When they came for Narmada Digal, she wasn’t there. She had fled, five children and mother-in-law in tow, to the safety of the jungles. So, they set about what she left behind. A framed picture of Jesus, a Bible in Oriya, utensils in the kitchen and some clothes. By the time Narmada tiptoed back, her home was gone. What was left was still hot from the ashes, and smoking. Narmada took a good look, stood erect, and pulled her sari over her head. She began to pray.
“Lord, forgive us our sins. Save us from our misfortune. Free us, Lord.” She is weeping as she pleads for deliverance. So is everybody else. “I will die. But I won’t stop being a Christian,” Narmada says.
This is in the heart of Kandhamal, a district at the geographical center of Orissa, ravaged by probably the worst fighting in India between Hindus and Christians. The rise in the number of Christians in Kandhamal is offering radical Hindu outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) the perfect alibi to launch an aggressive anti- Christian movement. The movement has two aims: to reconvert Christians to Hinduism, and to stop the alleged slaughter of cows.
The death of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati
An 81-year-old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist, Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, was heading the VHP movement in Kandhamal. On August 23, Saraswati was gunned down while celebrating Janmashtami. It was the tenth attempt at killing Saraswati, a figure disliked by the Christians, but revered by a band of fanatic Hindu male followers.
RSS is an 83-year-old socio-political organization, which is the fountainhead of many Hindu outfits in India.
Few know who killed Saraswati. But, there are some theories. The Orissa Government says the Maoists killed him. A second theory is coming from the VHP. After Saraswati’s murder, VHP International President Ashok Singhal issued a statement saying, “Once again the cruel face of the Christian missionaries has been exposed. Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati was working for 45 years among the tribals by building hospitals, schools and hostels . . . Because of his work, the tribals were awakened to our culture and religion, which was an obstacle only for the Christian missionaries.”
Christian bodies, on the other hand, have a third view. They say they have nothing to do with Saraswati’s murder and have sought an inquiry by the Central Government.
Whatever the truth, the murder inflamed passions. By August 25, hordes of Hindu militants were attacking Christian homes and places of worship in Kandhamal. On September 1, the Orissa Government told the story in figures: 16 persons killed, 35 injured, 185 arrested; 558 houses and 17 places of worship burnt; 12,539 fed in 10 relief camps; 12 companies of paramilitary forces, 24 platoons of the Orissa State Armed Police, two sections of the Armed Police Reserve Force, and two teams of the Special Operation Group deployed.
The human story is worse. VHP International General Secretary Praveen Togadia said a Christian sect had killed Saraswati. It was enough to trigger murderous assaults on Christians in Kandhamal and elsewhere in Orissa. Hundreds of Christian homes were set ablaze, a few pastors were slain, and warnings were issued asking them to return home as Hindus, or never.
Christianity in Kandhamal
Today, there are around 1,500 churches and congregations in the 2,515 villages of Kandhamal. The Catholic Church has a big presence. And among the Protestants, the most active denominations are the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Church of North India, and the Church of South India.
To a man like Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, the rise of the Church would’ve been an insult. Sometime in the 1960s, the RSS leadership summoned Saraswati. The RSS had begun to implement its plan of working in the most backward areas of India, unlike the Marxists who had begun to work in the industrial townships. The then RSS Orissa head Bhupendra Kumar Basu chose Kandhamal for Saraswati.
In December 2007, major clashes erupted between Hindus and the Christians when Saraswati ordered his followers to demolish an arch that the Christians had erected on government land in front of a church. The Christians said it was for Christmas and they would take the arch down in a day or two. Saraswati didn’t wait. After his men pulled the arch down, Saraswati drove down to see it.
Some Christians in the village stopped Saraswati’s car and pulled him out. Stones were also pelted at him. One of Saraswati’s assistants called friends in the VHP and told them “Babaji ko maar diya (they’ve got Babaji).” Saraswati’s men set upon the Christians on a scale similar to that of the current attacks.
After the December riots, Saraswati gave an interview, probably his last, to the RSS publication Organiser. He said, “With their numbers increasing, Christians forcefully took away Hindu girls and forced the neo-converts to eat beef.” He called for a constitutional ban on conversion of Hindus to “Abrahamic faiths” and warned that “Christians in India must understand fast that they cannot be protected by the US State Department writing its annual vituperative anti- Hindu reports on religious freedom and human rights.” He added: “Christians can be protected only by the goodwill of the majority Hindus in whose midst they have to live.” These thoughts Saraswati drilled into the Kandha tribals.
RSS war council
The tribals of Orissa are a tough people. They gave Ashoka the Great the fight of his life. Ashoka invaded Kalinga in 261BC. There was no king to oppose him, but the tribals fought against him. Ashoka won the Kalinga War, but 110,000 people died in battle. Ashoka never fought again and took to Buddhism.
It is this lineage that Rupesh Kanhar, 19, comes from. Rupesh and his friends are part of an RSS war council meeting on August 28 in the jungles near Gopingiya village. There are 15 people in the meeting who are working out plans to attack Christians. The meeting concludes that they will not kill Christians, but scare them into leaving Kandhamal.
Rupesh recites the RSS prayer fluently. He hasn’t killed a Christian, but he has burned some houses down. In a few hours, Rupesh and his friends will prepare to attack. Some of them would have downed plenty of liquor by then. The group will assemble at 9 pm, about 200 of them. They will have axes, swords and machetes and torches. They will tie red threads around their wrists, so tight in some cases that they leave red marks on the skin, and they will anoint each other’s foreheads with vermillion.
Rupesh and his group will march until past midnight, scaring Christians and sending them rushing into the jungles at night. It’s a daily routine in Kandhamal, the Hindu militants shouting slogans and conducting torchlight marches.
A conversion to Christ
But introspection respects no ideology. Even the best efforts of the RSS and the VHP can’t stop a change of heart. Vijay Pradhan, 35, is hiding in Raikia. For eight years, Vijay Pradhan says, he was an active RSS worker. He worked with Saraswati and conducted several reconversions. “I taught people what I was taught. That I must serve the country by fighting the Muslim and Christian religions, which are foreign to us. Our culture had to be saved. Then, one day a young pastor told me about Jesus. I was surprised at his courage in accosting me, but I was curious. This man told me that I could have eternal life with Jesus,” says Pradhan.
The one-time RSS worker says he was confused after this encounter. “I began searching for Jesus because I was intrigued by what I was told about him. On January 26, 1994, I challenged the creator. I said whoever you are, I need to know you by name. I threatened that I would turn atheist if the Creator didn’t show himself. I couldn’t sleep at night. At 4.30 am, as I was getting ready for yoga, I saw a human-like figure. There was plenty of light. A voice said, ‘I am the one you are looking for,’” says Pradhan.
He says his thought process changed after this. He began spreading the gospel and going to church. “The RSS workers came to me and asked me why I had converted. They asked me how much money I was given. I used to ask people the same things. But I wasn’t paid. The RSS searched for me. I had to hide in the jungles. As long as there is trouble, I will hide,” he says.
Pradhan says only those who are called by Jesus are the true converts. “Only the attraction of God can make them that. Hindus become Christians, they are never made into Christians. The reconversions by the VHP and the RSS are false. They are conducting a political war in the name of God.”
On the night of September 1, there were two meetings in the Raikia relief camp. The Inspector General of Police chaired a peace meeting with 21 officials and several Christian seniors. Then, a group of young Christian men met separately. They declared pride in two villages of Raikia: Gundhani and Gamandi. Christians mainly populate these villages. Yet, they have been untouched so far. Apparently, because the Christians there have put together a few home made bombs and repulsed at least one attack by Hindu militants.
The young men said these villages were the pride of Christians and that they had shown the way. They said they needed to arm themselves so that they could fight the Hindu militants. Some pastors objected. They said Christianity doesn’t teach violence. They are not sure if they were heard.
Printed with permission from Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 36, Dated Sept 13, 2008