Phulbani: The stories go like this.
A poor, illiterate Hindu villager falls ill and looks for help at a Christian missionary-run medical facility. He’s offered a spurious, ineffective white substance and asked to take the “medicine” in the name of Jagannath. It doesn’t work. After days of suffering, the missionary gives the villager an authentic allopathic pill and asks him to take it in the name of Jesus. When it cures him,the impressed and grateful villager is asked to embrace Christianity.
A paper mache or wooden idol of Jagannath, this state’s ubiquitous deity representing the lord of the world, and a bronze cross are both set on fire by missionaries. While Jagannath is reduced to ashes, the cross remains unscathed. The power of Christianity is “proven” before the enthralled would-be converts.
Nowhere people: Christians outside a shelter at Raikia village in Orissa in this 30 August photo. Parth Sanyal / Reuters
Or perhaps a clergy member will simply say “Jai Ganesh” to start a car—and it sputters. When he says “Jai Jesus”, it suddenly starts.
These are the alleged real scenarios offered by the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) office-bearers when asked why they are lashing out against Indian Christians and their missionaries.
The Hindu group accuses missionaries operating in Kandhamal—the scene of violence and rioting over the last few weeks—of deceitful methods to increase their flock.
“For the last 30 years, they have been targeting the poor and illiterate people of this area and converting them by fraud, deception and lure,” says Priyanath Sharma, the Vibhag Sampadak, or division secretary, for Kandhamal and Bhanjanagar. “If people convert of their own free will, we have no issues, but we oppose these methods vehemently.” He cites numbers from the 2001 Census, which shows the Hindu population of Kandhamal district has grown by 2% and Christians by 16%.
It was against this kind of proselytization that Laksmananda Saraswati, whose murder by unknown assailants on the night of 23 August, sparked off the current round of violence in the district, had worked since 1966.
While thousands of Christians have sought safety in camps, a smaller number is finding it safer to switch allegiances—and Gods. Hindu groups have devised “reconversion” campaigns of their own, including the use of gifts and social service programmes.
This district is one of the most backward and remote in Orissa. With practically no industry and the overwhelmingly tribal population dependent on marginal farming, poverty and illiteracy are rampant in the district. Lakshmananda, who set up a girl’s hostel, Kanya Ashram, for 250 inmates in Chakapada, also worked to promote literacy among the tribals and is revered by thousands of people in the district, especially the Kondhs, after whom the district was renamed. Most of the Christians are Panos, with Digal and Nayek common surnames.
“I converted to Christianity about 8-10 years ago because I was offered Rs750 every month by the missionaries for which I only had to attend church on Sundays,” said Bisraba Digal, 37, of Minia village.
“Now, I want to come back to Hinduism because I want to live in peace in my village and not at some refugee camp,” said the father of two after collecting his share of blankets, buckets and plastic sheets from the government relief truck parked nearby.
Dinakaran Digal and Pramod Digal, also of the same village, have similar stories to tell. While Dinakaran was born a Christian because his father embraced the religion, Pramod turned to the church a few years ago for a monthly stipend of Rs400. “Even that they did not pay in full or on time,” said a disenchanted Pramod, who has decided to come back to Hinduism.
They all say they have submitted applications to the local VHP volunteers to arrange a pratyavartan, or homecoming ceremony. According to Sharma, reconversion is an official process. “They make a written application to the sub-collector...with all their family details, which is then forwarded to us,” he said. “We then fix a date and ask them to come to the place where we hold...rituals.” They are given a talk about Hindu dharma, garlanded, gifted new clothes and sometimes, also shave their heads in penance.
According to a local priest and a VHP karyakarta, Sanjay Malik, almost 100 Christian families are expected to return to the fold after the current round of violence. “If they want to live here, this is the only way,” insists Malik, a Kandh who has attended religious discourses in Vrindavan and Kolkata. “It is there that I learnt to speak Hindi,” he says, smiling sheepishly.
“It is the most practical decision these people can make,” said Biswamohan Digal, an Army subedar from a long line of Hindu ancestors. If it’s not material lure and the dreams of a better lifestyle to those living in grinding poverty, it is the need to avoid social ostracization that drives conversion and reconversion in these parts.
In Sabaribatta village, Ladman Digal says he initially converted to Christianity because everyone else did—but came back to Hinduism after riots in December.
Some cite other reasons. “They (the missionaries) are a bunch of liars who collect money in our name and line their own pockets,” alleges Sugreev Digal, who did his pratyavartan ceremony in May. Now the saffron flag flies on his modest hut and vermilion dots his forehead. Another resident of the same village, Devdas Digal, who converted back to Hinduism in a ceremony in May said he did so because once he became a Christian he lost the scheduled caste, or SC, status he enjoyed as a Hindu. “We don’t get the benefits of reservation once we become Christians, so I decided to come back,” he said.
SC status allows the residents to avail reservation in educational institutions and government jobs; it is a contentious issue even within Christianity as leaders are split on whether Christians should follow the caste system. Christians also have sparred openly over the methods used for conversion.
None of the missionaries or clergy accused in this area could be contacted by Mint; their followers said they have sought safety elsewhere. “Once they lose the SC status it is not easy to get it back but we do intercede on their behalf...and try to get their SC certificates back,” says Vinayak Senapati, a VHP member in charge of pratyavartan in the area. “After the riots, many realized their folly and want to return to Hinduism and have sent feelers but we have asked them to wait till the situation stabilizes.”
However, they admit that their attempts have merely brought back 10,000 odd tribals over the last 30 years. “In this same period, the missionaries must have converted almost a lakh tribals,” claims Sharma.
Disowning any responsibility for the current round of violence, Sharma and Senapati attribute the riots to a spontaneous outrage among the people, especially the Kondhs at their leader’s assassination. Senapati says “For years, they suffered at the hands of the wily Panos,” the Christians who are mostly converts, “and now it’s payback time.”
Next: A look at how reservations, and scheduled caste and scheduled tribe status, are fuelling conflict in Orissa.