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Kandhamal Violence – Social conflict and Economic gap led to Communal hatred

"The fact of caste conflict in the name of Communal Violence came to notice after visiting the relief centres operating in Tikabali, Chakapada and G. Udaygiri Blocks. Many Hindu Panas were living in the relief centres as the agitators – mainly tribal community members of their own village – attacked, looted and torched their houses. Same thing we saw in Bastingia and Dalagaon villages of Beheragaon Gram Panchayat."

Basudev Mahapatra : September 15, 2008

Series of violence in the Kandh tribal populated Kandhamal district of Orissa put India under pressure from international Christian communities. The pressure was diverted towards the state of Orissa also to bring the communal tension under control at the earliest possible at any cost. A directive from the Supreme Court of India was also served to the state government to explain its stand on the series of violence and take immediate steps to bring the situation under control.

In a hurry, Orissa government asked Centre for more Paramilitary Forces for immediate deployment in Kandhamal in order to suppress the violence. Although over 30 companies of Paramilitary forces have been deployed in the district of Kandhamal, the situation is still tensed and uncontrolled as incidents of violence in rural Kandhamal are still a regular affair.

Delegations from state and centre expressed their concern regarding the eruption of violence in the tribal populated district Kandhamal and expressed condolence for the deceased. Keeping in view the forthcoming municipal elections and the general polls little ahead, political parties made it an issue for their benefit.

But there was no comment from anybody – be it activists or political delegation or an administrative delegation – regarding why such violence has been occurring almost regularly in different backward poverty stricken districts of the state. Everybody expected a quick pacification of tension and eradication of violence without even hinting upon resolving the issues that have been acting as factors for the violence.

Caste Conflict and Kandhamal

Kandhamal is home to caste conflict since early nineties of the last century. The conflict is between the Kandha (Scheduled Tribe) tribal community and the Panas (Scheduled Caste) who are given SC status. After split of the old district ‘Boudh – Phulbani’ into two separate districts, the conflict looked like a caste war in which about 40 people lost their lives and the district was renamed into Kandhamal to cool down the agitated Kandh tribal population and restore peace in the district. The district looked normal for quite a long period from outside but the caste hatred remained as it is looking for a spark only to erupt.

The second major violence occurred on the eve of 2007 Christmas day on the issue of the temporary structure erected by the Christians for x-mass celebration. The incident occurred in Christian populated Daringbadi block on few teasing remarks made by some of the Christian members towards the Hindus most of whom are ST or Adivasis. The violence soon turned into a caste war with the tribals of the district marching on the main road of Phulbani – the district head quarter town – violating curfew imposed by the administration.

The recent violence started from 25th August as a reaction to the killing of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati – the Hindu leader working to unite the Kandh and Kui tribals against the conversion activities pursued by the Christian Missionaries apart from many other welfare activities meant for empowering the tribal communities in the district. In rest of Orissa, the reaction was communal; but in Kandhamal, started against Christians, the violence seems to have become a caste war again as most of the deceased happen to be from Pana Community or SCs although stray incidents like attacking tribal Christians occurred in very few places.

The fact of caste conflict in the name of Communal Violence came to notice after visiting the relief centres operating in Tikabali, Chakapada and G. Udaygiri Blocks. Many Hindu Panas were living in the relief centres as the agitators – mainly tribal community members of their own village – attacked, looted and torched their houses. Same thing we saw in Bastingia and Dalagaon villages of Beheragaon Gram Panchayat where the houses of Panas were torched by group of tribal women and youth in broad day light. The agitated group didn’t even touch the Oriya Sahi of Bastingia village where mostly Non-SC Non-ST outsider Oriya people live in. These not-targeted outsiders work as informers to the rioters in many cases.
 
While talking to some tribal people of Chakapada, they just started calling the particular SC community as traitors, exploiters and grabbers of benefits meant for the tribal communities of the district. It seemed, the tribals of Kandhamal have set their hidden agenda to eliminate the particular SC community from the district, and the administration must be well aware of the fact as the tribals have openly expressed their anguish before the administration against the Pana community on many occasions.

Historicity of hatred

The panas and the Kandhas have been living together since centuries at least before the British officials and missionaries ventured into the district and found the heinous Meriah practiced by the Kandhas. As the Kandhas never use anybody of their own community as a Meriah, the Panas (now SCs) acted as brokers who were supplying Meriah child to the tribal communities.

As quoted from British government reports and documents by historian Dasarathi Swaro in his thesis ‘The Christian Missionaries in Orissa’ (Punthi Pustak, Calcutta, 1990, page 131), “The Kandhas purchased the (Meriah) victims. Unless bought with a price, they were not deemed acceptable to the goddess (earth – Taru Pennu). Victims from their own tribe were not procurable. The agents, mainly Panas – a clever and business like people lived with the Khonds and cheated the Khonds in all possible way, sometimes purchased but more frequently kidnapped the children (from outside plains) whom they sold to the Khonds. They occasionally (even) sold their own offspring without any hesitation.”

By their characteristic features, the Kandhas are basically a bold and fitfully labourious mountain peasantry of simple, upright in their conduct, sincere in their superstitions, proud of their position as land holders tenacious of their rights. This has been observed even by Britishers like Capt Macpherson.

Initially when the missionaries came to the place, called Khondistan or Agency Area that time, they found the Panas – now called SCs – notorious, greedy and exploitative and also held the Panas primarily responsible for existence of the Meriah tradition as they were supplying Meriah victims. The British administration also acted hard on the panas and rescued Meriahs from the houses of Panas and the tribal villages as well. It could be to either escape from any hard action from the British government or to keep safe from the reaction of the Kandh tribal community after it became impossible to supply Meriah to the community villages, the Panas gradually came close to the Christian missionaries and got converted into Christians. However, the conversion of Panas into Christianity started from there.

The Kandha tribal communities who were committed to their religion and sincere to their religion and superstitious practices couldn’t accept the Panas who opted to take on Christianity leaving their old religion. So, once living together the Kandhas started hating the Christian Panas blaming them as traitors to their old religion and the society as well.

After taking on Christianity, the Panas became close to the missionaries and the British administration as well and notoriously started grabbing the land which was owned by the tribal communities before. This was the major reason of caste conflict because the Kandhas had been seeing the total landscape their own and they had given some land to the Panas to live and supply Meriah as per requirement.

The practice of land grabbing and exploitation went on even after independence of India as most of the Panas got into various government jobs because of their education through missionary support. So, the enmity for the Panas increased in the Kandh and Kui tribal communities. However, the tribal children gradually got education and the educated tribal youth new the laws of the land and its own rights.

The limit of patience in the tribal communities breached when the SCs (Panas) tried to brand them as Kui tribal on linguistic basis claiming them as Kui speaking people. Kui is the language of the Kandhas and a group of the tribe is called in the name of their language.

Looking at the issue from a legal perspective, Senior practitioner and former Advocate General Jayant Dash is of the opinion that ‘the reason why SCs might have attempted to get a tribal status is because, as per Indian Constitution, SCs are no more subjected to enjoy the status of SC once they convert themselves into other religious sect as caste system doesn’t exist outside Hindu religious system. The converted SCs can enjoy their caste status only after they come back to the fold of Hinduism. But the tribals enjoy the ST status even after conversion as constitutionally they are believed to be animists by practice’.

‘To enjoy the privilege entitled for SCs, many of the SC families remain Hindu by record but Christian by practice where as many of the SC families converted into Christianity are coming back to the Hindu fold just to enjoy the benefits of their SC status’, observes senior journalist and social activist from Kandhamal district Ashok Parida.

However, the attempt to bag an ST status for the community broke the ice and the Tribal communities openly expressed their anguish before the administration. Looking at the reaction, the government declared not to give the Panas an ST status. Hundreds of government employees who had joined on the basis of false tribal certificates were dismissed. But these steps couldn’t bring the SCs into the trust of the Tribal communities.

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story

 

Socio-economic factors behind Envy and Enmity

Conflict between the Panas and Kandhas of Kandhamal district became strong with increasing socio – economic gap between the communities.

The Pana community of which majority have been converted to Christianity are educationally and economically much ahead of the Kandhas because of their church and missionary link. As per social activist and analyst Panchanan Mishra who heads an NGO that works for the development of tribals and people living in hilly regions, ‘the Christian community members are provided with all kinds of support by the church itself or other organisation having a church link or back up in time of emergency. Where as, the Kandh tribals who hate changing their religion are neither getting any immediate support from their community or the government machinery. In such times, they come across the realities of government’s high sounding tribal development policies which make them envious of the other community that is supported by the community and church as well.’

As per a senior journalist Ashok Parida, ‘in case of emergencies like epidemics or health hazards, the nuns or health workers from churches attend the Christian patients and their families only and do not attend to the tribal patient living next door. The tribal patient is forced to wait till a government aid reaches the place which hardly happens in time. So, it’s not the non-Christian Kandhas only who differentiates itself from the Christian community but the church and Christian communities also has a role in promoting social discrimination, even in difficult situations. Such attitude of churches and missionaries widens the gap and strengthens the communal hatred’.

Traditionally, the Panas have been in a better financial state in compare to the Kandhas as, from the beginning, they acted as agents for supplying Meriah primarily and other essential goods against handsome return. They are the oldest business community of the district. Now also they are flourishing because of their church link that ensures quality education and a better future for their children which a non-Christian tribal can’t afford to. So, most of the tribal children attend government schools where quality education is almost a day dream.

The Kandhs are basically a laborious peasantry community depending upon agriculture, forest produces and hunting to earn their livelihood and are financially poor. After hunting is banned and most of the forest produces came under government control, the tribals of the district have been converted into labourers and depend on various government programmes and other works to earn their livelihood. although government at the centre and the state are high sounding about the development of tribals and other dalit communities, the visibility of the programmes in the field is very much poor. Similar is the situation in Kandhamal. Whatever programmes are implemented, the benefits are still to reach the Kandh and Kui tribals.

Most of the local intellectuals and researchers have a similar opinion in this regard. As to them, the caste conflict is mainly ruled by the economic gap between the two castes that results in lots of social differences also.

With sustained conversion activities pursued by Christian Missionaries and a reactive opposition and re-conversion drives by the saffron outfits, that were led by Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati till his death, the caste conflict has now received a communal colour from both religious leadership. As over 85% of the SCs are converted into Christianity and a negligible percent of the tribal population goes by the conversion drives initiated by the churches operating in Kandhamal, a caste conflict obviously looks communal when it occurs in Kandhamal.

Formula of sustaining Peace - Not Force deployment but Development

Huge force deployment, as pursued by Orissa government at the point, would suppress the violence for a temporary period if the socio-economic issues are not addressed properly. The state government and the administration must understand the history of conflict in the district and realise its background to develop policies for establishing peace in the district. The major aspect to be examined for a long term solution and establishment of sustaining peace is the way to minimise the economic gap between the two caste communities living in the district.

During the violence when we asked the local administration about the reason of such lingering violence they pointed at the poor communication facilities in the interior parts of the district and large number of huge size trees on both sides of the roads which are cut by the tribal people to block the road and torch the houses they target. By the time rapid action forces reach the place and clear the road the attackers leave the place after ransacking and setting houses and other structures afire.

It’s definitely a shame to come across the fact of poor communication facilities in a tribal populated district even after 61 years of freedom.

The other issues are development works and generating employment opportunities for the poor people living in the district. The fact of poor economic status of the tribal people in the district came to notice on the day of Revenue Minister’s visit to the Tikabali relief centre. Tribal families demanded for lifting of curfew t enable them work and earn their livelihood and provide them with relief as they had no food in their house to consume. Assuring people to look after the issues the Revenue Minister left the place. Then thousands of tribal women marched toward the relief centres. Without knowing the purpose of their march police forces opened lathi charge on the women causing injury to at least 50 women out of which 10 suffered serious injury. And the irony of the incident was, male police members started beating the tribal women.

This incident drew severe reaction from the tribal communities of Kandhamal and in next two days, over 5000 tribal women gathered at the Block office and police station in Ghumushar Udaygiri and raised the same demands. These incidents suggest how the state government has grossly failed in proper implementation of development as well as employment generation programmes in the district.

Although situation is coming under control in Kandhamal, the communal tension is still there. It’s hardly expected that the district will be tension free in near future unless the economic gap between two major caste communities is brought close to each other. The only way that seems to be effective in establishing peace in the district is by pursuing rapid development activities in the district to economically empowering the tribal communities of the district and minimising the distinct socio-economic gap between two caste communities that have been living together since centuries.

 

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