The riots that broke out in Orissa’s Kandhamal district in August-September following the murder of a local Hindu religious leader claimed 35 lives and left at least 20,000 Christians homeless. Churches were attacked and villages burnt as both sides took potshots at each other, though the numerical superiority of the Hindu tribals ensured that they came off better in most engagements.
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At that time, and till recently, there were fears that the Christians of this scenic hill district wouldn’t be able to celebrate Christmas.
However, with the state government putting its act together after the initial inertia, 25 December passed safely. The district was flooded with at least 7,000 men of the Central Reserve Police Force and the Rapid Action Force, apart from the state constabulary. A helicopter was rumoured to have been deployed to keep an eye on any would-be party poopers, but there weren’t any reports of the whirlybird being sighted.
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Despite all these measures, celebrations were mostly restricted to the district capital Phulbani and within the safety of the relief camps. In outlying villages, not only have the churches not been repaired, but many of the Christians there are either in the camps or have left the district.
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Back in the eight camps spread across the district, joyous scenes could be seen. Punctuated by lusty shouts of “praise the lord” and “hallelujah”, the Christians of Kandhamal celebrated Christmas wearing brand new sarees and dhotis, while the aroma of chicken curry cooking in huge vats nearby wafted in the air.
With the day passing off safely, albeit in camps, the Christians of Kandhamal are looking forward to a return to their villages and the repair of their churches so that the next Christmas is celebrated at home.
Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik / Mint