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Kandhamal Violence – A Caste Conflict termed as Communal

"The recent violence in Kandhamal should be taken as a caste conflict than a communal clash and the Christmas gate issue was merely an opportunity for the Kandha or Kui Adivasis to express their anger against the Panas (SC) who, mostly, happened to be Christians."

Basudev Mahapatra / Editorial : January 12, 2008

The Christmas mood didn’t last in Orissa’s Kandhamal district till the celebration as a group of Christmas revelers of Brahmanigaon faced opposition from members of Hindu Adivasis (Tribal People) for the temporary but stupendous welcome arch, at around 10 AM on 24 December 2007. The reason, as explained by some local tribal people, was some teasing remarks by few organizing community members which irritated the Kandha Adivasis (STs) and they opposed it.

The argument over the gate turned violent resulting in a clash between the Tribals and the Panas (SCs) that caused heavy loss to the daily and weekly Haats (Market) of Brahmanigaon.

With spread of the News immediate repercussions were seen in nearby Daringbadi – the scenic site mostly habited by Christians. On information about the incident, Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati – known for his fight against conversion activities pursued by the Christian missionaries rushed to the place of disturbance. The Hindu religious leader was allegedly assaulted by some members of the other religious community on the way where he, his driver and bodyguard suffered injury. Soon the news went everywhere and VHP members and supporters called an instant bandh opposing the attack on Swami Saraswati which made the Christians of the district red as it was the day for Christmas shopping and final preparation. So the Christians opposed the bandh and, within no time, the spark did spread across the district and Kandhamal saw its people divided into two communities and engaged in attacking each other.

Rioters went on the rampage in whole of Kandhamal attacking churches, prayer halls, police posts, houses and vehicles. About 10 churches and prayer halls in Baliguda, Nuagaon, Chakapada and Phiringia were torched and police establishments in Baliguda and Tikabali were ransacked. Even, police vehicles, the house and vehicle of the Phulbani Legislator, who was then a Cabinet Minister) were not spared by the rioters. As the violence gradually spread its pang, district administration declared curfew immediately in four major towns like Brahmanigaon, Daringbadi, Baliguda, Phulbani and some other places of the district which seemed vulnerable to the impact of ongoing communal riot. Christmas party celebration in the state of Orissa was almost spoiled.

Unfortunately, the Chief Minister, his cabinet colleagues from the party, BJD Legislators and the party members were busy celebrating their 10th foundation day in the capital city of Bhubaneswar While Kandhamal was burning and few other districts were on alert apprehending the side effects of communal fighting. It’s only to display its concern over the violence, Naveen Pattnaik government pressed the panic button on the third day (December 26) of communal disturbance in Kandhamal by diverting three battalions of Central Reserve Police force stationed at the Maoist activity centres like Rourkela, Sambalpur and Rayagada, to the tension torn Kandhamal to deal with the situation and bring normalcy as early as possible. Two senior administrators Aravind Behera and Ashok Meena, who happened to be its former collectors, rushed to the riot-torn district. Also, the SPs (Superintendent of Police) of neighbouring Boudh and Gajapati districts along with 20 other police officers were pressed into action while around 30 platoons of police were already in action across the district.

When security personnel guarded places of worship following torching of temporary constructions serving as prayer halls and churches, violence occurred in rural places. Troublemakers in Barakhama and Jaleshpata areas set houses on fire and engaged themselves in pelting stones at rival community or caste members. Four houses were gutted in Barakhama and at least six were set afire in Jaleshpara. Miscreants even set the Phiringia Police Station on fire and ransacked the local Revenue Inspector’s Office.

This is the first time in Orissa that Church services could not be held on a Christmas day at many places if Kandhamal despite strong police presence. President of All India Christian Council’s Orissa unit President Pranaranjan Paricha blamed the state government for the attack on Churches and great inconvenience to the Christians of Kandhamal and termed the police action ‘inadequate’ and ‘improper’.

On the other hand, leaders of Hindu outfits like Hindu Jagaran Samukhya alleged that ‘miscreants had vandalized at least three temples at Jaleshpara, Tumudibandh and Baliguda late on Tuesday night. The Christians started trouble by erecting a Christmas gate on a Durga Mandap and Hindus were at the receiving end as Christians had a strong presence at the place where clash started’.

Adding to the woes of the district administration and the government, local tribal people’s body ‘Kui Samaj Coordination Committee’ called a district-wide bandh opposing to Panas’ (the major SC Community) claim of a Scheduled Tribe status. Tribal protestors blocked important road links by laying huge logs on it.

No doubt, the clash started at Brahmanigaon on the issue of the Christmas arch gate. But, astonishingly, the riot was restricted to the limits of Kandhamal only although it could infect the neighbouring districts inhabited by a considerable Christian population. But it never happened so. It indicates that the issues leading to the clash between the Adivasi Hindus and the Christian members, most of whom are Panas, were related to the chronic intolerance and discontentment between the Tribals (STs) and Panas (SCs).

One must raise the question – ‘why did the Kandhas declare a bandh immediately after the clash in Brahmanigaon when communal tension was gripping the district? Was Brahmanigaon clash a communal one or was a caste based conflict started, only, on the issue of the Christmas gate?’

When there was curfew clamped on all major towns of the district after the Brahmanigaon and Daringbadi incident, about ten thousand Kandh tribals armed with traditional arms like Bows, Arrows, Axes and Spear entered in the Phulbani town since December 25 night and they conducted a rally on 26 December which crossed the town which was full with state and central police force. Such a rally was unexpected. But some how police did a good job by not waging an opposition to the tribal rally but by allowing them finish it peacefully.

The demands of the tribal leaders and agitators clearly indicated that the row over ST status to the Kui speaking panas and failure of district administration in making the benefits of various government programmes reach the poor tribals ruled over the fresh violence in Kandhamal. The primary demands of the rallying tribals were – strong action against them who are lobbying to get an ST status for the Panas, sacking the mines minister Padmanabha Behera, cancel recognition to the ‘Kui Janakalyan Sangh’ registered in Bhubaneswar that allegedly pursued Panas claim to get ST status and, finally, to post an IAS officer as the Collector of the district.

In the peace meeting held on December 27, leaders of agitating tribals again demanded sacking of mines minister Padmanava Behera who belong to Pana (SC) community. Communicating this ultimatum to senior government officials, the tribals threatened to intensify their agitation if government didn’t fulfill their demand. ‘We have nothing to do with communal tension. We condemn the violence that has taken the district into its grip. We declared a 36 hours of bandh to safeguard our rights only. We asked the government to fulfill our demands or face the consequences’, said ‘Kui Samaj Coordination Committee’ General Secretary Lambodar Kanhar after the peace talks.

Administration told ‘Kui Adivasi bandh and rally were all just nothing more than a coincidence’. But nobody considered the simmering discontent between the SCs and STs of the district since years and its possible link behind aggravation of the situation. As over a month back tribals of Kandhamal had expressed their disagreement over sanctioning ST status to the Kui speaking Panas by submitting a memorandum to the south range RDC. So, administration was well aware about the intolerant attitude of each to the other caste community which would erupt and take a violent shape anytime. But district administration never acted as it should.

Again, to keep the administration on alert, ethnic clash is not new to Kandhamal or Phulbani – as the district was named earlier. The old Boudh-Phulbani district was divided into two parts - Boudh and Phulbani – only because of the caste conflict. With over 51% of Kandh population in the district, Phulbani has to be renamed into Kandhamal following a much severe clash between the Kandhs and Panas in 1994 where about 36 persons died. Panas have always been accused by the Kandhs of grabbing the tribal lands through illegal means taking advantage of the innocence and ignorance of the tribal members. But, why and how both the caste communities living together since centuries became enemy of each other?

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story

 

According to local intellectuals and researchers, communal tension started threatening the social fabric mostly during the past two decades over sustained conversion activities by Christian Missionaries and a reactive opposition and re-conversion drives by the saffron outfits.

It’s also true that religion had and has a role in widening the gap among the communities and between the communities as it happened in Kandhamal. Christian Missionaries have been accused of being engaged in proselytizing the poor, tribal and other forest dwellers through allurements in the backward, tribal concentrated and poverty stricken districts like Koraput, Rayagada, Kandhamal, Boudh, Ganjam, Sundergarh etc. Even a district like Khurda that makes the state capital a part of it is not free from such conversion activities as during last 10 years, people living in more than 15 villages in the Barbara forests have been converted and at least one thatched hall in every village is dedicated for prayers and other church activities. An abnormal growth of Christian population has been recorded in the last three decadal censuses in Kandhamal and the State as well. As per statistics, a population of 78000 Christians in 1991 has gone up to 118000 in Kandhamal, a growth by around 60% in one decade against a 10% rise in Adivasi population during the same period. In Kandhamal, over 70% of the Panas that amounts to 15% of the total population of the district have taken up Christianity as their religion.

In this context, a simple caste conflict in Kandhamal would obviously look communal as majority of the Panas are Christian. On this perspective, the recent case of Kandhamal should be taken as caste conflict than a communal clash and the Christmas gate issue was merely an opportunity for the Adivasis to express their anger against the Panas (SC) who, mostly, happened to be Christians.

Once earning their livelihood by fulfilling the needs of the Kandhs, Panas are now richer and much flourished. The Kandhs believe, the Panas get sufficient support from the Churches and are now eyeing upon the benefits that are meant for them (Kandhs) as tribals. This is the reason why the Kandhs have been opposing the Panas.

Both VHP and its allies and the Christian Missionaries knew these ground realities. But no group appealed their fellow people to restrain themselves from violence, which is considered the greatest evil in both the religions, and restore peace just to prove their hold over the innocent tribals and the Panas. Rather leaders and preachers from both side engaged themselves in giving hot statements accusing each other and even the government for not acting upto their own expectations just to keep the rioters fueled. In fact, these cult institutions were trying hard to derive their own cream out of people’s misery in a riot like situation.

Apart from caste conflict and religious intolerance, there were other reasons which converted an ethnic clash into a lingering District-wide riot. When both the ethnic communities had almost lost their morale and were engaged in attacking each other, the Maoists took it as an opportunity to stage its war against the police and the Hindu organizations whom they called – communal outfits. December 27, fourth day of Riot came with the surprise to the police force deployed at Brahmanigaon when they spotted some rioters on Olive green uniform spraying bullets on them. The incident occurred when CM was taking a note of the situation from officials at the district head quarters. The fierce gun battle with certain remarks against police and VHP made the role of Maoist Naxalites apparent in the violence.

As per intelligence sources, ‘Maoists from the neighbouring Gajapati and Rayagada districts have been making forays into forests and interior parts of Kandhamal since last few years and district as well as state administration is quite aware of it’. Almost a year back, police discovered large scale Ganja cultivation in the adjacent forest lands of Kandhamal which was controlled by the Maoists. Their involvement in Kandhamal violence, more shockingly, in support of the Christian rioters raise many questions to be investigated like – Are the Maoist Naxalites funded by international Christian Charity organizations? Was their involvement in the riot an outcome of pressure from any international body that funds the red radicals? Otherwise, what made the red radicals come forward to act against the Kandhs when their movement is meant for protecting the rights of the tribals? Suspecting NGO links in sympathizing and funding the red ultras, State government has initiated an investigation. Some NGOs like Bhubaneswar based Kui Janakalyan Sangh are also under scanner for their alleged link in encouraging violence in Kandhamal.

The next other reason would be politics. Violence in Kandhamal district was more motivated by the game for political power than mere caste conflict between Kandhs and Panas. The politicians, obviously, have only taken advantage of the divide and never wanted to sort the problem of two caste communities for restoring peace permanently. Kandhamal has three assembly constituencies of which Baliguda and Udaygiri are reserved for ST and the only Phulbani is for SC which is represented by Padmanabh Behera, who happens to be a Pana. The Kandhas were up in arms when the rumour spread that Phulbani also is going to be an ST seat and Behera is pressing for ST status to the Panas to keep himself eligible to fight the next election. This made the tribal organizations demand sacking of the minister. Kandha Adivasis blame the Legislator from Phulbani Padmanabha Behera, who was the only cabinet minister from the district, for directing the police and administration not to act hard against the rioters or pursue an anti-riot operation immediately after the clash started in Brahmanigaon. Due to tremendous pressure and ultimatum from the tribal bodies Behera had to resign from his ministry which led to further clashes between people supporting and opposing the out gone Minister. As usually, Leaders of other political parties were also engaged in encashing the issue rather than resolving it.

Among others why the tribals demanded for an IAS officer as their Collector? As per the tribals of Kandhamal, ‘the IAS Collectors were always friendly to them. During the Collectors who were promoted from OAS (Orissa Administrative Services) there had been rampant corruption at every level of administration and they always favoured the Panas against bribe money. The Panas could bribe them as they are affluent with sufficient from the Churches and leaders. Development process had been slowed down in Kandhamal during last ten years. The benefits meant for the tribals are being stolen away before reaching the destination’. These are the allegations made by the tribal people of Phiringia. They may be correct or not, but the news about some poor tribals burning their own houses during the riot phase with a hope that they would be given an Indira Awash House makes it clear that people are still long away to access the benefits of various government programmes. And above all, to blame the administration, it really failed to handle the situation and restrict the violence at Brahmanigaon itself where it sparkled.

Although riot is always a bad thing and a shame to the state, Kandhamal Riot forced Naveen Pattnaik led government to take the issue of Kandha-Pana conflict and rivalry as a serious one and could lead to such a violent situation. Always cool to various issues of the state and its people, government had to act hard only after the riot broke out and went beyond its control. Soon, as part of its damage control measures, Orissa government ordered a judicial probe into the violence that saw at least four people dead and many houses and worshipping places destroyed. District collector Bhabagrahi Mahapatra was replaced by Manish Kumar Verma and appointed a new sub-collector for Baliguda Block that suffered the worst from the communal flare-up. Officers-in-charge of Tikabali and Phiringia Police stations and Khajuripada Revenue Inspector were suspended while the Phulbani Inspector-in-charge was transferred. In between the riot, Chief Minister Naveen Pattnaik had to come up with his official statement rejecting the claim of Panas for an ST status. As its attempt to curb the troublemakers police lodged 112 cases and arrested 135 alleged miscreants so far. Compensation packages were declared to the affected families and families of the deceased.

Now Kandhamal is limping to normalcy. People staying in temporary relief camps are coming back to their villages. Shortly, government would control the situation and declare Kandhamal free from the recent tension. But it should not be a solution for this time only. Government and district administration will have to go for a strenuous exercise to minimize the differences between the two caste communities of Kandhamal who consider themselves enemies of each other. Administration must have to ensure that the benefits meant for people reaches them. It has to work to win over the confidence of the caste communities so that others, like religious organizations, Maoists and various groups with vested political interest, who are influencing and manipulating them will keep themselves aside. The major challenge before the State and district administration is to dilute the chronic caste intolerance that is now prevalent in Kandhamal and has forced the district many times reel under violence – be it ethnic or communal.

 

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