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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Facts behind Orissa violence

The recent Kandhamal crisis in Orissa has attracted international attention as part of continuous violence in reaction to the brutal killing of a Hindu saint Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. The media, activists and intellectuals are trying to put a communal colour to the whole issue.

Nobody is ready to understand that the recent violence does not have anything to do with religion. The present crisis is nothing but an ongoing age-old caste conflict in the region among Kui-speaking Tribal and Pana community from scheduled castes (SC). The district comprises 52 per cent tribals (STs) and 19 per cent scheduled castes (SC) and 90 per cent of whose population lives below the poverty line.

The conflict between the Kui-speaking Kondh tribals and Pana community reached at the peak, when the Panas spearheaded an agitation in the region for the inclusion of their caste group in the Scheduled Tribe list, arguing that they spoke the same Kui language like the scheduled tribes in the district. But the Government of Orissa and the hon'ble Court did not approve their demand of including the Pana community in the ST category.

Kui-speaking tribals too opposed this move of the Pana community and appealed to the State Government and the judiciary not to accord the ST status to the Pana community. The conflict was aggravated among these two communities after the Government rejected their demand. Even a Cabinet Minister from the Pana community in the present Government was sacked over his alleged role of supporting the Panas demand for inclusion in the ST category.

If one goes back into history, there are serious problems between these two communities, since the bifurcation of Phulbani district into two new districts was announced. The tribals agitated strongly and demanded that their district be named Kandhamal.

The loss of life and property in the region caused by the serious disturbances, made the Orissa Government sit up and act. It scrapped the district's old name of the Phulbani and renamed it Kandhamal. But the renaming of the district under pressure from the tribals was not acceptable to the Panas, who wanted the district to keep its original name of Phulbani.

Religion and conversion has also fuelled the issue and made matters worse as between the Panas and tribals. Most of the Panas belonging to the scheduled castes have converted to Christianity. This, the tribals, who are mostly unaffected by alleged conversion activity in the area find it difficult to digest. They cannot see their district people being converted into another religion.

Importantly, Orissa passed anti-conversion laws as far back as 1967. Yet, the Christian population in Kandhamal district has grown from six per cent in 1970 to 27 per cent in 2001. This has happened despite India's Apex court categorically stating that the right to "propagate" does not and should not include "conversion". Citizens should be allowed freedom of personal choice without fear or favour.

There are serious allegations before the Government that most of the members of the Pana community are Hindus by name and Christians by practice to hide their Christian identity and thereby avail of other Government amenities. It is also alleged that many members of the Pana community have successfully forged caste certificates to secure easy entrance to Government jobs.

The tribal community has been bringing up these issues before the State Government, time and again, forcing it to look into the matter. An inquiry was ordered and large scale forgery was discovered. Many members from the Pana community lost their jobs.

This has made the issue more complex. In fact, it is because of this reason that the present Government has put verification of caste certificate of people working from this district in the Government offices as the number one point in the peace solution agenda.

Thus, one can easily conclude that intra-caste conflict over enjoying Government preferences and unhappy trend of benefitting simultaneously from both Hindu and Christian identities by a section of the district people according to their requirements angered the tribals no end and made them violent.

The disturbances in the region are also linked to the Government's inability to trace the killers of Swami Laxmananda. Though the Maoists are claiming that they killed the Swami, the agitating tribals are not ready to buy it.

They have a valid point too. If a policeman in Delhi killed his neighbour because of a personal problem, can it be depicted that the Delhi police had killed a criminal in an encounter? Most of the Maoists in the region are said to be Christians.

Moreover, there is stated to have been pressure from both the Dalits and the Christians of the area for the elimination of the Swami. The present Chief Minister's habit of blaming the Central Government for not sending para-military forces is not an excuse a Government should be making on such a sensitive matter.

Though the Government of India was ready to hand over the case to the CBI, unwillingness on the part of the Government of Orissa to do so has given the impression that BJD-BJP Government does not want a proper probe into the matter for gaining political favour from the tribals.

The demand for President's rule under Article 356 may be politically correct as part of the UPA's bid to settle scores. But it is not a viable solution for bringing back peace in the region.

Imposition of the President's rule will invite more controversies than when Graham Stains and his two children were killed. There was no discussion of the President's rule in the State then, even though the Congress was in power both at the Centre and the State.

The solution lies in the arrest of the real killers of Swami and verification of caste certificates of people of those areas. The country is full of slogans advocating empowerment of the tribals. But in practice, the tribals are yet to come out from their poverty trap. There is an urgent need on the part of the State Government to work with the Centre towards including Kandhamal district in the KBK special package grant for uplifting its socio-economic standard to avoid a situation it faces today. Mere imposition of the President's rule may only create more problems in the area.

Sachi Satpathy, INFA

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