Kandhmal: anti-conversion law imperative
by Sandhya Jain on 27 Aug 2008 1 Comment

In a virtual replay of the post-Godhra riots of 2002, the secular and foreign media has worked overtime to delink the ugly, provocative murder of 80-year-old Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four disciples on Krishna Janmastami day with the violence that subsequently rocked some districts in Orissa. This is simply not on.


Swami Laxmanananda was actively involved in the protection of tribal dharma from aggressive Christian evangelists in the state’s tribal belt since 1966. He was killed in his crowded ashram at Jalespata, Kandhmal district, while performing Janmastami prayers. The murder came close on the heels of a letter warning he would suffer for preventing Hindus from converting to Christianity; in fact, his efforts had caused thousands of tribals to return to the Hindu fold, to the chagrin of the missionaries.


As the Swami had been previously attacked on 25 December 2007 for the same reason, he personally lodged a complaint with the police and enclosed the threatening letter along with the FIR. He sought police protection, but fell to the determination of his assailants before it could arrive. A gang of 20 to 25 goons barged into his ashram around 9.35 pm, lobbed a hand-grenade at the gathering of devotees, and fired indiscriminately with sophisticated weapons, killing Swami Laxmanananda and four ashram inmates, including Mata Bhaktimayee, on the spot.


Initially, the administration suggested that the killers could be Maoists, identifying a group known as the People’s Liberation Revolutionary Group. But Hindu leaders vigorously refuted this, accusing Christian groups of sponsoring the attack, especially as the district witnessed fierce Christian violence against Hindus last Christmas. A BJP state leader Suresh Pujari said Swami Laxmanananda had no enmity with the Red rebels, and was only opposed to religious conversion taking place in various parts of Orissa. He alleged that those opposed to the saint’s anti-conversion activities had killed him.


However, it may be pertinent to note that most Maoist activists in the district are also recent converts to Christianity. Security forces are said to have seized 20 guns from 47 Maoists arrested in connection with the burning of villages inhabited by Hindus. In this respect, the murder of Swami Laxmanananda may be said to closely resemble the murder of Swami Shanti Kali ji Maharaj in Tripura in August 2000; he too was shot in his own ashram by gun-wielding goons after several dire warnings for anti-conversion activities in the state’s tribal belt. Subsequently, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar admitted the involvement of the Baptist church with the insurgency in the state.


It is surely pertinent that Orissa police arrested one Pradesh Kumar Das, an employee of the aggressive Christian organisation, World Vision, from Khadagpur, while trying to escape from the district at Buguda. Two other neo-converts, Vikram Digal and William Digal were arrested from the house of Lal Digal, a local militant Christian, from Nuasahi at Gunjibadi, Nuagaan. They admitted having joined a group of 28 other assailants. Orissa has also seen an influx of rich American Baptists, for obvious reasons.


In a television debate on the violence that followed the Ashram murders, Biju Janata Dal MP Tathagata Satpathy asserted that regardless of the actual efficacy of an anti-conversion ban, there could be little doubt that there was an urgent need for anti-conversion legislation as aggressive evangelization was seriously harming the social fabric of the state.


Violence broke out in the state as public sentiments ran high when the body of Swami Laxmanananda reached Chakapada in Kandhamal district for last rites; some shops and vehicles were torched though Home Secretary Tarunkanti Mishra said the bandh called by the Sangh Parivar was “total and by and large peaceful.”


It is true that two persons, including one woman, were burnt to death when unidentified persons torched an orphanage run by a Christian organisation at Phutpali in Bargarh district. The twenty children at the orphanage were unhurt. One Rasananda Pradhan was also burnt to death when his house was set ablaze at Rupa village in Kandhamal district. Nearly a dozen churches were attacked in Khurda, Bargarh, Sundergarh, Sambalpur, Koraput, Boudh, Mayurbhanj, Jagatsinghpur and Kandhamal districts and Bhubhaneswar.


Yet the secular media, particularly the electronic media, has highlighted the violence of the post-Ashram murders as though it were a suo moto, unprovoked assault by the Hindu community, particularly the agitating VHP cadres, completely glossing over the original sin. Media has sought to diminish Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by calling him a ‘VHP leader’ opposed to conversions – as though that vindicates his murder! In contrast, a woman who died in the subsequent violence was erroneously and repeatedly identified as a ‘nun’ and projected as a victim of religious persecution.


The truth is otherwise. It is those working overtime – with foreign funds and foreign missionaries – to annihilate the native faith of this country who are aggressors and cultural iconoclasts; this point needs to be understood by all concerned. In the specific context of Orissa, there is need to revisit the sensational murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines in January 1999, and honestly assess the tribal anguish that led to that sad denouement. One of the reasons why there has been no sober voice on the Staines murder is the tragic fact that his two minor sons died with him; but now that we are nearly a decade away from that event, we need to give the tribal agony due respect. A blanket ban on missionaries operating in tribal areas could go far to assuage tribal feelings. Indeed, the recognition that missionaries may have gone too far in provoking the increasingly affirmative Hindu community forced some Christian groups to condemn the murder of Swami Laxmanananda by evangelist religious fanatics.

No doubt the Judicial Commission set up by the Orissa Government under Justice Basudev Panigrahi will bring out the truth about the previous December 2007 violence in which Swami Laxmanananda was attacked; he escaped four attempts on his life before falling to the last attack. The Commission’s findings will also throw light on the events that resulted in his eventual murder.

Initial reports suggest that Swami Laxmanananda was also active in the movement against illegal beef trading, and was demanding a high level probe into an alleged illegal beef trading racket in Kandhamal. The multi-faceted Swami devoted considerable energy to the socio-economic development of local people in remote areas of Orissa. He opened several social service institutions including schools and hostels for tribal boys and girls, with free education and hostel facilities. This cut at the roots of the evangelists and created much ill-will towards him.


A major reason for the heightened tensions in Kandhamal over the past few months was due to the fact that the important Kandha (Kondh) tribe was extremely vigilant about protecting its religion and culture. The second local group, the Scheduled Caste Panas, have mostly converted to Christianity.


As a result of conversion, the Panas lost the reservation benefits due to SCs under the constitution. Guided by the missionaries, they began to agitate for Scheduled Tribe status on the specious plea that they also spoke Kui, the mother tongue of the Kondhs, which is also the principal language of the district. This agitation created deep apprehensions in the minds of the Hindu STs and SCs, that converts would grab their reservation benefits. Their fears deepened when the UPA-appointed Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission recommended extension of all reservation facilities to converts among the Dalits, which would include the Panas in Orissa.


Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati took this simmering discontent head-on, calling for an open debate on conversions, which were at the root of the unrest in tribal-dominated areas. He asserted: “I have told the National Human Rights team that conversion and foreign funding to NGOs were the reasons behind communal riots in Kandhamal.” He asked the NHRC to probe the fake caste (Scheduled Tribe) certificates fraudulently obtained by non-tribals and take appropriate action against them.


Now that this valiant warrior for Hindu civilisation and India’s foundational ethos has been struck down, the State and Central Government owe it to the nation to scrutinize the flow of foreign funds to Christian missionaries and make public the manner of their utilization. There must also be a complete ban on the foreign funding of faiths not indigenous to this soil.


The writer is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com

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