Phulbani, Orissa: For five days, the Digal family—thirty-something Bharat, seven-month-pregnant Sushila and their 5-year-old boy—roamed the jungles in the hills surrounding their village of Sarasananda, just 20km from here.
They searched for safety and finally found it, along with 160 others, in a relief camp set up in a school in Phulbani, the headquarters of Kandhamal district, which has seen widespread violence cut along religious lines after the murder of Swami Lakshmananada Saraswati—a Hindu leader outspoken on Christian missionaries and conversions—by unidentified gunmen on 23 August. Here, the villagers get hot meals, medical facilities—and a place to sleep.
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But on Sunday, the makeshift camp could not offer something else they needed—someone to lead their prayer, answer their questions, make sense of what has happened and explain why them. None of the clergy has stayed behind, abandoning their flock of followers. “We heard that some of them have fled to Bhubaneswar or to Brahmapur,” said a crestfallen Rajendra Nayek, who fled with his wife and two children.
Some Christians have refused to leave their land and livelihoods, saying that—more than religion—is why they are being targeted.
Senapati Malik, a Christian has stayed back in the charred ruins of Sarasananda, but sent his family to the camp. “I have my cattle and goats to look after and also my crop, how could I leave?” he said, pointing to a herd of almost 50 cows, buffalo and goats, which he and another Christian, Jalandhar Kotta, are trying to look after.
Malik is devastated that his fellow Hindu villagers he knew as boys could turn against him the way they did. “Some were jealous because they thought we got a lot of money from the church,” he said, pointing to the burnt shell of one concrete house, a satellite dish antenna sticking out, as if in defiance. A sewing machine, a TV, bicycles and a mixer-grinder lie scattered about. “Some also want us to leave so that they can take over our lands dirt cheap,” said Malik.
STRIFE ZONES (Graphic)
The thought has been repeated as observers wonder why certain areas have been targeted, and why the state, did not react quicker as the violence began last week.
Orissa is one of the poorest states in India, lagging behind in health, education and economic indicators. But it has always been mineral-rich, and in recent years has tried to woo industrial development. A May 2008 report by the trade body Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India showed Orissa drew nearly one-third of all private sector investments announced in the last quarter of last fiscal year that ended in March, more than any other state.
It is unclear what effect the recent spate of violence will have on investment. An official at UK-based mining company Vedanta Resources Plc., which on 13 August secured a Supreme Court clearance to start mining for bauxite at Nyamgiri hills in Orissa’s Kalahandi district, said it is unscathed by the ongoing violence because a majority of the people in that area belong to the ethnic community known as Dongria Kandh, primarily Hindu.
Its alumina plant in Lanjigarh is also free from any incidents, he said. The troubled Kandhamal borders Kalahandi, but the site which saw violence is some 150km away, he said.
South Korean steel maker Posco, which plans to build a $12-billion (Rs52,560 crore) steel plant in eastern Orissa near the Paradip port, and secured forest clearance from the Supreme Court last month, too, will not be affected, said a company official.
Already, conspiracy theories and comparisons to Gujarat, a state plagued by communal violence, abound. “Orissa is becoming the Gujarat of Christians. It is unbelievable that a powerless minority community is made target and I am convinced that there are political motives behind this, just the way there were in Gujarat,” said Father Anthony Kurusinkal, editor of The Examiner, the archdiocesan daily for Mumbai.
Bishop Thomas Macwan, from the Ahemdabad diocese, drew similar parallels. “Gujarat started with a train burning. No one knows till date who set fire to it. Here there was a murder and no one knows who did it. In Gujarat, Muslim shops, homes and businesses were targeted. Innocent people were killed. That’s exactly what is happening in Orissa.”
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Hindu group accused of fanning anti-Christian sentiments in Orissa, denied wrongdoing. “Of course, they will say Orissa has become like Gujarat. But what about the conversions they are doing all over the country?” asked Vyankatesh Abdeo, all-India general secretary of VHP.
Charred: A Christian girl salvages belongings from her burnt home at Minia village near Bhubaneswar. (Photograph: Biswaranjan Rout /AP)
In Orissa, according to sub-collector Pradipta Kumar Mahapatra, at least 5,000 Christians are now living in seven relief camps at Chakapada, Tikabali, G. Udaygiri, Raikia, Baliguda, K. Nuagaon and Phiringia.
Over the weekend, chief minister Naveen Patnaik said more doctors would fan out to affected areas. About 200 villages have been affected by the attacks, filling camps by the thousands.
Even in district headquarters Phulbani, churches have not been spared. Even the tuberculosis cure centre run by the Missionaries of Charity was not spared.
Nearby, Kotta is staying back with his wife and two daughters. He said even those in the relief camps will eventually have to come back. “We are poor people. We have nowhere to go.”
Priyanka P. Narain in Mumbai and Maitreyee Handique in New Delhi contributed to this story.
Next: The pope’s reaction to the Orissa violence gives some hope he will keep closer watch on Christians in India.