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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 46

The Multipolar Truth of Kandhamal Conflict

Tuesday 4 November 2008, by K.B.


The physical terrain of Kandhamal is breathtakingly beautiful. Green hills, clouds, mist and frequent rains add to this beauty. The name Kandhamal means the garland of hills where the Kandhas live. Kandhas, or Khonds, are the original inhabitants of this region. They are dark, muscular, simple. They survive on agriculture and animal husbandry. Nature or prakruti is their religion. They believe the divine does not reside in a temple, mosque, church or any other houses of worship built by man. They believe that whenever they want to meet Him, He will appear before them. They are taught that the divine can be summoned and He never betrays his devotees. And the devotee does not have to go to a special prayer hall or structure to meet him.

The Indian state perceives the Kandhas as a tribe, but they themselves believe that they are no less civilised than the rest in the country and will do well if left to themselves. But history did not leave the Kandhas alone over the last few hundred years. Interaction of larger historical forces with them generated conflicts. They were not always on the right side of history. For example, one of their rebellions against the British took place when the colonial powers banned ‘Maria puja’, a human sacrifice ceremony among the tribals of Kandhamal.

As the twentieth century unfolded in various kinds of subcontinental nationalism, the realm of the Kandhas fell in the region of Orissa/Kalinga. That means Oriya nationalism took over their entity. But this was not entirely a negative relationship. In fact, the people living on the plains of Kalinga, since ancient times, had forged a syncretic culture with those living in the dense forests of the region. The plains people of Orissa gave the Hindu way of life in the subcontinent a definite identity. Orissa was one of the most important centres of Brahminism and Buddhism and the Bhakti movement. All the time, it dipped into the tribal culture. The myths concerning Lord Jagannath are illustrative of the tribal-non-tribal syncretic culture in the region of Kalinga/Orissa. Kandhas remember the story of Neela Madhava with affection. They considered him their God. Vissavasu, a tribal was a great devotee of Neela Madhava, or the Blue God. But Vidyapati, a Brahmin from the plains, also wanted to attain the status of the Lord. Vidyapati tried hard. Finally, the Lord appeared before him to say that he will be worshipped as Lord Jagannath by the Brahmin. Ever since this tribal-Hindu interaction, Lord Jagannath has been worshipped both by the tribals and the non-tribal Hindus. So much so that the Dwaitapatis, the small group of priests at the temple of Lord Jagannath in Puri, are described by the Kandhas as tribal Hindus. Though the Hindu way of life was enriched by the arrival of Lord Jagannath from his hilly abode to the temple at Puri, tribals over the centuries felt unhappy over the fact that their Lord was taken away from them. Whether one accepts the tribal myths or not, the fact remains that folklores have tied communities in imagined strands for centuries. This alienation is actually the reflection of a larger fact of tribal existence, where not just their religion, but other aspects of existence were also endangered by more sophisticated systems of knowledge, economy, and society.

This is best reflected in the name given to them: Kandha. The tribals, that is, the Kandhas, say that this name was given to them by the Oriyas, that is, the people living in the plains. They describe themselves as Kui, a linguistic identity. The Kui identity has staged repeated entry into the Oriya nationalist discourse over the last one hundred years. This first appeared during a string of social and political upheavals in Orissa during the British Raj. Ever since, the Kui identity stayed and reminded Orissa and India that there remain many in the subcontinent unacknowledged. The Kui Samaj Samanvay Samiti was formed in the first half of the twentieth century. Then came India’s moment of glory in 1947. As India proceeded towards development, the Kui samaj, overshadowed by Oriya nationalism and self-respect, now came to be known as the Kandhas, and went back to its spells of alienation. Kui Samaj Samanvay Samiti was also became a moribund organisation.

Thankfully, the new state of India was focused on upliftment of the “backward” people. Accordingly, the Constitution had a provision of positive discrimination. But little changed between the new state and the Kandhas because the problem between them and the new state remained unaltered. During the British era, Kandhas had faced the problem of loss of land to the non-Kandhas. This problem was accelerated by the introduction of land rent and landlord rent among them by the British Raj. The British system introduced a large number of non-tribal settlers in the region who worked as agents of the Raj against the interests of the poor and dispossessed tribals in the region. Due to increasing land alienation, poverty and erosion of traditional way of life, the Kandhas revolted repeatedly during the nineteenth-twentieth centuries. The latest unrest in the district should be therefore seen in the context of tribal deprivation of land, water, forest by succeeding states that were felt by the tribals in the inter-generational manner. However, let us make it clear that the Kandha rebellions against the British-backed landlords are not being equated with their current attacks on the Christian Dalits/Panas as they fall in morally differing worlds. During the British era, the Kandhas and the Panas shared a uniform sense of deprivation. Under the Indian postcolonial system, there is a relative sense of deprivation in Kandhamal today. From the national discursive point of view, it could be said that both the Kandhas and Panas are poor, but to the local Kandhas, the Panas are better off both economically and culturally. Such relative welfare renders the Panas vulnerable to tribal investigation and, as in this case, ire.

Growth of Oriya Nationalism and its Impact on the Tribal Identities of Present-day Orissa

ORISSA had a distinct sense of history throughout its existence. Yet during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries the geographical area of Kalinga did not receive favourable treatment from the British conquerors. The state was divided into different territories to suit certain colonial administrative necessities. The territories beyond the Chilika lake, that formed part of southern Orissa, were under the Madras presidency, Orissa proper, between Ganjam and Chilika lake in the south to the river Subarnarekha in north, under Bengal, and western Orissa with fourteen states was under the Central Provinces while some portions of the State were given to the Chotanagpur division. The influence of this division can still be felt in present-day Orissa. Oriya language has resemblance with Bengali. [But there are other linguistic issues that were perhaps not connected to the administrative machinery of the region. Kui, the language spoken by the Kandhas (and also by the Panas), has great similarity with Telugu. In fact Kui can be considered as the link that connects Telugu with Oriya. One of the demands in the current agitation in Kandhamal is to introduce Kui as an operative language in the district.]

One prominent cause for the growth of Oriya nationalism was the famine of 1866 which proved to be a wake-up call for the Oriya people. This was the time of revival of Oriya language and identity. Prajabandhu, a journal edited by Nilamani Vidyaratna, and other such journals and newspapers started expressing the Oriya identity. It was also the time when Oriyas got influenced by the Bengal school of Enlightenment. This influence could be seen in the family of Biju Patnaik, whose family members embraced the Brahmo Samaj, a movement which was popularised in the late 19th century by Keshab Chandra Sen. Growth of literature, language, politics and national identity also brought in the spirit of entrepreneurship which manifested in the large scale small businesses that were started by the Oriyas in the early twentieth century. Biju Patnaik himself was the tallest Oriya businessman in the 1950s. When Orissa was experiencing middle and late nineteenth century currents of nationalist revival, many parts of the region was left in the dark. Little changes took place in those areas. This disparity would continue to persist even in the 21st century finally leading to the differences between the Kandhas and the present-day Oriya business community. This also means that while Oriyas were influenced by the larger India-wide revival of Hinduism, similar movements were not recorded in tribal cultures of the State. The Oriyas and the Panas, who are currently considered by the tribals as the bearers of external agenda in the Kandhamal region, became the chief propagators of revivalist Hindu traditions from 19th century onwards among tribals and non-tribals. This is what brings us to the unique case of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati.

Fallacies of the Current Understanding of Kandhamal Crisis

IT is true that the Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati was a locally revered Hindu monk who believed that the tribals were Hindus and should be kept away from the influence of the Christian missionaries. But in essence the Swamy, an Oriya, was an outsider in the region like many others who interpreted the region and its original inhabitants from their vantage point. That the Swami was successful in getting some tribals to accept the Hindu way of life was his success entirely. In reality, the tribal leaders say, there was no strategic understanding between the two sides on fighting for the tribal rights. It is merely a coincidence that the Hindu Oriyas and the Kandhas came on the same side. The Kandhas had called for a bandh on December 26-27, 2007. The Swami had called for a bandh on December 24, the Chrismas eve. On December 23, 2007, a mob attacked the Swami. This attack resulted into an alliance between the Swami and the Hindu forces led by the Oriyas and some of the tribal converts. In this way, the tribal hostility to Oriyas was forgotten for the last few months.

The Christian missionaries and the secularists try to look at the issue as a fight between the Hindutva forces galvanised by the murder of the Swami on August 23. They portray the fight in Kandhamal as the fight between the secularists versus the Hindutvavdis. In reality, conversion to Christianity cannot be an issue to the tribals as they simply do not understand the importance of organised religions like Church-bound Christianity, mosque-bound Islam, and temple-bound Hinduism. It is the material condition beneath the debate over conversion and religion that has rattled the tribals. Interestingly, the Kui Samaj Coordination Committee does not look at the issue from the national perspective as it perceives the Indian nation-state as exploitative. They believe the Indian nation-state is dominated by the non-tribals who view the tribals from their beneficial point of view. Their leaders look at the dominant Hindu ideas as exploitative which now uses the satellite TV to portray ancient tribal figures like Bali, Sugreev, Shurpanakha of the epic Ramayana as gullible monkeys or evil monsters. Here it has to be highlighted that while the national political discourse of India was shaped from the middle of the 19th century with a series of Hindu cultural movements like Arya Samaj in Punjab to the Ramakrishna movement in the east and decline of the zamindari system and advent of finance capitalism in the port cities and the hinterland, the tribal zones of the country did not experience similar dynamics. The tribals of Mayurbhanj, Kalahandi, Kandhamal were fighting the progressive modernist tendencies they perceived as neglectful of their existence. The oldest recorded uprising by the tribals in the region is the Ghumsur Uprising of 1815-1831 led by Dora Bisoyee which sprang from issues like realisation of tribute from the Kandh tribe in South Orissa by the colonial government. The spontaneous outburst was not a short-lived affair and it returned from 1837 to 1856. Similar tribal rebellions took place in Daspalla (1854), Boudh (1862) and Kalahandi (1878-83). As outsiders came in the region and implemented the agenda of the British rulers, tribal areas during the Daspalla, Boudh and Kalahandi, were directed against them.

The anti-British liberal idea of India, Hindu revivalism of the 19th century, embraced by the landlords of that time, and international radical movements were all viewed suspiciously by the tribals. That has not changed so far. Regardless of what the secular lobby feels, the present disturbances in Kandhamal are linked to the tribals’ past insurrections. Like in the past, Kandhas have attacked those they consider as internal exploiters or agents of outside forces in their region. Unfortunately, this time, the fight has broken out between the Kandhas and Panas. Kandhas are tribals who had the right to land and forest at one point in history. But the Dalit Panas, being at the lowest rung of the Hindu society, did not have any right to land in the past. One of the positive outcomes of the Indian constitutionalism is its enabling of the lowest strata of the society. Dalits were among the beneficiaries of the constitutional liberalism.
Some national commentators said the Panas do not own property. But from the tribal point of view, the Church property, is indicative of the Pana influence and property. The Church, however, would not accept this proposition at all. After all, this is a matter of tribal perception unacknowledged by many, including the welfare-seeking Church.

Clearly Oriya nationalism was not perceived as the voice of the tribals or the Dalits who converted to Christianity to avoid the repressive measures of orthodox Hinduism. Given that almost all the national stakeholders (secularists, Hindutva ideologues, Congress supporters, anthropologists, sociologists, Leftists and ultra-Leftists) have something to talk about in the Kandhamal dispute, they have spoken out on the issue. But it is not necessary that their voices were telling the truth from the point of view of the least powerful. In most of the cases, they were presenting history from their vantage point.

So there are a number of parallel conflicts in Kandhamal: (i) Kandhas versus linguistic Oriyas, (ii) Kandhas versus Christian Panas, (iii) Kandhas versus Hindus in general, (iv) Kandhas versus Oriya Hindus, (v) Kandhas versus Oriya landlords and businessmen, (vi) Kandhas versus the Indian state. These apart, there were the demands of keeping the Kandha culture, language and identity alive and these added unique dynamics to extant problems. These conflicts are active all at the same time or one at a time. The Hindutva attack on the Christian Panas is manifestation of the ethnic and economic divide that found expression in the language of communal hatred. Various chapters of the problem are underlined by land, water, ethnicity, religion, forest and other such issues that mattered to both the tribals and non-tribals.

It has been alleged that the tribal Kandhas are upset over loss of control over land. Some national commentators said that the Panas do not own much land and therefore the land issue against the Panas is trumped up by the Hindutva forces to justify tribal anger. It should be stated here that the tribal-Hindutva friendship is not as solid as it is believed by some commentators. Tribals have started thinking that the Hindutva groups have capitalised on their anger to draw national political mileage. That apart, significant amount of land was taken over as Church property. Panas or Dalit Christians may not have much land but to the tribal Kandhas, the land of the Christian religious institutions do not belong to the Church but to the local followers of the Church, the Panas. That a part of the local Christians happens to be tribal is just an insignificant issue to them. In this way both the arm-chair secularists and the Hindutvawallahs stand exposed in their inability to understand the ground reality in Kandhamal. Political correctness may be fashionable but it certainly does not fashion an explanation of the problem of Kandhamal under the current circumstances.

The bottomline of the Kandhamal conflict is that it is a perfect Rashomon moment for the country as every stakeholder can look at it from its point of view. Yet, all these interpretations do not change the underlying tangible and intangible bases of the conflict: land, culture, identity, sustainable development, local economy. The best way to understand the Kandhamal crisis is by avoiding the temptation to discover a victim among either of the community; truth has to be read sympathetically in each side as this is basically a conflict borne out of poverty in a poverty-struck region, located in a country which, despite vows, has repeatedly failed to understand and remedy poverty among the most vulnerable sections of the society. Hopefully, India’s ability to discover political opportunity in each crisis will not come in the way of a proper understanding of the crisis. The Kandhamal conflict has not ended. A solution to this has to include rejection of the bipolar explanations provided by the national discourse-makers. This, of course, does not mean overlooking the disruptive role of the Hindutva forces who have, in today’s situation, substantially contributed to the exacerbation of the tribal Kandha-Dalit Christian Pana conflict by instigating the Kandhas against the Panas to carry out their own nefarious design of pitting one segment of the poor against the other.


Colonialism in Orissa: Resisting Colonialism: Shifting Paradigms by Subhash Chandra Padhy and Chittaranjan Satpathy; published by R.N. Bhattacharya, Kolkata; 2006; pages 144.

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