Tit-for-tat religious conversions haunt India

Tit-for-tat religious conversions haunt India
Fri Oct 10, 2008
By Alistair Scrutton

CUTTACK (Reuters) – Siman Nayak’s shaved head is a stark reminder of a fate suffered by many Christians in eastern India in a battle over forced conversions to Hinduism that has left thousands of refugees fearing for their lives.

At least 35 people have been killed in a string of religious attacks in Orissa sparked by fears of forced conversion that have also sent more than 20,000 mainly poor, lower caste villagers into refugee camps and shelters.

“They told us if you do not become a Hindu we will hack you to death,” said Nayak as he sat in a shelter, in the Orissa town of Cuttack, where about 60 refugees live and sleep in one room.

His eyes wide with anger, Nayak said he was one of 13 villagers who were surrounded by Hindus waving axes and shouting for revenge after the death a few days before of a Hindu leader in an attack they blamed on Christians.

That killing, in Kandhamal district, sparked some of the worst anti-Christian riots in India in decades.

“They pulled out swords and axes, and called the village barbers,” said Nayak.

“They took us to a temple and told us to put our head before god. They fed us rice and ghee from temple offerings.”

Kandhamal district, a poor and remote tribal region in Orissa, has been the focus of controversy surrounding Christian missionaries since British colonial times.

The number of Christians rose by 66 percent from 1991 to 2001, the latest census data shows, and is now at more than 10 percent of the population, compared with 2 percent across India.

Controversy over conversion, which spans many parts of India, also reflects a tit-for-tat religious battle for hearts and minds. While Orissa’s victims were mostly Christians, fear of conversion is the same on both sides of the communal divide.

For years, many Hindus feared missionaries enticed the poor to Christianity with promises of schools, hospitals, and money.

“Conversion was easy because the government gave the poor and tribals minimal facilities. So the space was easily found,” said Prasanta Patnaik, a former newspaper editor in Orissa.

AGGRESSIVE MISSIONARIES?
Patnaik said he knew of cases two decades ago when some villagers were given quinine tablets to entice them to Christian “miracles”. He says missionary work now is less aggressive.

But in the past few decades, tales like these sparked a backlash from a Hindu group which “converted” many people back to Hinduism through a purification ritual.

It was a vicious cycle that was to spark disaster.

“Kandhamal has become a point of experiment for both Christian and Hindu fundamentalists,” said Basanta Mallik, a reader of history at the Utkal University in Orissa.

That movement to Hindu conversion was led by the elderly Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was his killing in August that has sparked nearly two months of communal riots.

Refugees said they fear they would never return home.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in Orissa earlier this month described forced conversions back to Hinduism as “systematic”.

Some blame Hindu political groups. Some blame lax police. Others blame underlying, decade-old ethnic and land conflicts.

But there is little doubt that deep-seated religious fears are at the root of the problem.

Some homes now have saffron flags on their roofs to distinguish them from Christians.

Some refugees know villagers have converted to Hinduism. In supposedly globalised India, others receive phone calls from old neighbours telling them to come back, but only as Hindus.

Lalita Digal, a 25-year-old refugee recounted how her house, clothes and rice stores were burnt to a cinder. Her in-laws were then surrounded by people with sticks and axes.

“My in-laws said let us say we are Hindus to make sure we are spared.” She said they were sat around a fire, given new clothes, cleanly shaved and had their hair cut. Then they were forced to recite mantras over a coconut.

A few miles away Ashok Sahu, a Hindu leader and a former inspector general of police, says such claims are exaggerated. The root of the problem, he says, is Christian conversion.

“Christians can go back provided there is no fresh conversion by the Church,” he said over a cup of tea in his upscale house.

“Peace and fraudulent conversion cannot coexist.”

(Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash and Matthias Williams in New Delhi)

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