant of the Hindus.
The slogans follow: “Bharat mata ki jai.” “Ganga
mata ki jai.” “Gau mata ki jai.” “Sri Ramjanambhoomi
ki jai.” They pause for a few moments and the Christians-becoming-Hindus kneel, placing
their foreheads on the ground. There’s a final “Jai
Shri Ram.” The first stage of reconversion from
Christianity to Hinduism is over. The motivation
for these Christians to reconvert is life.
They want to live in Kandhamal, keep their
houses and, maybe, get some regular work.
Months afterward, these Christian-turned-
Hindus will be asked to attend a yagya — a
Hindu ritual of sacrifice that involves the worship
of deities, unity and charity. In the yagya,
they will wear saffron clothes and a sacred
thread, and get their heads shaved. They will
offer a few goats and some rice as fee. They will
be given Gau Mutra (cow urine) and Tulsi water
to drink. They will take Hindu vows. Then, they
will share the mutton and rice (cooked from
their offerings) in a small feast. This completes
their reconversion. From then on, they will have
a Tulsi plant in their homes, have pictures of
Hindu gods on their walls, and celebrate Hindu
festivals. They will pray only to Hindu gods.
Pradhan is happy. He’s done his job for the
day. He explains the difference between a Hindu
and a Christian. “They (Christians) eat cows.
We (Hindus) worship cows.” Therefore,
“people who eat cows should be given
the same treatment that they give the
cows.” Pradhan says Togadia has laid
down the policy. “He has already
announced that there is no place for
Christians. If Christians don’t become
Hindus, they have to go. We don’t care
where they go. They must leave Orissa,”
BUTWHAT’S the point in killing and driving
a people out, merely to nudge the
percentage of Hindus from near 95
percent to 100 percent? Dr Krishan Kumar, the
young District Magistrate of Kandhamal, thinks
it’s actually about jobs, land, and only then
religion. Kumar has studied medicine (hence the
Dr prefix), and was given overnight charge of
Kandhamal when the Hindu militants began
attacking the Christians.
Kumar works out of a suite in the Circuit
House at Phulbani, the district headquarters of
Kandhamal. He has gone two days without sleep
during the crisis. After Saraswati’s murder, he
was told of the killing of a pastor in Raikia, an
area in Kandhamal where the Christians
outnumber the Hindus. He drove with a full
company of the Rapid Action Force and a contingent
of the Orissa State Disaster Management
Agency. “It took me 11 hours for a journey that
normally takes two hours. There were so many
trees cut and laid across the road,” Kumar says.
He explains why he thinks jobs are the first
cause of war in Kandhamal. He says his administration
has 1,000 cases of fake caste certificates
to investigate. Apparently, many non-tribals,
which in Kandhamal usually mean the dalits,
have submitted fake certificates showing them
as members of the Kandha tribe.
The certificates enable government employment
in the reserved quota. This is possible
because the law enables job reservation for the
Scheduled Tribes (ST) even though they have
converted to Christianity, while the Scheduled
Castes (SC) are deprived of this quota if they
convert to Christianity or another religion. This
is a principal reason why the Dalit Christians
are seeking reservations as well.
Government jobs are precious in Kandhamal,
since there are barely any private outlets
offering employment. So, the STs seethe
with resentment against the SCs over jobs.
Often, they fight. Since the STs are Hindus and
the SCs form the bulk of the Christians, the battles
can easily take a religious turn.
Then, there is land. “The tribals have been
around forever. They are the original dwellers
here. They never had to prove that they owned
the land. I mean, why should they? In the early
1900s, the tribal land opened up. Pattas, a
certificate indicating ownership of land, began
to be given out. The tribes have a complex social
structure. Within themselves, they had given
land to neighbours for various reasons. When
they had to prove ownership of land, they
couldn’t. Others came in and the tribals couldn’t
integrate with the market economy,” says Kumar.
Loss of land could, therefore, be a cause for the
fighting between the STs, who are Hindus, and
the SCs, who are Christian.
Reconversion The first
act when Christians
reconvert to Hinduism is to
set fire to the Bibles and put an end to old
beliefs. This is the scene in
the clearing of a jungle
Vermillion Red is a
favoured colour and the
RSS makes a ceremony
of applying the tika
on a convert’s forehead
The vows A convertee
swears that his
dynasty will perish if he
becomes a Christian again
A new dimension emerged in November
2007 when the Orissa Government said both
the dalits and the tribals were part of one
family, the Kui Samaj. Kui is the dialect spoken
in Kandhamal, and the government intended
to bring the dalits and the tribals on a common
platform using language as glue. More importantly,
it intended to give dalits job reservation
and other social advantages that the tribes
were given, even if they had converted to
Christianity. The tribals objected strongly.
Into this mix enters religion. “Nobody fights
over spirituality,” says Kumar. The war is over
theology and the power that comes with
organised religion. Kandhamal area has a history
of 300 years of missionary work. Among
the first Christians to work here were Catholics
and Lutherans from Madhya Pradesh. These
foreign missionaries set up schools and
provided medical facilities. In those days,
malaria was a major killer. The missionaries
would go house to house, and help people
recover from malaria and other diseases.
The core appeal of the Christian missionary is
this: he helps the locals in distress when the
authorities or the RSS are not around. Thus, the
motivation for a Hindu to take to Christianity in
the past may have been a better life. The Church
provided access to better education and improved
health. Some of the earliest recoveries from
malaria may have helped create the myth of faith
healing as well. The concept of miracle cures is a
powerful attraction, and many Hindus who
convert to Christianity in Kandhamal say they
do so because a member of the family was
healed when they began to pray to Jesus.
Money and work may be possible motivation
as well. Narmada Digal, the woman who stood
her ground in her razed home, is convinced.
Narmada became a Christian in 1998, when her
daughter Subhadra was healed. “She had a
peculiar fever, which didn’t go even though I
prayed to the Hindu gods. One day my husband
told me about a pastor who said we should pray
to Jesus. I did, and my daughter was cured. Why
should I not be a Christian?” she asks.
Narmada’s husband Goverdhan Digal, who
carried the pastor’s message, was employed with
the local post office. He often had to take his
daughter Subhadra for medical check-ups. One
day, Goverdhan’s boss told him he had taken
enough days off and had to report for work.
Goverdhan had to take his daughter for another
check-up. He told his boss that he would be by
his daughter’s side. He lost his job. His travails
soon reached the pastor’s ears. Damodar, the
pastor, talked to Goverdhan about Jesus, the
Bible and Christianity.
Goverdhan and his family converted to
Christianity. They were given a Bible, and told
that Jesus is the only God who gave his life for
others. After six months, they were baptised.
Narmada says Goverdhan was paid Rs 800 the
first month, and Rs 2,000 for six months
afterward. Stories like those of Goverdhan and
Narmada have helped the Church to spread.
Today, there are around 1,500 churches and
congregations in the 2,515 villages of Kandhamal.
Between 500 and 750 churches are solid
structures, made of marble, wood, cement and
even glass. There are close to two lakh Christians
in Kandhamal, a quarter of the population. The
Catholic Church has a big presence. And among
the Protestants, the most active denominations
are the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Church of
North India, and the Church of South India.
TO A man like Swami Lakshmananda
Saraswati, the rise of the Church
would’ve been an insult. To his followers,
Saraswati was the incarnation of Parashurama,
the first warrior saint in Hindu mythology.
Legend has it that Parashurama had killed the
Haihaya-Kshatriyas, enemies of the Brahmins,
on earth 21 times for their arrogance. Saraswati
saw himself as the saint who would vanquish the
Christians. Saraswati was a member of what
are now called the Most Backward Castes. He
was a government employee and quit his job
in unpleasant circumstances. Apparently, there
were some “irregularities” though the nature
of the irregularity is not known precisely.
There isn’t much on what he did afterward,
except for unconfirmed reports of a police case
for murder and criminal conspiracy.
Sometime in the 1960s, the RSS leadership
summoned Saraswati. The RSS had begun to
implement its plan of working in the most
backward areas of India, unlike the Marxists
who had begun to work in the industrial townships.
The then RSS Orissa head Bhupendra
Kumar Basu chose Kandhamal for Saraswati.
From all accounts, Saraswati was a driven
man. He pursued his Christian foes with all his
energy. By 1969, he had begun his ashram in
Chakapada, where he is now buried. The ashram
has between 300 and 400 students. All of them
are Hindus and trained to be fulltime RSS
activists. Saraswati also enlisted volunteers for
the renovation of several small and dilapidated
temples. And, to thwart the Christians, he
worked on the lifestyle of the tribals.
He began to hold satsangs, an assembly of
people with the guru who listen to and talk
about issues and the truth. Saraswati began to
talk of the alcoholic ways of the tribals and
started a campaign against beef. His followers
say he helped restore healthy lifestyles among
the tribals. Coincidentally, the Christians were
doing exactly that among their followers.
By 1988, Saraswati opened another ashram,
for girls, at Jalesapata (where he would be
killed), 150 km from his first ashram. This
became controversial and questions were asked
of the ethics of a man teaching young women
in a residential school. By then, Saraswati had
simplified his work into reconverting tribals
who became Christians, and protecting cows.
In December 2007, major clashes erupted
between Hindus and the Christians when Saraswati
ordered his followers to demolish an arch
that the Christians had erected on government
land in front of a church. The Christians said it
was for Christmas and they would take the arch
down in a day or two. Saraswati didn’t wait. After
his men pulled the arch down, Saraswati drove
down to see it. He passed by a village where the
Christians outnumbered the Hindus.
Some Christians in the village stopped
Saraswati’s car and pulled him out. Stones were
also pelted at him. One of Saraswati’s assistants
called friends in the VHP and told them “Babaji
ko maar diya (they’ve got Babaji)”. Saraswati’s
men set upon the Christians on a scale similar
to that of the current attacks.
AFTER THE December riots, Saraswati
gave an interview, probably his last, to
the RSS publication Organiser. He said,
“With their numbers increasing, Christians
forcefully took away Hindu girls and forced the
neo-converts to eat beef.” He said the Christians
“threw the mortal remains of cows on
temples”. Saraswati said that the Christian missionaries
were “serving medicines claiming them
to be the prasad of Jesus”. He said the “Church
and Christians erect a small prayer house in the
middle of a Hindu locality, close to a temple, and
after a few years of missionary activity, transform
the prayer house into a big church”.
Towards the end of the interview, Saraswati
said foreign money was being pumped into
churches in India to erect “insolent symbols of
the church which offend the eye, the heart and
the mind of Hindus”. He spoke of “towering
Jesus Christ statues obstructing the skyline,
towering steeples with a cross atop, which is
visible from a long distance, new and big
churches close to old and popular temples”. He
called for a constitutional ban on conversion of
Hindus to “Abrahamic faiths” and warned that
“Christians in India must understand fast that
they cannot be protected by the US State
Department writing its annual vituperative anti-
Hindu reports on religious freedom and human
rights”. He added: “Christians can be protected
only by the goodwill of the majority Hindus in
whose midst they have to live.” These thoughts
Saraswati drilled into the Kandha tribals.
The tribals of Orissa are a tough people.
They gave Ashoka the Great the fight of his life.
Ashoka invaded Kalinga in 261BC. There was
no king to oppose him, but the tribals fought
against him. Ashoka won the Kalinga War, but
110,000 people died in battle. Ashoka never
fought again and took to Buddhism.
It is this lineage that Rupesh Kanhar, 19,
comes from. Rupesh and his friends are part of
an RSS war council meeting on August 28 in the
jungles near Gopingiya village. He passed out of
Saraswati’s ashram in Chakapada in 2006. He
lives near the jungle and is a fierce member of
the Kandha tribe. There are 15 people in the
meeting including Rupesh’s friend Bhimraj. They
are working out plans to attack Christians. The
meeting concludes that they will not kill Christians,
but scare them into leaving Kandhamal.
Rupesh recites the RSS prayer fluently. He
hasn’t killed a Christian, but he has burned
some houses down. In a few hours, Rupesh and
his friends will prepare to attack. Some of them
would have downed plenty of liquor by then.
The group will assemble at 9 pm, about 200 of
them. They will have axes, swords and
machetes, and torches. They will tie red threads
around their wrists, so tight in some cases that
they leave red marks on the skin, and they will
anoint each other’s foreheads with vermillion.
They have colour codes for the headbands. If it’s
an ST versus SC battle, the headband will be red.
Tonight, it’s a Hindu versus Christian fight, so
it will be a saffron headband.
Rupesh and his group will march until past
midnight, scaring Christians and sending them
rushing into the jungles at night. It’s a daily routine
in Kandhamal, the Hindu militants shouting slogans and conducting torchlight marches. A
conch is blown. It’s the signal to attack. The slogans
come rushing: “Vande Mataram”, “Jai Shri
Ram”, “Om, Shanti Om”, “Hindu Rakhiya, Momo
Dikhya (Save Hindus, Save our Culture)”. When
200 people say them, even the deaf can hear.
line up in a relief camp
to register themselves
Helping hand Orissa
Chief Minister Naveen
Patnaik consoles a victim
BUT INTROSPECTION respects no ideology.
Even the best efforts of the RSS and the
VHP can’t stop a change of heart. Vijay
Pradhan, 35, is hiding in Raikia. For eight years,
Vijay Pradhan says, he was an active RSS worker.
He worked with Saraswati and conducted
several reconversions. He also trained many RSS
workers in the art of reconverting Christians to
Hinduism. “I taught people what I was taught.
That I must serve the country by fighting the
Muslim and Christian religions, which are foreign
to us. Our culture had to be saved. Then,
one day a young pastor told me about Jesus. I
was surprised at his courage in accosting me,
but I was curious. This man told me that I could
have eternal life with Jesus,” says Pradhan.
The one-time RSS worker says he was confused
after this encounter. “I began searching for
Jesus because I was intrigued by what I was told
about him. On January 26, 1994, I challenged the
creator. I asked why there are so many religions
if there is one creator. I said whoever you are, I
need to know you by name. I threatened that I
would turn atheist if the Creator didn’t show
himself. I couldn’t sleep at night. At 4.30 am, as
I was getting ready for yoga, I saw a human-like
figure. There was plenty of light. A voice said, ‘I
am the one you are looking for,’” says Pradhan.
He says his thought process changed after
this. He began spreading the gospel and going to
church. “The RSS workers came to me and asked
me why I had converted. They asked me how
much money I was given. I used to ask people
the same things. But I wasn’t paid. The RSS
searched for me. I had to hide in the jungles. As
long as there is trouble, I will hide,” he says.
Pradhan says only those who are called by
Jesus are the true converts. “Only the attraction
of God can make them that. Hindus
become Christians, they are never made into
Christians. The reconversions by the VHP and
the RSS are false. They are conducting a political
war in the name of God.”
The state is, of course, missing in all this. The
law in Orissa states that religious conversions are
allowed. However, people must seek the permission
of the District Magistrate. The District
Magistrate will enquire into it. If he is convinced
that there is no bribe or threat involved, he permits
the conversion. Officially, there are only two
conversions shown in Kandhamal since 1961.
The retreat of the state is an accepted part
of life in Kandhamal. People can tell you who
the RSS pramukh is, or who the area pastor is.
But they wouldn’t know the names of the
Sarpanch, or the police head. Soon, they may
not need the state. On the night of September
1, there were two meetings in the Raikia relief
camp. The Inspector General of Police chaired
a peace meeting with 21 officials and several
Christian seniors. Then, a group of young
Christian men met separately. They declared
pride in two villages of Raikia: Gundhani and
Gamandi. Christians mainly populate these
villages. Yet, they have been untouched so far.
Apparently, because the Christians there have
put together a few home-made bombs and
repulsed at least one attack by Hindu militants.
The young men said these villages were the
pride of Christians and that they had shown
the way. They said they needed to arm
themselves so that they could fight the Hindu
militants. Some pastors objected. They said
Christianity doesn’t teach violence. They are
not sure if they were heard. •