As a fresh wave of sectarian violence is unleashed across the Indian state of Orissa, Gethin Chamberlain talks to homeless survivors in Kandhamal district who were forced to abandon their religion
Gethin Chamberlain, for The Observer, 19 October 2008
HUNDREDS of Christians in the Indian state of Orissa have been forced to renounce their religion and become Hindus after lynch mobs issued them with a stark ultimatum: convert or die.
The wave of forced conversions marks a dramatic escalation in a two-month orgy of sectarian violence which has left at least 59 people dead, 50,000 homeless and thousands of houses and churches burnt to the ground. As neighbour has turned on neighbour, thousands more Christians have sought sanctuary in refugee camps, unable to return to the wreckage of their homes unless they, too, agree to abandon their faith.
Last week, in the worst-affected Kandhamal district, The Observer encountered compelling evidence of the scale of the violence employed in a conversion programme apparently sanctioned by members of one of the most powerful Hindu groups in India, the 6.8-million member Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – the World Hindu Council.
Standing in the ashes of her neighbour’s house in the village of Sarangagada, Jaspina Naik, 32, spoke nervously, glancing towards a group of Hindu men watching her suspiciously. ‘My neighbours said, “If you go on being Christians, we will burn your houses and your children in front of you, so make up your minds quickly”,’ she said. ‘I was scared. Christians have no place in this area now.’
On her forehead, she wore a gash of vermilion denoting a married Hindu woman, placed there by the priest at the conversion ceremony she had been obliged to attend a day earlier, along with her husband and three young children. ‘I’m totally broken,’ she said. ‘I have always been a Christian. Inside I am still praying for Jesus to give me peace and to take me out of this situation.’
She and her neighbour, Kumari Naik, 35, gazed forlornly at the charred remains of the house. The mob that arrived one evening in the first week of the violence, armed with swords and axes, had looted what they wanted before dousing the building with petrol and setting it alight. Kumari had fled into the nearby forest with her husband, Umesh, and 14-year-old son Santosh. A smoke-damaged child’s drawing of Mickey Mouse pinned to one wall was all that remained of their former lives. Shattered roof tiles crunched underfoot as the women moved through the blackened rooms.
The priest had given them cow dung to eat during the ceremony, they said, telling them it would purify them. ‘We were doing that, but we were crying,’ Jaspina said.
The roads between the villages are rough and potholed, adding to the difficulties in accessing what is already a remote region, a six-hour drive from the state capital, Bhubaneshwar. The remoteness has undoubtedly played a part in the continuation of the violence, making it harder for police to move about quickly, even if they were minded to do so. Christian leaders, though, have accused the authorities of dragging their feet, claiming they are reluctant to antagonise the majority Hindu community in the run-up to parliamentary elections next year.
Relations between the Hindu and Christian communities were already at a low ebb when the killing of VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on 23 August provided the trigger for the current wave of violence. The VHP blamed Christians and the mobs descended on the homes of neighbours and friends. Those who were too slow to get away were killed. Amid the savagery, two incidents stood out: a young Hindu woman working in a Christian orphanage was burnt alive and a nun was gang-raped.
Yet the VHP is unrepentant and appears to be involved, at least at grassroots level, with the campaign of forced conversions. One priest who converted 18 Christians in the village of Sankarakhole last week told The Observer that he had been approached by local VHP representatives to carry out the ceremony.
‘The VHP people came with letters that said they wanted to be converted, so I converted them,’ said Preti Singh Patra, who is the brother of a senior VHP official. Crouching on the ground in front of his temple, set in a small walled garden beneath a huge banyan tree, he ran through the details of the ceremony: first some fruit to eat, followed by a mixture of cow dung and urine mixed with milk and curd, a dip in water from the Ganges, an hour of prayers and then the painting of a bindi on the forehead.
Some local men stepped forward to speak to him. ‘Don’t say too much,’ they warned. The priest seemed unconcerned. The 18 had been the only Christians in the village, he said. They were happy to convert.
Around the village, the countryside is a sea of green, a beautiful lush vista that offers, at a distance, no clues to the turmoil. Yet up close it is a landscape scarred by the ugly remains of homes and churches which lie shattered between other houses still inhabited and unscathed, those belonging to Kandhamal’s Hindus.
A few miles down the road from Sankarakhole, in the village of Minia, Sujata Digal, 38, stood outside her own burnt-out home. The mob had arrived at 3am, she said. She and her husband Hari hid in the forest and watched the house burn. When they came out of the forest, the mob returned and told them to convert, and it was not a hard decision.
‘They said, ‘If you don’t become Hindu, we’ll burn your houses too and start killing you’,’ said Ashish Digal, the former Christian pastor. ‘I’ve been forced to convert. Everyone is being converted. They beat us in the fields. I went to the temple. We had to say that we belonged to the Hindu state of Orissa, and that from this day we are Hindus.’
Before the violence started, Christians outnumbered Hindus in Minia: now 115 have converted, roughly half of their original number. The rest have fled.
Burn your Bibles, the men told Ashish Digal. He told them he had, but hid them instead. Every couple of days people come to his house to search, hoping to catch him out. Those people are not strangers; they are his neighbours.
They had been sitting idly in the main road when The Observer’s car pulled up. Now the young driver, Sudhir, was rushing down the path that led to what remained of Sujata Digal’s house, holding his head, visibly shaken. ‘We must leave now,’ he said.
He had been standing by the car when the men closed in around him. They left the talking to Prashant Digal, a teacher and organiser for the local VHP youth wing. ‘Why did you bring these people here?’, he demanded, punching Sudhir in the head. ‘Take the vehicle and go. Leave them here for us.’ They surrounded him, a young Hindu, and slapped him around again. No one came to his aid. ‘If you stay, we will burn you with them in the car. You will all be killed. Just leave them,’ they told him. But he did not, which was a decent thing for a frightened boy to do. He drove a little way down the road and parked around a corner, out of sight, and came back to raise the alarm.
Back on the main road, the men were waiting. ‘Put your notebook and your cameras away. You will take no pictures and record nothing,’ the VHP man said. ‘You want to know what is happening? Now I will tell you why this is happening.’ He blamed the Christians for taking the jobs of Hindus, for the murder of the Swami. The only solution was for Christians to convert, he said. ‘This is a Hindu community. Everyone can stay here, as long as they are part of that community. And now you should go.’