11 April 2009

Dateline Orissa: Fear still stalks Kandhamal

The BJP hopes to capitalise on polarisation, insecurity by turning the focus on minorities

11 April 2009
The Hindu

ELECTIONS 2009
Fear still stalks Kandhamal
The BJP hopes to capitalise on polarisation, insecurity by turning the focus on minorities

Siddharth Varadarajan

G. Udaygiri: Months after Kandhamal was rocked by a wave of anti-Christian violence orchestrated by activists and leaders of the Sangh Parivar, the Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to capitalise on the polarisation and insecurity here with an electoral campaign dwelling more on the alleged sins of the minorities than on the district’s terrible record of poverty and underdevelopment.

The contest in the district is triangular, with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Congress enjoying a slight edge over the BJP, whose pockets of support are limited to those blocks where the RSS has been active for decades. But the manner in which its campaign is highlighting the salience of religious conflict does not augur well for the long-term stability of Kandhamal or indeed Orissa.

For the Assembly segment of G. Udaygiri — elections to the Orissa Assembly are being held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections — the party has fielded an RSS pracharak named Manoj Kumar Pradhan despite the fact he is in jail charged with several offences, including murder, during last year’s riots.

“He was the chief executioner,” Dr. Krishna Kumar, the District Collector, told The Hindu. “We have a solid case against him.” The BJP’s candidate for the Lok Sabha seat, Ashok Sahu, a former police officer, has been spewing venom against Christians. In the wake of the Varun Gandhi controversy and persistent complaints about the use of inflammatory language, Dr. Kumar ordered 24-hour video tracking of Mr. Sahu. On Thursday night, an FIR was finally lodged in Phulbani against him for a hate speech during a rally on April 5 at Raikia.

Raikia is a sensitive town lying at the epicentre of the violence, which took the lives of more than 40 Christians last year in the surrounding countryside following the assassination by Maoists of Lakshmananda Saraswati, a well-known RSS leader. As one drives away from the town towards the villages which radiate out, scores of burnt and destroyed Christian homes line the roads and by lanes. Almost every other structure flies a saffron flag, as pamphlets had instructed Hindus to do last year in order to ensure their own dwellings remained untouched.

In his speech, Mr. Sahu blamed the Christians and the Church for the assassination of Lakhsmananda Saraswathi. Wherever there were insurgencies, he said, whether in the North-East or Jharkhand or Orissa, these were being fuelled by Christians. He referred to a non-Hindu whose evidence had led to the recent arrest of a Hindu involved in the riots as a ‘samaj shatru,’ or enemy of the community, and said the enemy would have to bear the consequences.

What those consequences might be are not lost on the district’s beleaguered Christian population. More than 3,000 of them still live in official relief camps, while several hundred more are scattered around market places and elsewhere, bereft of official support and too scared to return to their villages. At the ‘hata’ just outside town, 40 families from Betikola have been living in the open for the past two months, after the relief camp they were in was shut down.

Ratnakar Naik, whose family has been Christian for two generations, said that when he went back to his village last week, he was warned not to return unless he agreed to abide by Hindu customs. This threat, he said, was delivered by Pradyumna Pradhan, whom he described as owing allegiance to the BJP. According to the police, Mr. Pradhan, wanted in connection with arson cases in his village, is absconding.

All the displaced are daily wage labourers below the poverty line. Many lost their NREGA cards when their homes were burnt down and are still in the process of acquiring fresh identification. None of those living in camps expressed an interest in returning to their villages to vote on April 16, despite the promise of transportation and police protection. Most are reluctant to speak about their own political preferences. “Of course, if Manoj Pradhan or Sahu win, it will be very bad,” said Naresh Nayak at the Mandakya camp, home to more than 400 families. “We don’t trust any party. None of them did anything for us when we were attacked,” said another man. When pressed, however, many said the Congress might be best, despite the fact that the BJD has fielded a Christian candidate against Mr. Pradhan for the Assembly.

According to the Collector, elaborate arrangements have been made to allow every displaced Christian the chance to vote in a free and fair manner. New voter ID cards are being hurriedly issued and transportation arranged to ferry any of the 20,000 Christians who have fled the district to their polling stations should they so desire.

1 comment:

rohan singh said...

Nice artical sir.
Around 25000 people took shelters in the relief camps in Kandhamal after violence started.Now only 3000 of them are there.Obviously most of them have not gone back to their villages where the atmosphere is still hostile to them.
It is completly unbelieveble that those missing people will come back to vote by calling on a toll free number.