Phulbani: On the face of it, the communal unrest in Orissa’s Kandhamal district was triggered by the 23 August murder of a man considered to be a saint by Hindus who then went on the rampage in the area, torching and looting Christian homes and prayer houses.
The swami, also a senior functionary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), had been opposing, for more than 40 years, the proselytizing activities of Christian missionaries. So, when he was killed by unknown assailants, the suspicion fell on the Christians.
But, if people familiar with the demographics of the district are to be believed, there is a far more sinister subtext to the rioting.
“It’s the politics of reservation and the benefits that come from being a member of the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) that have played their role in these riots,” said a past principal of the Phulbani Girls’ College who didn’t want to be named. “The SC-ST divide has further fanned the communal fires.”
Formulating strategy: (from left) Pramod Digal, Bisraba Digal, Sanjay Malik and Dinakaran Digal at Minia village, Kandhamal. The three Digals are Hindus turned Christians who now plan to return to Hinduism. Malik is a local priest and VHP worker. Hindus want Panos to choose between Christianity and ST status. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The Kandh tribals, after whom the district is named, are an ST community. “They are the original inhabitants of the area and were animists and even practised human sacrifice till the British came and put a stop to it,” said the academic. According to him, though the STs were animists, they had a cultural affinity with the Hindus. “Lord Jagannath, revered by Oriyas, is derived from the tribal Neelmadhab cult,” he said, adding, “Similarly, the goddess Sambaleshwari, patronized by the erstwhile king of Sambalpur, has tribal origins.”
On the other hand, the Christians of the district are converts from the Pano scheduled caste. The Panos, according to the academic, were originally Hindus who, centuries ago, came from outside the district and were also animists. “But, under British influence, they converted to Christianity in large numbers.”
So, over the years, the Kandhs embraced Hinduism in large numbers, while the Panos, who make up about a fifth of the district’s population, have turned Christians. “Tensions have always prevailed between the two with the Kandhs looking down on the Panos and very little social relations between the two,” said a senior state civil service officer who also didn’t want to be named.
However, in line with a government rule, those Panos who embraced Christianity lost their SC status and all the advantages that came with it. “For the past few years, however, the Panos are lobbying that they be given ST status,” said the same officer, adding, “Naturally, this was vehemently opposed by the Kandhs, who felt it was an encroachment on their turf.”
The genesis of the rift lies in a decision to expand the scheduled tribes list in the early 1990s to include the Kui and Kuvi communities in the ST category. “Many Panos speak the Kui language and hence demanded ST status for them as well,” said the academic. “They even formed an organization called the Kuijana Kalyana Sangha in Bhubaneswar but its registration was cancelled after the riots last December,” he said.
According to many Kandh and Hindu leaders, the demand for ST status is being made by the Panos so that they can benefit both from reservations as well as the sops doled out by the Church.
“They want reservation in seats in educational institutions as well as government jobs and also want to benefit from the money from the Church”, said Priyanath Sharma, an office bearer of the VHP. “Let them choose one, they can’t have both.”
Trust between the two communities, which was always low, is at its lowest. “The Panos would take away our land fraudulently or misrepresent themselves as Dalit Hindus even after becoming Christians to retain their SC status,” said a Kandh priest, who refused to identify himself. “Even now, they want reservation for Dalit Christians or ST status,” he said, adding, “Where will their greed end?”
Matters were made worse when the delimitation of assembly constituencies meant Kandhamal moved from a seat reserved for SCs to STs. “They sensed their power slipping away and could have fomented trouble,” said the academic.
Another ominous note is the shadow of the Maoists. “Religion and an SC-ST tussle are ideal situations for ultra-Leftists to take advantage of,” said the state bureaucrat, adding, “God help this place if they too get mixed up in all this.”
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