Urgent cries for help from Orissa state in eastern India are gradually turning to sober and traumatised reflection. One email in my inbox this week began with the haunting line, ‘How a 20 year old girl was burnt to death by a cheering crowd’. As the dust begins to settle after the furious communal violence which has afflicted Orissa, questions are being asked about how this could have been allowed to happen.
NGOs, religious leaders and journalists repeatedly warned of the tinderbox Orissa had become, so long as police failed to prosecute extremist Hindus for their part in instigating widespread anti-Christian attacks around Christmas 2007. Then suddenly it all exploded, in a tragic bloodbath of killing, gang-rape, arson and destruction carried out by rampant and uncontrolled mobs, this time worse than before.
So what allowed it to happen all over again?
The roots of the latest violence were deeply embedded before the attacks over Christmas 2007, which came as something of a shock. Although religiously-motivated violence has afflicted India’s Christians for a long time, nothing on this scale had ever been seen, and it was denounced by the All India Christian Council as “the worst attack on the Christian community in the history of democratic India”. Hundreds of churches and houses were destroyed and thousands displaced. Around four people were killed, several more died of their injuries later, and many more suffered mob beatings. Journalists, NGOs and government commissions rushed to the scene, and it soon became a well-established fact that the violence was the culmination of a long and hitherto almost unnoticed process of vilifying Christians and demonising religious conversions in that area. The name most associated with this was the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) figurehead, Swami Lakhmananda Saraswati.
However, the total failure of the government to bring about prosecutions created a toxic and volatile mixture. Swami Lakhmananda Saraswati was left by the law enforcers to perpetuate hate speech and continue his campaign against religious conversions. A small number among the Christian communities saw that the authorities did almost nothing on their behalf and took up arms, prepared to defend themselves – a lamentable factor warned about by prominent human rights journalist, Dr John Dayal, when he visited the area in January. And now it seems, Maoist insurgents saw an opportunity to gain popularity as champions of the victimised poor and beleaguered minorities.
When Swami Lakhmananda Saraswati was gunned down on 23 August, the police immediately saw it as the work of Maoists, and an extremist Maoist group has since claimed responsibility. The VHP, however, immediately blamed the Christians. Surely the Christians would have wanted him dead?, went the logic. VHP chief Praveen Togadia told CNN, “It is clear that the church killed the Swami”. Mobs quickly began attacking Christian targets, at first just in the epicentre that was Kandhamal district, but soon in twelve of Orissa’s thirty districts, and the violence spiralled out of control.
In one of the most horrifying attacks, a Catholic nun was gang-raped. A paralysed man was burnt to death in an arson attack, unable to escape his home. Others were hacked to death. The official death toll now stands at 14, but credible local sources put the figure in the region of 30, of which around 26 are said to be Christians. 15,000 people are reported to be languishing in 10 relief camps after the rampant destruction of homes and properties across the state.
Orissa’s government now finds itself in a quandary, and the world is watching. The mob violence has horrified the world and become an ugly stain on India’s international image: Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi described the attacks as ‘unacceptable’, the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury have spoken out and voices from around the world chided the utter collapse of the rule of law in the state. Yet, one half of the ruling coalition in Orissa reportedly threatened to withdraw support for the state’s government unless it blames Christians for the murder.
Thankfully, spokesmen for Orissa’s government have so far rejected the premature judgement on Christians. The real issue is whether it has the moral conviction to prosecute the real killers of Swami Lakhmananda Saraswati, and then to bring the participants and the masterminds of the voracious bloodbath to justice.
The occasion of Orissa’s madness is a time for listening to voices of reason. The most heartening among them are condemnations of VHP atrocities by moderate Hindu voices in India. The columnist and television journalist Karan Thapar wrote in The Hindustan Times, “I’m sorry but when I read that the VHP has ransacked and killed I’m not just embarrassed, I feel ashamed. Never of being Hindu but of what some Hindus do in our shared faith’s name. This is why it is incumbent upon Orissa’s Chief Minister to take tough, unremitting action against the VHP”.
That is a voice which must be heard – urgently – or Orissa will be left with the volatile mixture of hate speech, disenfranchised minorities with no faith in the authorities to protect them, and Maoist insurgents keen to expand their reach. The only way to break the cycle is for the full weight of the law to come down on the killers.
Until that happens, we can only say the bloodthirstiness in Orissa is merely dormant.