Friday, October 3, 2008

IS INDIA A SECULAR COUNTRY?

Conversion to Hinduism a condition for Christians to return home in Kandhamal Parvathi Menon
Forced conversion of Christians by Hindutva groups has become the order of the day

August and September saw steady depopulation of villages of their Christian population

The writ of the Sangh Parivar appears to run untrammelled in the district


— PHOTO: Lingaraj Panda

HOMELESS: Inmates queue up for food at a relief camp set up at the Balika Upper Primary School at Phulbani in Kandhamal district of Orissa on Tuesday.

PHULBANI: “Those who don’t want to become Hindus, stay here. Those who have gone back to their villages are tonsured and forcibly converted,” said D.S. Kumar. A graduate, he used to run an STD booth and a petty shop in Minia, a village in Kandhamal district of Orissa, before his home, possessions and shop were burnt by Hindutva mobs on August 24. Nearly 90 Christian homes in his village were destroyed between August 24 and 29.

“The nine churches in my gram panchayat had already been destroyed in December 2007,” said Kumar. He is now among the 244 inmates of the relief camp at the Balika Upper Primary School in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamal.

Since the murder of VHP leader Lakshmanananda Saraswati on August 23, for which the Maoists claimed responsibility, Sangh Parivar mobs have been allowed to take the law into their own hands and unleash terror against the Christian population, driving them into the forests, into relief camps, or out of the district.

Kumar’s father Jagannath Digal converted to Hinduism to save his land. “He owns four acres, which they threatened to take away from him. Those who return for livelihood reasons are forced to convert to survive,” said Kumar.

Forced conversion of Christians by Hindutva groups has become the order of the day in Kandhamal district. Not only have Christian families suffered the loss of their homes, possessions and places of worship in sustained attacks by marauding mobs of Hindutva supporters from August 24, they now cannot return to their villages unless they convert.

Heavy price

From the relief camps in Khandamal district and elsewhere where Christian families have taken refuge come stories of this new stage of the Hindutva project.

August and September saw a steady depopulation of villages of their Christian population, who fled fearing for their lives. Now, if families wish to return, conversion to Hinduism is the price they must pay.

Jibardhan Majhe from Rattanga village near Phiringia said that after an attack on his village in December 2007, the RSS asked him to convert by tonsuring his head and breaking a coconut in the temple. He refused and his house was burnt along with other Christian homes on August 26 this year. “Four families of my village have converted to Hinduism and have gone back,” he said.

“In my village, the Hindus told us that if you want to stay here you have to convert. All Christian families except four converted to Hinduism,” said Rina Digal, an inmate of the relief camp. He is from Rasimendi village near Phulbani.

The writ of the Sangh Parivar appears to run untrammelled in the district, with the State machinery appearing to be incapable of controlling them.

They have built a base among the Kondh tribals who act as their foot soldiers against Dalit Christian. The Sangh Parivar has cleverly exploited the divide between the tribals and Dalits who have gained from the education and employment opportunities created by the large network of Christian organisations and charities in the district over the decades.

“Dalit Christians are doing well educationally and socially, and there is jealousy among the tribals over their success,” according to Father Uday, Prefect of the St. Pauls’ Seminary in Baliguda. “The tribals loot from Christian homes after an attack, and take away utensils, money, gold, paddy, rice, dal and cattle. Hindu businessmen see opportunities in this.”

Threat calls

Christian priests, pastors and nuns are unlikely to be able to return to their places of work in Kandhamal in the near future. Some have been marked and get regular threatening calls. “I am a tribal and my nephews are searching to kill me,” said Father Lakshmikant, Parish priest of the St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Baliguda.

He had to flee from the mobs that were after him and spend days in the forest before he reached Bhubaneshwar. He is now in charge of a relief camp at the Missionaries of Charity Centre for Leprosy in the capital.

Meanwhile, thousands of Christian families in relief camps, who have rejected the option of conversion, have little hope of returning to their homes and villages that they left more than a month ago.

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