It was two o clock in the morning. I had just woken up in the quiet village of Lakebadi in Kandhamal, still asleep in the lap of Nature and the Divine, and was looking at the beautiful mountains bathed in light with the rays of a blooming moon and the stars. I was remembering the prayer for peace offered by Gokul Diggal two days ago when we first met: “God, please forgive us all so that all of us can realise our own weaknesses and mistakes. The Hindu brothers who are doing all these without knowing, you talk to them.”
Gokul Diggal is a Dalit Christian or what is known as Pana Christian in this village; his house was destroyed in violence in Kandhamal after the murder of Swami Lakshmananda and his fellow Ashramites on August 23, 2008. The villagers resisted for nearly twentyfive days and finally gave in to the mob of destruction coming from outside but with collaboration of some in the village. Lakebadi has 37 families of Dalit Christians and the same number of Adivasi Hindus or tribal Hindus. Almost all the houses of Dalit Christians have been destroyed but before the final act of house demolitions the Dalit Christians were able to store their valuable goods, commodities and bags of grains in the houses of Adivasi Hindus. Initially the Hindu tribals offered protection to Dalit Christians but there was constant pressure on them from the violent outside forces who would come in the night, shout slogans against Christians and instigate the Hindu tribals. Says Arti Apa, the quiet-willed and radiating wife of Gokul Bhai: “Oh what noise! Oh those slogans! We had never heard: Bajrang Dal ki Jai! Bharat Mata ki Jai! We used to tremble in fear. Before darkness we used to leave our homes with children and all of us together went up the hills and took shelter. We used to come down only when daylight broke.” Says Sabita Apa, another woman in the village: “Only when they broke our house, we felt safe. Otherwise we have had to live with their threat for ever.”
Gokul Bhai is a young man in the village and had a flourishing business—he had a ration shop. But he was able to store most of his goods in the house of his Hindu tribal friend. After their houses were demolished all the Dalit Christian families of the village went to live in the relief camp in K. Nuagaon, nearly twenty kilometres away from the village. But two families did not leave the village even in the midst of destruction and continued threat of violence. I was resting in the house of one such family. Mahanabati Apa, the woman in the family, who radiates a sense of divine peace and strength, said: “Why should man be afraid of another man? If they want to kill us let them but we won’t leave our village.” She further said: “I prayed during the evening. I got an answer: do not be afraid. We did not go to the relief camp. But I was always praying: let the people of our village come back from the relief camp. Now that they have come back from the relief camp we feel very happy.” Mahanabati Apa leads a spiritually inspired life and she spends most of her time praying with Jesus and doing work in the village and the forest. Her husband goes for collecting wood and sells it in the neighbouring small town of Raikia. They have a grown-up son who during the violence stayed away in the block headquarters of Baliguda. Mahanabati Apa, like many men and women in the village, is praying for peace in the village, and in Kandhamal.
I had visited Lakebadi on January 8-9, 2009. After spending nearly two months in the relief camp villagers had come back to the village just two days before my arrival in the village. There was a spirit of a new beginning and building again from the edges of ravages and destructions. Gokul Bhai, who was a rich man in the village and had a comfortable bed to sleep on, slept on the floor in the tent in the relief camp. He said as we were having dinner at his home one night: “Oh, at least the relief camp taught us that we are all equal. I, who used to have fine food and sleep on our luxurious bed, stood in the queue.” But not all the inmates in the relief camp are as philosophically and spiritually attuned as Gokul Bhai. Life in the camp was hard and many complained that they were not being given proper food. But when they left the camp each of the families was given some ration of rice and other essential goods by the government so that they could start their life again.
But in the camp Gokul Bhai and his fellow brothers filed a case in the police station against fellow villagers, that is, the Adivasi Hindus for destroying their homes. Says Gokul Bhai: “People had come from outside but people from the village were also involved. If they had wanted they could have saved our homes. We had built our homes with great difficulty. They have taken even our doors and windows and roofs from most of our homes.” A case has also been filed against some Adivasi Hindus who had kept the goods and belongings of Dalit Christians in their homes. For example, the case filled in Lakebadi has named one who had kept the goods and household belongings of Gokul Bhai. Some innocent tribal Hindus seem to have been implicated in this case. Says Gokul Bhai: “I feel sorry. I did not want to include the name of Jagdish [pseudonym] in the case. He is my sangata [ritual friend] from my childhood. But other brothers from our side said: ‘Oh, you are not giving his name because he saved your belongings.’ The police also said that we have to include everybody in the village.”
But during my discussion with the Adivasi Hindus I found that case has not been registered against all the Hindu tribal families in the village. The local postman is one such person who has not been named in the police case. So it may not be true that the police insisted that the registered case has to include all the Adivasi Hindus of the village indiscriminately. Says Gokul Bhai: “I was not sure in my conscience that Jagdish was not involved in the destruction of our homes.” At the same time, he is grateful to Jagdish for the help he had rendered in saving his goods and belongings. During our discussion Gokul Bhai said: “I am prepared to pay for his court case and may be after a few hearings I can withdraw the case against him.”
Withdrawal of case is a demand from the local tribal Hindus for return of peace and normalcy in the village. This is also a demand from some tribal organisations in the area. Now the Dalit Christians are not allowed participation in the employment activities of the village. In an early morning I walked with the village Sarpanch, who is an Adivasi Hindu, and Johsua [name changed], a Dalit Christian, towards the village river. The Sarpanch told me: “We need a bridge over our river. We need development in the village.” But what is the meaning of development without peace, without inclusion of all? On the way to the river a road was being constructed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme [NREGS] and I spoke with the men and women working there. I asked the Sarpanch whether Dalit Christians can work in this project. He said that there was no bar. But after a few hours I met with an older tribal Hindu who told me that unless cases against the tribal Hindus are withdrawn Dalit Christians would not be welcome in the village work project. During our meeting men and women in the Dalit Christian neighbourhood said that they still face continuing threat from the Adivasi Hindus about exclusion from the village’s common resource such as forest and the cemetery and from the village work project. But despite such threats Dalit Christians do use the village’s common resource as the forest and collect woods.
Joshua Nayak is a Dalit Christian in the village who lives in a small plot of land in Lakebadi with his wife Prabha [name changed]. Joshua and Prabha had not left the village for the relief camp even if their house was destroyed. In a meditative afternoon we sat together in the only cot in this damaged house. Joshua and Prabha said that they had built the house with a lot of difficulties. This is the fruit of their labour from the scratch for the last thirty years. Everything evaporated in a few days. Like other families in the Dalit Christian neighbuorhood they had also saved their belongings in the houses of their Hindu tribal neighbours. They have got back some but still the table on which their TV used to stand is in the house of the Hindu family which had sheltered their belongings. Prabha has asked for it a number of times but still she has not got it back. There was sadness in her face. Said Joshua: “You see Prabha, please do not ask for it again. It would make them unhappy. They do not have a table. Now our TV is on a chair and we can manage. Whenever they get a table won’t they return it to us?”
Joshua said that before the destruction of the houses there were meetings in the village several times on the issue of safety and returning to Hinduism. People came with weapons and swords from outside and along with the villagers a meeting was held in a remote place in the village river bed. “They said that if we become Hindus nothing would happen to us. Many of our brothers said: how can we do this? We have been Christians for generations.” They were given a handwritten application form and were asked to sign. Joshua did not know how to sign and put his finger print. The application form read as follows:
The President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Orissa (Through the President of the Village Committee)
Sub: Coming back to original Hindu religion
[..] We were earlier living as Hindus. But unfortunately some years ago we accepted Christianity. But today on 1st October, 2008 I and my family accept our original religion on our own and would be guided by Hindu culture. [..]
It must be noted here that this paper reconversion took place on October 1, 2008 while the homes of the Dalit Christians in Lakebadi were demolished on September 18. There is pressure for reconversion all around. For example, in another village named Sirki near the block headquarters of G. Udayagiri there were two Christian families in a predominantly Hindu tribal neighbourhood. One of them is a Dalit Christian, the other a tribal Christian. The son in this tribal Christian family has become a Hindu while the mother has not. During our conversation an old woman from an Adivasi Hindu family said: “How can the old mother continue to manage as a Christian when his son and daughter-in-law have become Hindus?” In the same village of Sirki I met with the son-in-law of a prominent Dalit Christian of the village who has also become a Hindu because the Hindus of the neighbourhood have given him a plot to build his home. But on Sunday he goes to church, his father-in-law told me with a smile. This church is far away because the church in Sirki, as it is in Lakebadi, has been destroyed during the violence. But in the same Hindu Adivasi neighbourhood lives a Dalit Christian family.
However, the situation varies from village to village. One single Dalit Christian family living in the predominantly Adivasi neighbourhood in Sirki offers a ray of hope. But all the Dalit Christians do not have that sense of security and ease with which they can can live in their home villages nor can they return, especially if their home village has some strong and staunch followers of the Sangh Parivar. While I was in Lakebadi, Dalit Christians told me that if one leader in Dharampur (a local village with a strong base of the Sangh Parivar), wants peace they would come back to the area quickly. So even if it was getting dark I took a bus to the neighbouring village though the sisters of Lakebadi pleaded with me not to go to Dharampur alone: “Please do not go! They would ask you a lot of questions.”
I got down at the bus stop of the hilly village of Dharampur around 6.30 pm on January 9, 2009. I asked for the direction to the house of the local Sangh Parivar leader and people brought me to a local shop near the bus stop as the leader was sitting there. I was encircled by about ten people and all of them started asking me a volley of questions—who are you? Why have you come? I said that I am human being and as a fellow human being I am deeply pained at the killings, violence, threats, intimida-tions, destruction of life and peace in Kandhamal. One young Brahmin man sitting there said: “Hinduism does not believe in violence. When a Hindu rises up early morning he prays for the well-being of all people. But this is a reaction to the murder of Vedantakeshari Swami Lakshmananda. But all this talk of violence in Kandhamal is a fiction created by the outsiders who want to give Kandhamal a bad name.” The leader of the Sangh Parivar said: “But still the Christians of our village are living in peace here. We have given full protection to the Christians of our village. We have a Christian family here whose son is a pastor.” I requested him to take me to this family. The leader sent two people to escort me to his house. We came to the front of a house where an old man was sitting by the fireplace. It was cold and we all sat around the fire. I said: “Mausa, namaskar [Hello Uncle]! How are you?” He said: “I have become a Hindu two months ago.” There were two dilapidated houses nearby belonging to two Christian families of the village. The escorting men said: “Oh, we have told them so many times to come back to our village. They are still in the relief camp. Despite our repeated assurances they are not coming back.” The thatched roofs in these two houses have become dilapidated and the livestocks of these two families are not to be seen around.
I came back to the village bus stop hoping to speak further with the leader of the Sangh Parivar. But he had left the place. I asked one accompanying young man: “You all said that the Christian family is living in peace in your village and as Hindus you have provided him protection. But he has become a Hindu. What is this?” He said: “He became afraid in your presence thinking that you are from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. So out of fear he said he has become a Hindu.” I told him: “Let us then go back to his home again and speak with him.” Then the young man said: “It would be of no use as he would become afraid again that you are from the VHP.” So in the villages where the Sangh Parivar is dominant Christians can live with security only when they become Hindus and they can always be presented as a model of Christians offered peaceful protection to the outside world.
G. Udayagiri was an epicentre of violence and there is a relief camp in the local high school. I, accompanied by two friends of a voluntary organisation from Chennai, reached the relief camp in the evening of January 7, 2009. We were not able to go inside the relief camp. We were standing outside the relief camp and slowly the inmates of the camp passing by the road started speaking with us. One woman narrated her life of pain. She said that she was being forced to go back to her village where the condition for return is not safe. Not being able to go inside the relief camp without required permission from the District Collector we could not continue our conversation. But an hour later we came to the BDO office not far from the camp and met with the BDO of G. Udayagiri. We asked him about the issue of forcible ouster of refugees from the relief camp. He said: “No, this is not true. We are trying our best to create an amicable situation of safety and security so that people can return to their villages. Peace would come only when people come back to their villages and everybody starts living together. Relief camp is not the permanent solution. Whatever has happened has happened like a batya [a storm]. Now people from both sides are yearning for peace.”
During our hour-long conversation, the BDO, who is a young, sensitive and optimistic government officer, said: “We are working for peace. We are organising peace committee meetings. We are starting activities involving both Hindus and Christians. We want to celebrate the Republic Day in the villages with the participation of both the Hindus and Christians. We want to commemorate the local martyrs who had fought for freedom during the freedom struggle and this would be another occasion for the tribals and Harijans, Hindus and Christians to come together. We are also planning to start new economic activities in the villages such as brick-making. We are planning to start joint cultural activities and sports activities in the villages as well.”
The BDO said: “But if people do not come back to their villages, how can peace return?” The situation is quite complex and intractable in some cases. The vested interests in many villages are threatening the Dalit Christians of dire consequences if they come back. This way they can capture their land and other resources. But despite threats, asked the BDO, if people do not come back and start asserting their own right how can fear be overcome and life resumed? Some people always can issue threats and based upon the fear of those who have left can capture their land and home. We asked the BDO if he can pinpoint a village where people have come back from the relief camp. He told us about the village Sirki at a distance of around 10 kilometres from G. Udayagiri.
In Sirki, Dalit Christians living in the nearby relief camp in G. Udayagiri have come back. It was early morning and the sun was rising in the beautiful hills in front of the village. I was speaking with some of the villagers consisting of both Hindu Adivasis and Dalit Christians. The leaders of both the communities were present and so was the village ward member. There was a sense of picking up the threads of life and of beginning anew after the violence. The village ward member said: “All the villagers have come back except two persons. They do not have any land. They are worried about what they would eat if they come back.”
The leader of the local Adivasi Hindus said that during the violence while Dalit Christians took shelter in the relief camp, the tribal Hindus went up to the forests and the hills in fear of the police and the CRPF. They were afraid of being arrested. Feeling reassured about his sense of ease and welcome, I asked him if he had taken part in the violence against the Christians in the village. He said with a smile: “What can I say? Let the truth come out in the court?”
There was a beautiful church on the outskirts of Sirki as there was on the outskirts of Lakebadi. I asked the leader of the Hindu tribals in Sirki if the village church would be rebuilt. He said: “Yes only if it is on a legal plot of land. Many of the churches destroyed in Kandhamal were originally built on encroached land.”
But there are still many people living in the refugee camps. In the second day of my stay in Kandhamal while I visited Sirki in the morning and Lakebadi during noon I came to Baliguda in the afternoon and visited a noted Gandhian Ashram whose Ashramites are working among the tribals for the last sixty years. This is the Banabasi Sevashrama led by Biswanath Patnaik who is in his nineties and who had started land satyagraha among the tribals for their land rights and dignity way back in the 1940s. I wanted to discuss with him about challenges of peace in Kandhamal but he had left for his other Asrham in Rayagara. It must be noted that in the Kandhamal violence Gandhians and Gandhian organisations have not done much for building peace in the region.
On my way back I stopped at K. Nuagaan which headquarters the Christian development organisation Jan Vikash. Nuagaon is also the place where a nun was allegedly raped on August 25, 2008. I met Gokul Bhai of Lakebadi in a restaurant in the town as I had gone there for a cup of tea. I had come to his village a few hours ago during noon time. Gokul Bhai brought me to the relief camp in K. Nuagaon. As Gokul Bhai was staying in the relief camp we could go inside the camp. At the gate he started addressing the police guard: “Jai Jagannath.”1
We came inside the camp. Earlier many people were staying in this camp; now nearly half of them have gone back to the villages. We sat together with men, women and children of the camp and they shared their stories. They told us that during the early days of the camp some tuition was arranged for the children of the camp.
Usually people in the relief camps are portrayed as victims. But the people I met in that evening were not just victims. There was a radiance and quiet dignity in their faces embodying a creative soul force.
At the same time there is the unbearable grief of violence. In the camp it was deeply tragic to meet with a person from the village Gunjibadi whose wife had gone to the paddy field for harvesting the crop. Even after weeks she has not come back. Her husband’s vacant eyes are still looking for her return but many fear that she has been murdered. Another pastor is also not traceable in this region, and he is feared to have met the same tragic fate by brutal unidentified killers.
It was getting late and Gokul Bhai so kindly invited me to come to his village Lakebadi. We came and at the bus station met with two men just back from the peace committee meeting held in the Chanchdi Panchayat Office. (It must be noted that in the relief camp in Nuagaon, Dalit Christians from two panchayats, namely, Baligada and Chanchdi, are still unable to come back to their home villages because of threat of violence.) At the bus stop they told us with a heavy heart: “The peace committee meeting was being held in the Panchayat Office. The Collector, Sub Collector, BDO all of them had come. We thirty people had gone from the relief camp while four thousand people had come from the Panchayat. From the beginning they started shouting: ‘Ame Yudhya Chahu [We want war].’ Whatever they said we sat silently and heard with our bowed heads. We were just praying when the meeting would end. They had prepared food for us but we did not eat. We came back without food. Our heart was pained hearing all these slogans, shouting and accusations. On hearing the Jai Sree Ram slogan the Collector said: ‘Could you all become silent for a moment? Go back and sit silently for five minutes and meditate whether in Ram Rajya houses of innocent and helpless people are demolished.’ The Collector also said: ‘You are accusing the Christians of murder of Swamiji but do you have any proof? If you give me proof of any Christians involved I would immediately arrest them. Regarding their being Christian, India is a secular country and everybody has a right to practice one’s religion.’”
These two grief-stricken men went to the relief camp and Gokul Bhai and myself, accompanied by his aged father, boarded the bus to his village. While going these two men said that they are not being forced to leave the relief camp as the condition for return was not yet safe.2 In the bus I was thinking if this might be my last night and a fear was overtaking me as I was going to spend a night in a village ravaged by violence and still living with its ever-present hanging sword.
I was also thinking of the previous evening and night—our conversation with the BDO in G. Udayagiri when the BDO said that the killers of Swami Lakshmananda and his associates do not have any religion: “A Hindu killed Mahatma Gandhi but should we hold all Hindus responsible for his killing?” After our meeting with the BDO I went to the home of a Dalit Chirstian named Gopal Nayak. He lives with his wife and three children in a rented house in G. Udayagiri. He was working as a contractor in his home village of Tiangia as well as in the neighbouring villages. But his home village was the site of gruesome violence where three Christians—one his close relative who was visiting the village—were murdered brutally. Gopal and his family are living from hand to mouth in the bock headquarters of G. Udayagiri. But there is a sense of quiet determination in the face of his wife who is working hard and praying for the education of their children. Their eldest son, Abhishek, is to appear for the High School Board exam in Class 10 this year and for the last many months nothing has been taught in the school as there is a relief camp in their school premises. During our conversation in the evening Abhishek came back from his tuition class. Their second son, Avijit, is studying in a Nabodyaya3 school in Class Eight and now their daughter is preparing for the Entrance examination of Nabodyaya. All their hopes are now in the education of their children as it is in the families of many Dalit Christians in the village such as Lakebadi which I visited.
After being together with them sharing their grief and meditating, Gopal Bhai took me in his motor cycle and dropped me at the town centre of G. Udayagiri. I was taking a walk and saw a roadside omelette joint. One young man was standing there waiting for his ordered omelette. I also ordered an omelette for myself and greeted him. We sat in the verandah of a nearby shop. He was once active in the local RSS and had taken part in some of the Gita discourses given by Swami Lakshmananda during his school days. He said in a filthy language but a grief-stricken voice: “Why did you kill him? What had the old man done? He was scolding the Christians. But why could not we be silent? Mahatma Gandhi tuni rahile au tume rahi parilani—Mahatma Gandhi remained quiet on many occasions and could you not remain quiet?” After a while being a little intimate through the process of our conversation I asked him: “What do you think about the innocent people being killed and rendered homeless in Kandhamal? What is your thought about Christians being forced to become Hindus?” This young man, apologising to me for the fact that had taken a bit of liquor in the evening, started saying: “No, whatever religion one has, let one be in one’s religion. Let everybody be in their own religion and let no one kill another. Sabutharu badadharam heuchi bandhu dharma—the greatest religion of all is the religion of friendship. My father is now quite old. But his dearest friend is a Christian. Even now he cannot live without seeing him. I go in my motor cycle and bring him once a week. He has taken the Avda of Jagannath.”4
There is a tradition of friendship in Kandhamal among people across boundaries—Hindus and Christians, Adivasis and Harijans. Both Adivasis and Harijans speak the same Kui language and despite the politicisation and subsequent opposi-tional construction of identities there is still intimate interaction between people across boundaries such as tribal Kandhas and Pana Kandhas getting married to each other. Hindus and Christians have also lived side by side and for many, it is the outside Oriyas (who are mainly caste Hindus and some of whom are members of the Sangh Parivar) who have instigated conflicts between Adivasis and Harijans, Dalits and Christians so that their continued exploitation of local resources and domination of local politics and economy remains unchallenged.
As I was lost in these thoughts our bus reached the bus stop in village Lakebadi. In Lakebadi by the little hearth as Arti Apa (Gokul Bhai’s wife) was preparing a meal for us Gokul Bhai told us about his long friendship with both tribals and the Hindus. “In our village we have had no problem. The land for our church was given by a Hindu who told his children that after his death he should be buried there. Whenever a yagnya is organised in Dharampur I send ghee for the sacrifice. I attend Hindu worship and take prasada. I have taken the avda of Mahaprabhu Jagannath.” The next day in Lakebadi I was in the house of Joshua and Prabha in whose home I saw a beautiful photo of Lord Krishna with his flute by the side of a serene photograph of Mother Mary. Joshua has put a garland of paddy around Krishna. He said: “Paddy is Lakshmi. You burnt everything but what fault the paddy had done? You can get everything but not a flower of paddy corn. It is Goddess Lakshmi. Why did you burn Goddess Lakshmi?” His wife commented: “He knows more about Hinduism than many Hindus in the village. He loves Krishna.” Joshua said: “Unfortunately tribals have been made Hindus but they have not been told about the significance of Rama and Krishna. Before this they used to worship in their own ways. They have been made Hindus without being told the essence of Hinduism. Would they have burnt our houses had they realised the essence of Rama and Krishna?”
There is a striving for peace in the hearts, prayers and action of many people in Kandhamal and around the world. They know that it is not an easy task, there is a spectre of violence but nonetheless there is a sense of radiance in the hearts and minds of the people. Kandhamal needs support in this quiet striving for peace beyond rhetorics. Kandhamal needs bold initiatives in peace and development to support the deep yearning for peace among all concerned after the gruesome violence which has afflicted many. Many have silently borne this brunt. During my last visit to Kandhamal and Orissa I met with a leading public intellectual of Orissa in Bhubaneswar who is in his mid-eighties now. He said: “So much blood has been spilled. Is this not enough? Cannot all pray together?” He also said: “As this violence was engulfing I was one night in the bathroom. I do not know what happened. I lost my balance, fell down and broke my hand.”
So Kandhamal touches some sensitive souls in Orissa, India and the world though at the same time it must be stated that many intellectuals and people in Orissa have maintained silence. During our conversation in Kandhamal many referred to the violence in Kandhamal as a batya, a mahabatya—a cyclone, a super-cyclone. During the super-cyclone in 1999 many people in Orissa came out with relief but what has been their response during the manushyskruta mahabatya—man-made super-cyclone—in Kandhamal? Most of the people in Orissa, and especially the elites, have looked the other way and forgotten their duty to their own conscience and responsibility to their own fellow beings—helplessly chased, rendered homeless and killed. The media, instead of calming down, aroused passions that poisoned the public mind with false and hateful accusations against the Christians. During the last Durga Puja, as is the tradition of literary creativity in Orissa, many magazines came out with their special Puja numbers but a very voluminous Puja special which I read did not have even a single article on the violence, suffering and tragedy in Kandhamal. Like the silence of the majority of the people in Gujarat the majority of the people of Orissa, especially the Hindu religious leaders and intellectuals, have maintained silence on the violence that Chirstians were and are still being subjected to in Kandhamal.
But there is an urgent need for peace, development and transformation in Kandhamal. Many people are living a miserable life without homes and many are still in the relief camps. Many have left the relief camps not for their villages but to other cities in Orissa and places like Kerala. Those who are left behind are praying for peace and building their broken homes and worlds. Should not the sensitive souls from all around Orissa, India and the world come and build together some of these demolished houses? If Hindus could not come from both inside and outside Kandhamal and rebuild the houses of their Christian brothers and sisters, then what is the test of the spiritual potential of their religious identity and assertion?
Kandhamal also needs bold initiatives in peace education and reconstruction. The government is paying some compensation for the houses demolished—for example, Rs 20,000 for the partially damaged houses and Rs 50,000 for the fully damaged houses. This is woefully inadequate. But our Christian brothers and sisters in Kandhamal need not only more resources, they also need all of us concerned, especially the brothers and sisters from other religions—Hindus and Muslims—to stand by their side and build together demolished houses and churches. This act of reconstruction involving shared participation from people of all religions and communities in the villages as well as sympathetic volunteers from outside can be undertaken as an experimental project in some villages.
Along with rebuilding of homes and places of worship there is the urgent task of rebuilding mutual trust among the tribals and Harijans, Christians and Hindus in Kandhamal. In the process of violence many people have been involved in cases and some of them may be innocent. Moreover, violence in the villages was instigated by the merchants of hatred coming from outside; they are happily roaming around now while the Hindu Adivasis in the villages, who worked as foot soldiers to such merchants of death and destruction, are bearing the brunt of arrests and continued court cases. There is need for a Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Kandhamal where such cases could be discussed in villages themselves with the participation of both the victims and alleged perpetrators. The police, sensitive lawyers, people from the government machinery, representatives of civil society organisations—all could be part of such meetings of peace and reconciliation and people in the village meetings could decide which case to continue and which case to drop. As we have seen in villages like Lakebadi, cases have been registered against some Adivasi Hindus who have helped Dalit Christians in saving their goods and house-hold belongings.
Along with the above, there is an urgent need for bold initiatives in peace education in particular and education in general. Hindus and Christians as well as Adivasis and Harijans have been put into an orchestrated battle whose choreographers are the high-caste Oriyas coming from outside the region and controlling the resources and political destiny of the people of Kandhamal. It is in this context that there is an epochal need for peace education for the children as well as adults from both the communities and religions. This would help them understand their intertwined histories and continued legacies of co-existence and how to speak with each other over contentious issues such as the fear of the other.
But initiatives in peace education need to be accompanied by bold initiatives in education. There is a disparity between Harijans and tribals in terms of education and other indices of standard of living and human development. Because of the work of missionaries and church institutions there is a high level of education and literacy among the Harijans of Kandhamal. The tribals lag behind and the government schools in Kandhamal, as it is in most other tribal parts of Orissa, are not working. Crows are flying in such schools and goats are singing songs while the teachers come once a month only to collect their salary. Harijans also, by dint of their hard work and networking with the outside world, have a relatively better standard of living and education which the merchants of hatred always capitalise on and instigate the tribals to target them that the Dalits have prospered at the expense of the tribals. But both the tribals and Dalits of the region lead a precarious existence dominated by the outside merchants, money lenders and government officers. Kandhamal needs bold initiatives in education.Christian institutions have helped Dalit Christians in their educational aspiration by building schools. They could build similar schools for the Hindu tribals and these schools could become secular spaces of quality education and appropriate education relevant to the needs of self-development and blossoming for the local people. It should not be a mere replication of the existing education which just presents literacy and prepares for examinations and jobs. Rather, these schools should be places of appropriate learning so that students can live in their world with dignity, the curriculum should be based upon integration of the heart and the hand and should prepare the local tribal children for a life of dignity in their surroundings by giving them appropriate training. This education should also prepare them to venture out into the world but not just leaving the villages for jobs outside. Such schools could learn from creative experiments in indigenous education from all over the world, for example, initiaves such as the University de Tiera (University of Earth) in the Chiapas region of Mexico.
Christian institutions are running quality schools for the elites of Orissa in many towns and cities and these are secular spaces. Similarly Christian institutions could open up appropriate schools for the poor tribals of Kandhamal and the teachers in such schools need to come from all religions and not only Christian. This would also be a concrete experimental project of going beyond the current politics of accusation and counter-accusation that Christian missionaries are engaged in conversion in the name of service delivery. Similarly Christian development organisations working in Kandhamal need to employ workers from all religious backgrounds. At present this is not the case as it is also the case with voluntary organisations emerging from the Hindu space where the workers are exclusively Hindu while their counterparts in Christian service organisations are exclusively Christian. Such exclusivity breeds isolation and hatred, especially from the other, and in these difficult times while life and death of so many of our fellow beings are at stake, leaders of such institutions should take bold steps to make their public institutions much more inclusive rather than just having people from their own respective religions.
Kandhamal needs a Peace, Reconciliation and Reconstruction Commission which can build upon the lessons of such initiatives in both South Africa and Rwanda. The Peace and Reconciliation Com-mission in South Africa, led by Desmond Tutu, created a space for both the victims and perpetrators of violence to speak with each other and seek forgiveness and grant forgiveness and move beyond the prison of hatred. The Commission could not solve all the problems but it created an opening for moving beyond the prison of the existing hatred. Similarly, after the genocide in Rwanda, there has been a national unity government there that has focused a lot on education, especially the education of the girl children. Kandhamal needs a Peace, Reconciliation and Reconstruction Commission and instead of waiting for the government to start it, some concerned individuals and voluntary organisations can start it as an experimental project. There is a fertile ground for starting this in villages like Lakebadi and Sirki that I have visited. Such a Commission could undertake the following activities, among others:
(a) to create a space for sharing of experience and seek for forgiveness and reconciliation between the victims of violence and perpetrators and seek the possibility of withdrawal of cases, especially against those who are innocent;
(b) to rebuild homes and places of worship with the collaborative labour and participation of people of all religions, especially Hindus and Christians, from within the villages as well as outside;
( c ) to undertake new initiatives in education, especially peace education.
The root of the problem in Kandhamal is complex and so the striving for peace in Kandhamal has to be multi-dimensional. There have been conflicts along oppositionally mobilised aggressive and assertive tribal/Dalit identities and to this renaming the district as Kandhamal by the then Biju Patnaik Government has made the non-Kandhas of the region, especially the Dalits, feel as if they do not have access to any of the resources of the region, especially land and forest. Added to this is the dimension of religion and now the work of the Maoists. A month ago, a counter-Mao group has also come up; it is named M2 and many believe it to be an outfit of the Sangh Parivar to target the Christian communities. Along with these complex sources of conflict lies the existential fear and threat of violence among those who are still in the relief camps and who are not able to return to their home villages. But at the same time, there is a deep yearning for peace among the people of Kandhamal and let all of us concerned take part in nurturing and building peace. As I was leaving Lakebadi before dawn it is this yearning for peace that embraced my soul and, saying bye to the brothers and sisters assembled in the village’s bus stop, I was thinking about the soul-touching question of Mahanabati Apa: “Why should man be afraid of another man?”
Pradhan, Pramodini and Ranjana Padhi, 2008, “Normalcy Far from Returning to Kandhamal”, Economic and Political Weekly, November 1-7.
1. Lord Jagannnath is the presiding deity in Orissa and the address Jai Jagannath by Gokul Bhai to the police guard suggests a respect for the cultural and religious feelings of the police officer in the camp who may have been a Hindu.
2. At the same time there are reports of forcible ouster from relief camps by observers and participants. For this see Pradhan and Padhi, 2008.
3. Nabodyaya schools are schools of excellence set up by Government of India where students join after Class Five being selected through an entrance examination.
4. Avda is the blessed prasad of Lord Jagannath.
Ananta Kumar Giri is on the faculty of the Madras Institute of Development Studies; his e-mails: email@example.comfirstname.lastname@example.org