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Horrid Hindu Atrocities Against Christians in Orissa Challenge India's Pluralism

November 24th 2008

Asia Topics - Orissa Violence

The violence which ravaged the Christian community in Orissa, India, for two months from late August to October was brutal and bitterly partisan and would hardly have been out of place in the Rwanda of 1994. In one of the private relief camps in the Orissa state capital, a displaced lady told me the story of her pastor who had been targeted by a mob which came into his home. The members of the mob tried to force him to renounce his faith and when he refused to do so, protesting that he had been a leader and preacher for many years, they cut off his lips, poured kerosene over his head and burned him alive. They also burned down his house and threw his deaf and mute elderly mother onto the fire, where she died.

Attacks on the minority Christian community began in a remote rural district of the eastern state of Orissa in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the controversial Hindu leader, Swami Lakhmananda Saraswati, by Maoist insurgents on August 23. The attacks were widespread, clearly targeted and extremely violent.

In one of the most terrible and now notorious incidents, a nun was locked in a room and repeatedly sexually assaulted before being paraded on a village street, allegedly in full view of the police. The incident has become notorious because the nun held a press conference to make a public plea for justice. Her personal story of horror is tragically symbolic of the rapacious targeting of innocent scapegoats in Orissa who were abused and killed in retribution for a crime they did not commit. 

Overall, at least 60 have been killed, many by burning or burying alive, and many more are unaccounted for. Around 50,000 have been displaced – many of these have tried to flee from the state altogether. The Indian media says at least 10,000 remain in relief camps now. Thousands of houses have been destroyed, and those who have been to the interior of Orissa describe the scene as being like a war zone. Returnees have faced coercive pressure to convert to Hinduism, and those remaining in relief camps have little idea of what their future might hold.

Violence of this nature was no spontaneous outbreak of collective indignation – far from it. The truth needs little teasing out: fleeing victims consistently recall that, as the mobs moved in with the weapons they would use to kill, loot and destroy, they would shout Hindu supremacist, nationalist slogans such as “Hindus are brothers!” and “No Christians in this village or in India!”

The ‘Hindutva’ movement which is behind these attacks is not about mainstream Hinduism – indeed, many Hindu civil society representatives in India have made it abundantly clear it does not speak for Hindus in general. It is a political movement which holds to a vision of India as a Hindu state and espouses an acrimonious, anti-minority, religious supremacist agenda. A chilling slogan once used by the extremist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to identify its enemies translates as, “First Muslims, then Christians”. Unpunished anti-minority violence is nothing new, particularly against Muslims, previously against Sikhs and consistently in widespread local attacks on Christians. However, what Orissa has now seen is by far the worst set of attacks the Christians have ever faced in modern, democratic India.

Unless it is quickly and thoroughly addressed, there are widespread and legitimate fears among those whose vision of India is secular, pluralist and tolerant that anti-minority violence will intensify at the hands of extremist Hindu nationalist organizations. The urgency is all the greater for the fact that the national elections, which the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to win, are around the corner in 2009 – and its electoral prospects will only gain from demonizing and vilifying religious minorities.

Violence against minorities can happen anywhere. What should set apart a successful democracy is its willingness and ability not only to rehabilitate the victims and prosecute the attackers, but also to ask the deeper questions, to look beyond the violence itself and to act boldly to rein in the perpetration of hatred by proponents of a poisonous ideology. It’s not an easy task, but all eyes are on India now.

There are legitimate question marks about whether such action will be taken, because earlier warnings were met with so little response. This was not the first wave of anti-Christian violence to blight Orissa: in exactly the same area in December 2007, widespread attacks were carried out against the Christian community, mainly targeting their churches and property. However, the few who were convicted for those attacks did not include the ringleaders, organizers and inciters. Fifteen months previously, an eminent civil society fact-finding team had warned of the violence that could take place unless the state government took specific measures to curb the extremist groups from actively inciting anti-Christian violence in the region.

India is not only the world’s largest democracy but home to one-sixth of the world’s population and an extraordinary mixture of diverse religious practices and practitioners. One of the documents governing EU-India relations sanguinely describes the latter as a ‘paradigm’ of how ‘various religions can flourish in a plural, democratic and open society’. The aftermath of Orissa will show the veracity of that judgment.

David Griffiths works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organization focussed on religious freedom. He can be found at www.csw.org.uk.

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