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Mainstream, VOL LII No 36, August 30, 2014

‘No Foreign Christian Missionary is Working in India’: Interview with civil rights activist Dr John Dayal

Sunday 31 August 2014

Six years after the outbreak of the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal district of Odisha, killing more than one hundred Christians, mostly Dalits and tribals, and displacing sixty thousand of them, justice remains denied to the victims and survivors. While the civil society observed the anniversary of Kandhamal violence on August 25 all across the country, Md. Eisa, Abdul Raheem Umary and Abhay Kumar conversed with Dr John Dayal, a well-known civil rights activist who has been a leading voice of justice for the Kandhamal victims, on August 22 at New Delhi’s India International Centre. The sixtysix year old Dr Dayal, who is also a member of the National Integration Council (NIC), Secretary-General of the All India Christian Council, and a former President of the All India Catholic Union, speaks on a wide range of issues including the continuous sufferings of the victims, causes of the delay in securing justice, ongoing discrimination against Christians in Odisha, and looming threat from the Hindutva outfits etc. The excerpts are as follows.

On the sixth anniversary of Kandhamal violence, could you kindly tell us about the condition of the victims and survivors? What kinds of problems have they been facing? 

Given the fact that Christians constitute a small population of India, the magnitude of the Kandhamal violence is terrible. This is the biggest attack in the history of Christianity of India in 300 years as 120 people, according to my calculation, were killed; as many as 6000 houses were burnt; and around 60,000 others were displaced. People had to take shelter in forests to save their lives as threats were given to them that they could only be safe in their homes if they live as Hindus. So many lives, particularly youth, have been ruined. Many young eyes had dreams of becoming doctors and engineers but their dreams were, all of a sudden, shattered. There are still 10,000 victims of Kandhamal, who have not been able to go home due to fear. Another 10,000 are forced to work as labourers elsewhere in the country. Girls have been trafficked. This is happening because there has been an atmosphere of impunity—nobody fears the law. On top of this the minority Christians continue to face discrimination. We have documented that a government scheme like the NREGA was denied to Christian victims of violence, and now students and other government employees are haunted because they are suspected to have been using certificates as Scheduled Castes though they have converted to Christianity.

The RSS has succeeded in penetrating Odisha, particularly in its rural and Adivasi areas, causing hatred and dividing society, which lived for so long in peace. The activities of the Sangh Parivar continue unabated and their hate campaign goes unchecked. With the BJP in power at the Centre, the possibility of an eruption of violence in any other Adivasi part of Odisha, if not in Kandhamal, cannot be ruled out. As for the question on relief, rehabilitation, and bringing of the perpetrators of the violence to book, there has not been much done by the government. Most of the criminals, who were involved in the anti-minority violence, are yet to be punished by the criminal legal system. The conviction rate, due to lack of evidence gathered by the police, is very low. As a result there have been just two convictions in 30 cases of murder. In most of the cases judges have acquitted the perpetrators due to the want of witness and lack of evidence. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on record told the State Legislative Assembly that the members of the RSS were involved in the Kandhamal violence, yet nothing has been done to identify the aggre-ssors and the groups which were responsible for the attacks. The State Government has sing-ularly failed to curb hate campaigns in Kandhamal and all the Adivasi belts. Even the government has refused to acknowledge the true figure of deaths so that it may not have to pay compensation. While the compensation to widows has not been enough, the compensation for the loss of goods has been non-existent, that is to say, zero. In other words, the state remains unwilling to assist victims rebuild their lives.

In your view, who is to blame for the delay in justice? 

The State Government and the police have shown gross incompetence, indifference and total lack of political will. I will also blame the criminal legal system which has shown the tendency of bigotry at the lower levels.

There is also a view that secular forces are not enthusiastic in taking up the issue of the victims of Kandhamal violence? 

The civil society in India suffers from many constraints. It lacks numerical strength. It is also partially dependent on funds for its work. Unfortunately, there is also a section of people in the civil society for whom the issue of human rights is not a mission but a project. But it is also true that there remains a significant section among civil society, whose only concern is the pursuit of justice. Another threat to the civil society has recently come from the new BJP Government at the Centre, which has used an Intelligence Bureau report against it, alleging that the civil society has a foreign connection. I have written about this to stress the point that such coercive tactics of the government is aimed at harassing vulnerable sections of society.

Yet another worrying development is the increasing tendency of civil society to remain sectarian and narrow in their approach. This is true of Christians, Muslims, Dalits, women and other movements. We should be united in confronting the state and fight violence and communalism. As for political groups, barring the Left, we have found very little support for these issues from the mainstream parties. Moreover, the trade union movements have sharply declined since the beginning of liberalisation and the current government poses a great threat to labour forces. That is why there is a need to build a united front against communalism. But there is a note of caution—these movements cannot just be launched to get some electoral benefits but they should instead be directed at addressing the problems at the grassroot level so that the ideology of the Sangh Parivar can be fought. Such a united front must be formed to save this country from a looming and grave tragedy.

How do you respond to a firmly-rooted perception among a section of society that Christian missionaries are receiving funds from foreign countries and they are working hard to change the demography of Odisha by converting a large chunk of Adivasis and Dalits to Christianity?

Everybody in organised sectors receives funds from non-Indian sources. The funds are received by Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs as well as by a large number of Hindu groups. As for the distribution of funds, Christian groups spend 90 per cent of the received funds on education, health, sanitation, environment, micro-financial projects as well as the empowerment of Dalits including “Hindu” Dalits. The remaining 10 per cent goes to the Church personnel. Let me stress the point that there is no foreign Christian missionary working in India as the Govern-ment of India does not give visa to Christians from the East or the West, who are willing to come to India as preachers or teachers. The Christians of India have as much democratic right to work in their own country as any other religious groups such as the propagators of the Ramakrishna Mission.

The propaganda of demographic change done by Christians is nothing but a myth. The Adivasis, who were not Hindus, have been converted to Hinduism. The VHP and its outfits have much greater resources including money and muscle power to work in Kandhamal and other parts of Odisha. If you go by the Census, you will find that the number of Hindus in Adivasi India has rapidly increased. The Hindu Right also propagates lies that the Christians are using coercion to convert people. Christians have never resorted to coercion as it is both illegal and against the faith. Moreover, one should not forget that the police personnel of this country are almost Hindus by faith, while politics, judiciary and rural areas are dominated by Hindus.

How is it then possible for a small minority like Christians to use force for converting Dalits and Adivasis? Are Dalits and Adivasis fools? They are not. They know more botany than many scientists. Let me also reiterate the point that the Hindutva forces have resources thousands of times more than what Christians could ever have.

Odisha has an overwhelming population of Hindus (94 per cent) while Christians (2.4 per cent) constitute a very small minority. How have then the RSS and its outfits been able to have a large section of people believe Christianity as a threat? In other words, will you call Odisha as the RSS and its outfits’ laboratory against Christians as Gujarat is considered as the laboratory against Muslims?

This figure is incorrect because this assumes that every Adivasi is a Hindu, which is not correct.

But it is also true that in Odisha there is now a long history of hate, crime and violence against the Christian community. The Sangh Parivar has to invent an enemy to bring people close to the RSS organisation and its ideology. Hate and violence are part of the RSS’ strategy to increase its presence. Please remember that Odisha has also seen violence against Muslims. Kerala High Court Justice Usha and scholar Angana Chatterjee documented the existence of communalism in Odisha long before the Kandhamal incident which, in turn, invited the wrath of the Hindutva forces, who disturbed their press conference in Bhubaneswar.

The RSS has instigated Adivasi Kandhas to attack Panas Dalit Christians. Why has the RSS been succeeding in pitting two subalterns, Adivasis and Dalits, against each other?

It is the RSS’ agenda to divide the subalterns. The RSS perceives the unity of subalterns as the only real threat to its pursuit of having an unstinted control over India and its resources.This is my overarching argument. The RSS has been able to penetrate both Kandhas and Panasbut it is equally true that all Kandhas are not Hindus, nor are all Panas Christians. The deaths and loss have been inflicted on both Kandhas and Panas Christians. The 2008 Kandhamal incident, therefore, was violence against Christians. We need to challenge the Hindutva strategy to divide the subaltern groups and workers. We need to work towards forging a secular society of working classes, Adivasis, Dalits etc. 

Are the strategies of the RSS to deal with Muslim and Christian “threat” different?

In some aspects, the RSS would differently perceive Muslims and Christians. The RSS feels a demographic threat from Islam, which acco-unts for its Islamophobia. The RSS’ Islamophobia has largely succeeded here, infecting a large section of society, including sections of the Buddhist, Sikh and Christian communities. The source of the RSS threat, flowing from Christianity, is not numbers or possibility of a demographic change but the values of Christianity, which pose a challenge to the Hindu social order. As the Christian community works among the subalterns and works with them for social justice, they are perceived as a threat by the Hindutva forces.

There has recently been a spurt of incidents of communal violence at many places, including western UP. Do you think that the Indian state, despite being secular and democratic as per the Constitution, is completely indifferent towards the issue of minorities?

Despite their election manifesto, we have seen that over the last 40 years the gap between major political groups has been decreasing when it comes to their political will to combat hate campaigns and communalism. This explains the failure of the Congress Government to bring the Anti-Communal Violence Bill, despite being in power for 10 uninterrupted years.

Do you think that with Modi as the PM at the Centre with full majority of the BJP on its own, your campaign for justice has become more difficult?

The campaign for social justice has never been easy but it is true that it has become even more difficult when the BJP has come to power.But this will not dishearten us.Our struggle for harmonious, united and peaceful society in India will continue. We will fight for upholding the very idea of India as enshrined in the Constitution and envisioned by Jawaharlal Nehru.

The interviewers—Md. Eisa (mdeisajnu@gmail. com), Abdul Raheem Umary (pzabdulraheemu mary@gmail.com) and Abhay Kumar (debating issues@gmail.com)—are pursuing Ph.D at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.