The recent ghastly events in Kandhamal district of Orissa have reverberated throughout the world. Thirty-seven persons died and 1,163 houses were burnt there. The killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four others by 25-30 armed persons was the trigger that unleashed the violence. A Maoist leader has admitted to killing the religious leader, while many believe Maoists collaborated with some locals to avenge the burning of 11 churches in December. The reaction to Saraswati’s killing is grounded in the tension between the scheduled tribe (ST) Kandhas and the scheduled caste (SC) Panas of the district, many of whom have converted to another religion. There are allegations that many of the latter group have obtained false ST status. The conversions need to be viewed in perspective: In 1991, there were 4,69,509 Hindus and 75,597 Christians in the district. The numbers increased to 5,27,757 and 1,17,950, respectively, in 2001.
Fortunately, the violence was localized unlike in Godhra and events after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
The situation has raised several questions: Why did so many conversions take place in Kandhamal? Why is there tension between Kandhas and Panas based on the latter’s allegedly false ST status? Why are Maoists present in Kandhamal and the adjacent Gajapati and Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) districts? Why did the violence not spread to the urban parts of Orissa? Why was the state government unable to stop the violence?
A common thread running through these questions is that Kandhamal is one of the most backward districts in India. It’s mostly hilly and forested, has 51.51% ST and 18.21% SC population and has very low connectivity to the rest of the state as well as the country. The district is a collection of 2,415 inhabited villages with only two small towns: Phulbani and G Udaygiri. These characteristics have attracted missionaries, something that in turn attracted Saraswati and his organization. It is also ideal for the Maoists to hide, as well as recruit from. The deprivation of the population encourages conversions and accentuates the sensitivity to reservation status. The lack of connectivity and the hilly and forested topography made it easy for miscreants to block roads by felling trees, thus delaying outside help from reaching disturbed areas in time. The large number of villages made it impossible to have adequate forces watching over each village.
What is the solution? In the short term, the problem can be controlled by the use of force, diligent law and order enforcement and relief measures. That, however, cannot go on forever. Methods such as village-level peace committees and peace message conveyance through street plays will, of course, help. But sooner than later, the core issues of backwardness, lack of connectivity and the presence of Maoists have to be adequately addressed.
A similar realization and the resulting shift to focus on development and connectivity have paid dividends in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and the north-eastern states. In J&K and the North-East, the number of civilians killed has decreased. This correlates with the Prime Minister’s 2004 reconstruction plan of Rs24,000 crore for J&K and the allocation of Rs1.83 trillion for economic development of the North-East. In contrast, for the Maoist-affected areas in seven states, a paltry Rs4,938 crore was spent through the Backward Districts Initiative and the Backward Regions Grant Fund. This correlates with the data that the number of civilians killed due to Maoist violence increased from 2,185 (1999-2003) to 2,281 (2004-2008) and the latter number is more than the number killed in J&K (1,883) and the north-eastern states (1,899).
One hopes the powers that be in Delhi take note of the lessons learnt from J&K and the North-East and make a serious effort in addressing the problem of connectivity and backwardness in districts such as Kandhamal and KBK in Orissa and in other states.
Chitta Baral is a professor at Arizona State University. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org