Monday, May 12, 2008

Orissa: Persecuted Second Class Citizens

[The following is my translation of the Italian article in Monde e Missione: Orissa - i perseguitati di serie B. See also this Asia News story about Mother Teresa's missionaries of charity returning to Orissa, and urging Christians to try and forgive and not distrust their Hindu neighbors.]

Orissa: Persecuted second class citizens.

At Christmas, a wave of violence has left behind itself death and ruin. For months, Christian NGOS are not allowed to bring aid. And the world is silent.

Giorgio Bernardelli

"In the villages, the relationships between us and the Hindus was always good. We invited them to our festivals and we participated in theirs. But now, all of us are afraid."

Fr. Santosh Kumar Sing, a young priest of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar says that about his Baminigam. He speaks of a a village, like so many others in this part of eastern India. A group of houses in the forest that, by chance, was transformed into the epicenter of the most powerful wave of anti-Christian violence of recent years. And the story of all that has happened in Orissa at Christmas. With the raids of the fanatisc of the RSS who have left behind themselves seven deaths, and hundreds of houses, churches, schools and dispensries burnt in the district of Kandhamal. And a climate of intimidation that - even now at the distance of so many months - one can touch with one's hands here. Again on Palm Sunday, for example, in the village of Tyiangia, a crowd instigated by the usual suspects gathered shouting anti-Christian slogans. Violence was avoided only because the pastor decided to cancel the procession.

Everything began in Baminigam on December 24. "You want to know what really happened?" Fr. Santosh asks immediately. He needs to tell the tale. Because there are too many different reconstructions of the facts that are floating around. And the one that appears in Indian newspapers sites as the spark, the aggression against the Swali Laxmananda Saraswati, a Hindu holy man connected with the RSS who goes around Orissa to "bring back to their origins," the tribals who have converted to Christianity. "That's not true," Fr. Santosh responds, "Everything started when on the morning of 24 December, the permission to celebrate Christmas in the square was revoked. Our negotiators arrived and were told to return to their houses. Tension mounted. And suddenly out of the forest there jumped out 200 men armed with sticks who started to destroy and burn everything."

This violence went on for four days. Favoured by the inexplicable delay in the intervention by law enforcement. with the Christians constrained to escape to the forest to survive, as their houses continued to burn. They were left for days and nights, to the cold, eating whatever they could find. Until, finally, the local authorities prepared a tent-city. And over the district of Kandhamal there descended a calm charged with tension and great uncertainty.

"We understod what was going to happen." recounts Mons. Raphael Cheenath, the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, in his territory the district of Kandhamal is located. "On December 22 we very clearly told the authorities that we feared violence would break out over Christmas. They had promissed us protection. Instead, they did absolutely nothing." We met Mons. Cheenath in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa. Kandhamal district is a five or six hour drive through the forest from here. And in those days, the violence even arrived to the Archbishopric, with an incendiary bottle thrown in the entrance. And it is not a secret that the meetings of the RSS, in which Christians are described as enemies, have arrived even to this city of 800 thousand inhabitants. However, more than secret conspiracies, it is the public decisions that worry the Archbishop. The attitude, at best ambiguous of the local government, directed by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, allied to the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party. "In February," continues the Archbishop, "right here in Orissa there was an attack of Maoist guerillas. They had assaulted a police station and killed a few officers. The state of emergency was declared immediately: in the space of a few hours, the military had arrived en masse. And at Christmas, instead, when in Kandhamal district when Christians faced violence, it took four days. Why this difference in behavior?"

However, there is also the still ongoing problem of assistance to the victims. "They do not permit our NGOs to bring aid," alleges Mosn. Cheenath, "There are people there who have lost everything. Their houses have been burnt, they are left with the clothes they were wearing. The government has promised that it will provide, but the aid does not come. And the peopel continues to suffer." Along with the houses, in Kandhamal district, there is the entire work of thirty years that lies destroyed: schools, dispensaries, centers of assistance. ... Even the house of the Missionaries of Charity, the male branch of the order of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which houses lepers and tuberculosis victims, was attacked. Everything was left to burn for hours, while the Christians escaped to the forest. And now they give classes under tents. Misereor -- the organization for international solidarity of the German Church, has come forward to help with the reconstruction. But the government of Orissa does not grant permission. And the Archbishop himself was denied permission to visit the affected communities for 42 days. "Officially," Mons. Cheenath continues, "they say it is because of security concerns. But the truth is that they want to throw obstacles in the path of Christian NGOs. The Hindu extremists accuse them of converting while giving aid. But this is a false accusation: they have seen this here in Orissa in 1999, when there was a super-cyclone. Two thousand of our volunteers were mobilized. And they helped everyone, without distinction." In order to alleviate the situation the Indian Supreme Court intervened on April 8, declaring the prohibition to be illegitimate."

Looking at this big city, just like all the others, it takes an effort to believe that it is a cove of fanatics. "We know that many Hindus are against violence," confirms the prelate. "Privately they have expressed solidarity with us. But they are afraid to expose themselves. And this is how this campaign of hate conducted by fanatics is producing results. They depict us as enemies, and say openly that they want to destroy us." "But according to you, from where does this hatred against Christians arise?" we asked him. "I am convinced," the Archbishop responded, "that behind the religious extremeism there is a hidden motive, which has to do with social order. The real problem is not conversions, but the work of development that in the past 140 years Christians have undertaken in Orissa in favor of the traibals and Dalits. Earlier they were like slaves. Now, though only a part of them, they study in our schools, undertake activities in the villages, claim their rights. And they who want to maintain intact the old division of castes -- even in the India of the economic boom -- are afraid that they will gain more strength. The Orissa of today is a laboratory. In play is the future of millions of Dalits and tribals who live in the whole country."

Orissa as a new laboratory of fundamentalists: they repeat this in the Christian community. While it is true that this is one of the poorest states of the subcontinent, however even here in Bhubaneshwar something is afoot. Leave the Archbishop's residence and one comes across "Big Bazaar," the newest American-style shopping center. The airport -- like all the others in India -- is expanding. And the torrent of vocational and career centers continues to grow in the city. "It seems incredible, but when we opened twenty years ago, all around here there was still the jungle," says Fr. E. A. Augustine, director of the Xavier Institute of Management, one of the flagship institutions of the city. An economics faculty with an interesting history: it is the fruit of an agreement between the government of Orissa and the Province of the Jesuits. Even in the state where anti-conversion legislation is in force, there is no problem in keeping the name of St. Francis Xavier in the business name of a public entity. For in India, "Xavier School" is synonymous with quality, everywhere. "Everyone wants our structures," Fr. Augustine continues, "They recognize its quality. Apart from a few fanatics, they respect us. However, we don't want to be a center of the elite. And now, for example, we are organizing courses of rural management, specifically developed for the development of villages." And then -- always here in Bhubaneshwar -- there is the other face of the Jesuit presence, the Human Life Center, with its popular courses of Spoken English to whole those who have emigrated to the city from rural areas. Or the tailoring courses, or typing classes, or computer courses, to give opportunities to those who have no other. And then the seven schools opened directly in the slumbs of Bhubaneshwar. Because change needs to arrive even there.

The impression in the end is that the real problem is still here. The violence in Orissa is not simply the vestige of a past that India is trying to leave behind. The conflict concerns the present and above all the future of the country. It concerns a social reality in which so many, who for centuries were left to the margins, are beginning to raise their heads. And also those who, on the other hand, wanting to maintain the status quo, play the card of threatened identity. There is an important electoral event in view: barring a snap poll, in May 2009 there will be general elections in India. The BJP, the Hindu nationalist party which lost in 2004 to the alliance between the Congress Party and the Left, is looking for a reconquest. And -- as was demonstrated in the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat -- exacerbating tensions between religious groups is most efficacious way to advance one's cause. "It is not an accident," says Fr. Jimmy Dhabby, director of the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, "that this violence against Christians exploded a few weeks after the re-election of the leader of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, one of the exponents of the viewpoint of the BJP. And who had himself come to Orissa, a state in which in 2009 there will also be elections for the local government."

It is a game that -- notwithstanding the events of Christmas -- moves forward in Bhubaneshwar. We open the local edition of the daily Indian Express on a given day. And, like clockwork, we find the declarations of the leader of the RSS, K. S. Sudarshan, "The threats that surround the nation are diverse: the violence of the Maoists, the Islamic jihad, the conversions by Christian missionaries. We need to unite to respond. Do not expect that others will do this for you." The very inquiry promissed by the Government of Orissa to shed light on the eventso f Christmas, is proceeding using curious methods. "After months in which nothing further was known," denouces John Dayal, Secretary General of the All Indian Christian Council, on his blog -- the Judge in charge arrived without warning in Kandhamal district. He interrogated the sisters and the priests. Who were left with mouths agape finding themselves asked, "Have you converted anyone here?" As if the object of the investigation were the operations of the Christians, not the violence committed by Hindu fanatics. The other worrying chapter concerns compensation. "Uptil now no official figures have been given," continues Dayal. "In some newspapers, however, we read that schools, hostels and dispensaries can receive a contribution of 200,000 rupees (about 5 million dollars), but the churches and convents will be excluded. And if this occurs, it won't be surprising, but offensive. The principal object of the attacks were the churhces and convents themselves. To exclude them makes no sense."

This is the type of calm that one breathes today in Orissa. "Underneath the ashes broods an explosive situation," says Heman Naik, of the Orisssa Dalit Adivsai Action Net. "Periodically, the Hindu nationalists campaign to 'reconvert' Christian tribals. There is discrimination on the land. Are these not violations of the anti-conversion law? Why do they not enforce this?"

There remains, however, one question: persons killed, houses and churches burned, zones prohibited to Christians. Where is the difference with respect to Islamic fundamentalism which -- justifiably -- gets so much space in our newspapers? And why does no one in the West raise their voice about Orissa? At Easter, the protest of Christians in front of Parliament in New Delhi did not make it into our newspapers. The response of Archbishop Cheenath is bitter, "India today is a market that tempts everyone," he explains. "There are great economic interests, everyone wants good relations with us. It is a situation in which no one is interested in what happens to minorities." It is an inconvenient cry of pain, that which comes from the Christians of Orissa.

Adivasis and "Special Economic Zones."

A quater of the almost 36.5 million inhabitants of Orissa are made up of Adivasis, that is, of tribals. It is the highest proportion among all the Indian states. And if one adds the dalits to the tribals -- the other social group most marginalized in the rigid Indian caste hierarchy -- one arrives at an almost 40% for those who, still using the British euphemism, the Indian bureaucracy classifies as "scheduled castes and scheduled tribes." This information is sufficient to explain why Orissa (along with Bihar) figures at the bottom of all the indicators of wealth among Indian states. Even today, 65% of the population does not have access to potable water and only 20% of the roads are paved. And yet, the stereotype of a backward state can be deceptive. Because even, today's Orissa is a state in which there is an influx of investment. In the vicinity of Paradip -- its major port -- the South Korean firm Posco has constructed a mega-plant of 12 billion dollars for the production of steel. And Reliance Industries -- one of the most important Indian industrial firms -- is getting ready to construt the biggest thermo-electrical center of the world in Hirma, which, with its 12 thousand megawatts can oversupply six Indian states. The tribals in the villages of the forest. The most modern industrial plants in the special economic zones. The explosive mix of Orissa can also be explained thus.

Tensions all over India.

Orissa is the most dramatic case of a grave situation that also concerns other states in India. In the month of March, for example -- two Carmelite sisters who for 13 years had condcuted their ministry among the tribals, were assaulted by Hindu fundamentalists in Maharashtra, the state of Mumbai. "They were shouting accusations of conversion," some witnesses recounted. In Madhya Prahdes, on the other hand, at Easter the government had ordered law enforcement forces to be deployed outside churches during the celebrations. A measure taken after another 100 attacks suffered since December 2003, that is since the BJP had taken over the government of this state as well. During these same days, however, the Assembly of another Indian state, Rajasthan, a prefered tourist destination, approved an anti-conversion law which lays down a penalty of 5 years of imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 rupees (approx. 800 euro) for those who convert "by means of force, coercion or fraude." With Rajasthan, that brings to a total of six, the number of Indian states where this time of law is in effect. "It is an insult to the culture of our nation," Cardinal Varkey Vithyathil, the new President of the Indian episcopal conference told Asia News. "This law is unusable, and was desired by fundamentalist forces who, in this manner, create so much distrust and intolerance in our society."

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