Phulbani(Orissa): Clad in new clothes and clutching a copy of the Bible in Oriya as they head for Christmas celebrations at the Tikabali relief camp, Vigneshwar Digal and his wife look dramatically different from the hungry, fearful couple Mint had met in early September.
Back then, the couple were hiding in the jungle on the hills behind their village, where they had fled after riots started in Orissa’s Kandhamal district following the murder of a Hindu saint Lakshmananda Saraswati on 23 August.
Their terminally ill son Dhiren, who was rescued by a Mint reporter and photographer from the jungle, is now being looked after by Dayashram, a non-government organization, in Cuttack. “We are feeling much safer now,” says Vigneshwar, who looks at home in the buzzing Tikabali relief camp.
Recovery path: Vigneshwar Digal and his wife at the Tikabali relief camp on Christmas. They had fled into a jungle during the September riots. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The district administration has erected a brightly coloured awning, with balloons, streamers and Nativity scenes. Nuns from the Missionaries of Charity scurry about supervising the cooking of piles of chicken while youngsters in crisp clothes do a last-minute rehearsal of hymns. Some 750 inmates of the camp have been joined by almost a couple of hundred people from nearby villages.
Scenes such as this are commonplace in Kandhamal, with the state administration going all out to ensure that Christians here are able to celebrate without fear. Security is tight with substantial, visible presence of the state armed police and the Central Reserve Police Force personnel.
“The district administration has ensured that there is no violence either in the run-up to Christmas or on Christmas Day,” said district magistrate Krishan Kumar who is touring the district.
“The DM (district magistrate) was at the Tikabali camp late last night and we offered him a gift to show our gratitude for the great work the administration has done,” said Sister Soma of the Missionaries of Charity as she chaperoned an ambulance-load of refugees into the Catholic church in Phulbani, the district headquarters. “These people are from various parts of the (Kandhamal) district, who had fled to Bhubaneswar but we have brought them back today.”
Inside the church, celebrations are in full swing, although not in the regular prayer hall, which hasn’t been repaired yet.
Though the Christians say they aren’t looking over their shoulders, they are playing it safe. “We couldn’t have a midnight mass (last night) because our archbishop Raphel Cheenath asked us to keep things low-key and also because it wouldn’t have been safe for the devotees to go back so late in the night,” says Pradhan, whose service began at 7pm and ended by 9.30pm.
Though Christmas is being celebrated at Phulbani and at almost all relief camps in the district, the situation is a little different in scores of remote, outlying villages. Not only have the damaged churches not been rebuilt yet, most Christian families have either fled to relief camps or moved to the safety of cities such as Bhubaneswar and Brahmapur. Many have left the state altogether.
“While it’s good that we are able to celebrate Christmas in these islands of security, this cannot be the long-term solution,” said Father Nithiya Sagayam, executive secretary of the national commission for justice, peace and development of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
According to him, prolonged stay in such camps will only distance Hindus and Christians even more. “Some of the sympathetic Hindu villagers should have been brought in today to mingle with their estranged Christian brethren,” he said.
Nithiya, who is from Tamil Nadu, is hoping to bring counsellors and volunteers who would advise the Christians on how to reapply for their land records and educational documents.
The local administration, however, insists that it is indeed working to re-integrate both communities. “Local (government) officials took many of the Christian villagers to their fields where they cut the standing paddy crop under police protection and in many cases, with the help of their Hindu neighbours as well,” notes Pradipta Kumar Mahapatra, sub-collector of Kandhamal, whose office is cluttered with sacks of relief material awaiting distribution. “Many Christians brought the paddy back to the camps while others left it with their Hindu neighbours who issued receipts for the same.”
Meanwhile, local Hindu leaders are keeping a close eye on the Christmas celebrations. A tribal group even called a bandh on Christmas day to protest the killing of their leader on 24 December last year, but celebrations passed off peacefully.
“We never had any problem with their celebrations in the past also, as long as they stay within their limits and don’t provoke us,” claims a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad functionary who would only speak on condition of anonymity. “The government has cracked down upon us to appease them, you see, so we’ve got to be careful.”