This 10 year article provides an excellent background to current religious problems in Orissa. Let us make no mistake here. Aggressive and provocative missionary activity of Christians, the same that obliterated Native America Indians and many ancient religions are on work here. If Hindus do challenge it, they face a bleak future.
March 30, 1998
Desperate Acts of Faith
Backward areas become the battleground for religious zealots and politicians as they try to win over the poor.
By Ruben Banerjee
She is poor and landless like many others in the underdeveloped interiors of Orissa. Jeeban Majhi, a villager in Gumma, Gajapati district, has no avenues to change the course of his life. All he has done in the past five years is change his religion twice. Born a Hindu, he embraced Christianity and became Joseph. Last year, however, he returned to his old faith. After a brief ritual that included a tonsure, Joseph was “reborn” as Jagannath.
Moving back and forth from one religion to another is perhaps the only change sweeping Orissa’s backyard. Little else has changed in recent years. Illiteracy is as high as ever, poverty as grinding as always, roads are few and many pockets remain inaccessible. Yet these steep odds have not deterred Christian and Hindu fanatics from working overtime to make one of the country’s poorest regions into the biggest battleground for conversions and reconversions.
Though low on expectations, Orissa is currently high on religious fervour. “A dharma yudh (religious battle) is being fought here,” says Subhash Chauhan, convener of the Hindu Jagran Samukhya, an RSS front organisation. It all began with the arrival of Christian missionaries, some 20 years ago, backed by foreign-funded NGOs with the promise of changing the face of the region. Schools and hospitals came up at certain places to help the poor, but so did churches. With Christianity spreading, the Hindu backlash has just started. “Since we were late starters, we are trying to catch up with the missionaries. While they have been converting at the rate of over 5,000 a year, we are logging about 500 reconverts now,” says Basanth Rath, organising secretary, state VHP.
“Compassion, the hallmark of any religion, has gone for a six. Instead, what you have are fraying tempers and heightening violence,” says Rabi Das, editor of the Oriya daily Pragativadi. That mutual hatred is getting the better of both communities is exemplified by the frequent clashes reported from at least 10 of the state’s 30 districts — no less than 30 clashes have occurred all over the state in the past one year. Rival groups, egged on by self-styled religious leaders, have burnt houses and desecrated places of worship in towns like Phulbani, Bolangir and Sundergarh. “Vested interests are fishing in troubled waters,” admits Sudarshan Pal Thakur, collector of Gajapati district — one of the worst hit by the clashes.
As conversions and churches multiply, protests by Hindus are getting shrill. In January, at a huge rally in Padampur, Hindu protesters armed with traditional weapons bayed for the blood of the local sub-collector, who they say is patronising the church. Two months ago, the row over the desecration of a village temple at Serang in Gajapati district ended in violent clashes. Sanity prevailed only after the harried administration rebuilt the temple with police protection and resettled the Hindus. A month earlier, Christians in Sundergarh charged Hindus with poisoning the village wells. And in Bolangir, most Christians stopped visiting local hospitals fearing a sterilisation programme.
The widening communal divide cast its shadow on last month’s Lok Sabha elections as well. The hardened stand of the communities was reflected in the political parties’ choice of candidates. Take the case of Frida Topno, a former minister and the Congress sitting MP from Sundergarh. She’s a known critic of Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik, but the Congress denied her a ticket because it wanted to woo the Hindu electorate which traditionally votes for the BJP and the JMM.
Political parties have compelling reasons to consider the communal equations. The BJP, for instance, has benefited from the backlash against Christian missionaries — apart from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s charisma and the party’s promise to provide a stable government. The party’s candidate, a non-entity to begin with, finished a creditable second at Ramgiri during the last assembly elections. “When the results came in, we did not even know that we had a unit there,” says a BJP leader.
Overzealous missionaries, many say, have contributed to the consolidation of the Hindu vote. “Much of the resentment against us is misplaced and motivated. We do not convert by force but admit only those who volunteer,” explains Father Rabindra S. Singh of the Behrampore diocese. But the unusually high number of such volunteers has left the missionaries open to charges of adopting unfair means. “The conversions are illegal because they are induced,” observes a senior state bureaucrat.
The missionaries, no doubt, are on an overdrive, apparently following the call made at the state pastors’ seminar in Cuttack in November 1996 to “win Orissa for Christ by 2000 ad”. Churches of all shapes and sizes have sprung up in most areas of the state in recent years. For instance, on both sides of National Highway 43 between Saunki and Nowrangpur and the state expressway between Parlekhemundi and Mohana. The state already boasts of 90 Christian missions and over 8,000 churches. “In a state which has no industry worth the name, building churches has become big business,” remarks Sajjan Sharma, a BJP spokesman.
People are worried about the widening communal divide, but the state Government is loathe to admit it. “Many of the stories doing the rounds could be unfounded but the damage they are causing is real,” says a senior official. With local Christians referring to Krishnapur as Krishtopur (after Christ) and Hindus maintaining an all-night vigil in Bhubaneswar in January to resist a possible conversion, fanatics are holding centrestage. In recent months, Hindu organisations have been organising yagnas to reconvert those who have left their fold. In January alone, they prevailed upon 75 families in Sundergarh and Malkangiri to return to Hinduism.
The state is a perfect hunting ground for religious zealots because it has an illiterate SC/ST population of 38 per cent. Though it has the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, to prohibit conversions by inducements, the Government has rarely cracked the whip. In 1993, for the first time, a superintendent of police booked 21 pastors in Nowrangpur for breaking the law. But he was transferred immediately as many, including a sizeable section within the administration, were outraged by his boldness.
The Government’s critics say that it’s the lack of a deterrent that has led to the present impasse. As missionaries seek to win over Orissa for Christ, Hindu organisations have begun to strike roots in many places. The RSS, the VHP, the Hindu Jagran and the Banabasi Kalyan Ashram together have chosen to help people rediscover Hindu traditions by starting over 3,000 schools in the state. With no sign of a let up on either side, it’s no surprise that conversions and reconversions have become the order of the day in the land of Lord Jagannath.