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J. Sri Raman: Where Politics Crucifies the Poor

Where Politics Crucifies the Poor


by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

India's far right needs no fresh publicity for its crusade against Muslims, the country's largest religious minority. No one has questioned its credentials on this count ever since the pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat on the western coast, over which Narendra Modi of worldwide notoriety presided.

Far less widely known is the holy war the "parivar" (the far-right "family") has been waging against a minuscule Christian minority (totaling 2.4 percent of the country's population). The terror unleashed on this soft target over the past 12 days in the eastern state of Orissa provides a telling illustration.

The first grim warning of this particular offensive of the parivar, in fact, had come from the Gujarat itself. An attack on tribal Christians in the Dangs area of Modi's territory preceded and paved the way for the more infamous pogrom. To recall events that were to find a tragic repetition in Orissa, violence erupted in the southern Gujarat district on the day of Christmas, December 25, 1998. Churches and missionary institutions were attacked and many of them burnt down. Later, investigations left no doubt the attacks by the parivar armies on several villages around the same time had been meticulously planned.

The Christmas campaign followed a yearlong propaganda operation through parivar leaflets portraying the missionaries, in true far-right style, as traitors. The leaflets urged the Christian tribesman to "purify yourself through 'yagna' (ritual sacrifice) and become a Hindu." The tribal folk were warned of dire consequences, if they did not heed the counsel of "Hindutva" ("Hinduness," as the far right hypocritically describes its cause).

Along with this went a campaign against education imparted by Christian missionaries. One leaflet, baring a familiar stamp of the far right said: "On account of ... the Christian education influenced by the Christian tradition, when your child becomes a youth, he or she is already a half Christian...." This was a lie that millions of non-Christians educated in these institutions could nail easily. The campaign, however, continued.

A parivar propagandist, Nagendra Rao, sounded like the present US president when he said: "If Muslims and Christians use perfidy and force in conversion, as they frequently do, we have to meet it with merciless ferocity and militant determination.... Collateral damage in such cases is regrettable (but cannot be helped)...."

That was the year of India's nuclear weapons test. The response of then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the black Christmas in Dangs was predictable. He started off by calling the incidents "shameful" in New Delhi. He proceeded to Gujarat, where his tone underwent a total transformation. Declared he: "There is need for a national debate on conversion."

Many saw in this statement a green signal for a furtherance of this particular far-right campaign, and not only in Gujarat. Orissa on India's eastern cyclone-prone coast, far less developed than Gujarat and with a larger percentage of tribal population, was to become the second "laboratory of Hindutva."

Orissa claimed world attention soon, with the assassination of Australian missionary Graham Staines. The Baptist preacher, ministering to leprosy patients since 1965, was killed along with his sons Philip (10) and Timothy (6), burnt alive in a jeep while sleeping in it in January 1999. The parivar had hounded him for "harvesting souls," though his efforts had led to no dramatic rise in the district's Christian population.

It was yet another cruel Christmas, when minority-baiting mobs struck again in Orissa. On Christmas Eve 2007, the trouble started when a group of hundreds in Brahmanigaon village, mobilized by the parivar, stopped preparations for the next day's festivities, for which official permission had been obtained.

An orgy of violence was unleashed on Christmas Day. Unruly mobs attacked churches and burnt down houses and other property. The affected villages had no protection from the police or any paramilitary force against the 4,000-strong far-right army.

This background of hate offered no bulwark, obviously, against the current round of Orissa violence that began in August 23, 2008. The day witnessed the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswatii, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the World Hindu Council), a vanguard of the violent campaigns in both Gujarat and Orissa. The first police statement on the murder attributed it to ultra-left Maoists known to be active in the state, especially in its tribal areas. A Maoist leader himself, according to leading local daily Sambad, claimed responsibility on behalf of the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army, to "avenge" the Hindu leader's "villainous role" in the local religious communal clashes. The parivar, however, rejected the claim, blaming Christians for the crime.

By August 29, at least 20 people were killed and 3,000 were refugees in relief camps. Over a thousand homes had been set on fire. An unascertained number fled into the jungle, without food or water. On September 1, the state government claimed to have brought the situation under control, though the number of refugees in camps went up to 13,000. The media reported that 558 houses and 17 places of worship were burnt down. The images of desolate victims on the television screens and newspaper pages have haunted India ever since, with stories of especially atrocious treatment meted out to women, shocking the nation further.

In-depth reporting has revealed that country's peculiar social problem of caste relations, too, has contributed to the aggravation of the conflict. The victims of the violence are the "untouchables" of the Paana community, who had converted to Christianity. The Kui tribesmen, who resented the benefits of affirmative action for the Paanas, were the ones to set the area aflame.

Politics contributed even more to the plight of the victims. The Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP), the political front of the parivar, is a junior partner in the government of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. With 32 seats, as against the 61 of Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal (BJD), in the 147-strong State Assembly, the BJP has used its crucial support for the government's survival to foment and fuel the violence in preparation for coming polls.

The BJP has been on the lookout for religious communal issues, which its core constituency considers the party's very rationale, across the country. It has found anti-Muslim issues in quite a few other states besides, of course, Kashmir. The anti-Christian agenda in Orissa can advance the party's cause, especially in the general election due in early 2009, according to the calculations of parivar strategists.

The strategy, clearly, aims to set tribesmen against tribesmen and pit the poor against the poor, with the parivar plotting to derive power from the unnatural division among the people. What Orissa witnesses today is not a religious conflict, but a design of fascism that needs to be fought and defeated.

*************

A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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