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UPA appeasing Christian West

UPA appeasing Christian West

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: October 5, 2008

The nationwide revulsion at the confirmed rape of a 28-year-old nun in the troubled Kandhamal district of Orissa may finally give the UPA Government at the Centre the requisite handle to dismiss the Naveen Patnaik Government. Having earlier sent a warning to the State Government under Article 355, the Manmohan Singh Government is now readying for the next step -- the imposition of President's Rule under Article 356.

For the Centre, the dismissal of a popularly-elected, two-term Chief Minister is not an easy option. Those with memories may recall that there was still a Congress Government in Bhubaneswar when the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burnt to death in an inaccessible corner of Mayurbhanj district in Orissa on January 22, 1999. The Vajpayee Government, which was then in power at the Centre, sent its most senior Christian minister George Fernandes to the scene of the crime and to reassure local Christians. The stress was on confidence-building measures, not political recriminations. That was because both the Centre and the State Government knew the murder of Staines flowed from local tensions centred on competitive religiosity. The now-infamous Dara Singh organised the murderous assault on Staines and his sons but he was a Hindu freelancer, uninhibited by the constraints of national allegiances. Given the inaccessibility of the terrain, there was never any serious suggestion that the sleepy Orissa Police could actually have prevented the crime. Despite a massive manhunt, Dara Singh took refuge in the Mayurbhanj forests and evaded arrest for nearly a year.

Those familiar with Kandhamal district will vouch for two things. First, that the area is thickly forested and poorly connected. Second, that even before the recent troubles, there was simmering tension between the tribal Kandhas, who profess their indigenous faith, and the Scheduled Caste Panos, many of whom have converted to Christianity. The conflict, often articulated in terms of Hindu-Christian conflict, was primarily over meagre state handouts. The Kandhas who had resisted the encroachments of colonial administration and missionaries were resentful of the resourcefulness of neighbouring Christian communities. The Panos, on the other hand, felt that they couldn't take full advantage of the State's affirmative action as long as they were classified as a Scheduled Caste. They wanted to be reclassified as Scheduled Tribe, a demand that brought them in conflict with the Kandhas.

The tensions were apparent when I visited the area with Naveen Patnaik during the 1999 election. At that time, local BJD workers complained bitterly about land-grab by the churches. A particular cause of resentment was the ability of the various Christian denominations to buy land along the main roads and build places of worship. Christian schools were also perceived to be giving an unfair advantage to those who had moved away from traditional mores. In the context of India Inc these grievances may appear churlish. After all, why should a community wilfully deny itself opportunities for upward social mobility -- even if it means disentanglement from the past? Yet, as we well know from Singur, Nandigram and Kalinga Nagar, the lure of modernisation isn't always uniformly enchanting. Subaltern classes often have an ethical code that defies market forces.

It was this code and a curious sense of right and wrong that came to the fore in the aftermath of the brutal murder of 80-year-old Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four members of his ashram on August 23. Regardless of whether or not the armed assassins were Maoists, the perception on the ground was that he had been eliminated by fanatical Christians opposed to his anti-conversion and anti-cow slaughter drives. The Swami, who had established his ashram in Kandhamal in 1966, was deeply venerated as an incarnation of Parashuram by the Kandhas. The anger over his death fuelled a clash between communities which, quite predictably, translated into sectarian conflict. In the ensuing violence that has led to some 35 deaths, the better-off Panos have been the worst affected.

The roots of the conflict can only tangentially be traced to religious mobilisation. It would be more correct to view the expressions of hate in terms of alternative worldviews that are -- to use academic language -- decisively 'pre-modern' and detached from the market economy. Of course, tenuous state intervention in the form of competition over limited state resources has definitely aggravated the problem, as has the mindset which believes that there is one road to personal and community salvation.

Such conflicts, as has been witnessed in Kandhamal, are recurrent in India. The Government may have a long-term responsibility in equitable social engineering but its immediate task is to restore peace, punish the culprits of serious offences and organise relief and rehabilitation. There is no evidence that the Orissa Government facilitated the violence or that it was a partisan player. At best, the State Government can be faulted for general sloth -- a widespread complaint in the whole of eastern India. To respond to European pressure and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's preposterous use of the term "massacre" with an administrative over-reaction would be a folly. There are better ways of dealing with the problem than sacking an elected Government headed by a Chief Minister who cannot be faulted for his integrity and deep sense of fair play.

In trying to establish a moral equivalence between Islamist terrorism and Hindu terrorism, the Government may win a few brownie points. In the process, it would be putting a small and generally law-abiding Christian community in the front line of sectarian fire. Worse, it would end up equating the Christian community with European nosey-parkers and fanatical evangelists. If the Government imposes President's Rule in Orissa, Naveen Patnaik won't even have to campaign for a third term.

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