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Orissa: A Gujarat In The making

By Angana Chatterji

Communalism Combat
02 November, 2003

In Gujarat, Hindu extremists killed 2,000 people in February-March of 2002. Muslims live in fear there, victims of pathological violence.

Raped, lynched, torched, ghettoised. A year and half later, Muslims in Gujarat are afraid to return to their villages, many still flee from town to town. Ghosts haunted by history. Country, community, police, courts — institutions of betrayal that broker their destitution. This is India today.

The National Human Rights Commission recognised the impossibility of achieving justice in Gujarat. The Best Bakery murder trial flaunted dangerous liaisons between government, judiciary and law enforcement. Those who speak out are vulnerable. Outcry against the consolidation of Hindu rightwing forces in India is subdued. In a world intent on placing Islam and Muslims at the centre of ‘evil’, Hindu nationalism escapes the global imagination.

Orissa is Hindutva’s next laboratory. This July, in a small room on Janpath in Bhubaneswar, workers diligently fashioned saffron armbands. Subash Chouhan, state convenor for the Bajrang Dal, the paramilitary wing of Hindutva, spoke with zeal of current hopes for ‘turning’ Orissa. Christian missionaries and ‘Islam fanatics’ are vigorously converting Adivasis (tribals) to Christianity and Dalits (erstwhile ‘untouchable’ castes) to Islam, Chouhan emphasised. He stressed the imperative to consolidate ‘Hindutva shakti’ to educate, purify and strengthen the state.

Western Orissa, dominated by upper caste landholders and traders, is a hotbed for the promulgation of Hindu militancy, while Adivasi areas are besieged with aggressive Hinduisation through conversion. Praveen Togadia, international general secretary of the VHP, visited Orissa in January and August 2003 to rally Hindu extremists. He advocated that Orissa join Hindutva in its movement for a Hindu state in India. ‘Ram Rajya’, he promised, would come.

In Orissa, the sangh parivar is targeting Christians, Adivasis, Muslims, Dalits and other marginalised peoples. The network divides its energies between charitable, political and recruitment work. It aims at men, women and youth through religious and popular institutions. The sangh has set up various trusts in Orissa to enable fund raising, such as the Friends of Tribal Society, Samarpan Charitable Trust, Yasodha Sadan, and Odisha International Centre.

There are around 30 dominant sangh organisations in Orissa. This formidable mobilisation is the largest base of organised volunteers in the state. The RSS, responsible for Gandhi’s death, was founded in 1925 as the cultural umbrella. It operates 2,500 shakhas in Orissa with a 1,00,000 strong cadre. The VHP, created in 1964, has a membership of 60,000 in the state. Born in 1984, at the onset of the Ramjamanbhoomi movement, banned and reinstated since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the Bajrang Dal has 20,000 members working in 200 akharas in the state.

Membership of the BJP stands at 4,50,000. The Bharatiya Mazdoor sangh manages 171 trade unions with a cadre of 1,82,000. The 30,000 strong Bharatiya Kisan sangh functions in 100 blocks. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, an RSS inspired student body, functions in 299 colleges with 20,000 members. The Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, the RSS women’s wing, has 80 centres. The Durga Vahini, with centres for women’s training and empowerment, has 7,000 outfits in 117 sites in Orissa.

Intent on constructing the ‘ideal’ woman who decries the ‘loose morals’ of feminism, the sangh seeks to train Hindu women to confront the ‘undesirable’ sexual behaviour "endemic" to Muslims and Christians. Such training endorses ‘masculanisation’ of the Hindu male looking to protect the fictively threatened Hindu woman.

In October 2002, a Shiv Sena unit in Balasore district in Orissa declared that it had formed the first Hindu ‘suicide squad’. Responding to Bal Thackeray’s call, over 100 young men and women signed up to fight ‘Islamic terrorism’. The Shiv Sena appealed to every Hindu family in the state to contribute to its cadre. Squad members, it is speculated, will receive training at Shiv Sena nerve centres in Mumbai and elsewhere.

Why Orissa? The state is in disarray, the leadership labours to sustain a coalition government headed by the Biju Janata Dal and the BJP. The government is shrouded in saffron. As the sangh infiltrates into civic and political institutions seeking to ‘repeat’ Gujarat not many are paying attention. For the 36.7 million who reside in Orissa, Hindutva’s predatory advance aggravates and capitalises on social panic in a land haunted by inequity.

Orissa houses 5,77,775 Muslims and 6,20,000 Christians, 5.1 million Dalits from 93 caste groups, and over 7 million Adivasis from 62 tribes. Around 87 percent of Orissa’s population live in villages. Nearly half the population (47.15 percent) lives in poverty, with a very large mass of rural poor. Almost a quarter of the state’s population (24 percent) is Adivasi, of which 68.9 percent is impoverished, 66 percent illiterate and only 2 percent have completed a college education. 54.9 percent of the Dalits live in poverty. Concentrated in Cuttack, Jagasinhapur and Puri districts, 70 percent of the Muslims are poor. In March 2002, Orissa’s debt amounted to 24,000 crore rupees, more than 61 percent of the gross domestic product of the state.

In 2001-2002, the government of Orissa signed a memorandum of understanding with New Delhi to secure a structural adjustment loan of Rs. 3,000 crore from the World Bank and an aid package of Rs. 200 crore from the department for international development, the overseas development branch of the government of the United Kingdom. This is conditional assistance, laden with extensive and hazardous consequences. People’s movements protested this agreement for tied aid that supports irresponsible corporatisation and works against the self-determination of the poor.

Consecutive governments, including the present coalition, have failed to address entrenched gender and class oppressions as exploitative relations endure between the poverty-stricken and a coterie of moneylenders, government officials, police and politicians in Orissa, perpetuating displacement, land alienation, and untouchability. Floods have affected three million in 2003. Agricultural labourers are faced with serious food shortages with no alternative means for income generation. Scarcity has led to starvation deaths and people have committed suicide. Infant mortality, 236 in 1000, is the highest in the Union.

In the recent past, Rayagada district has witnessed despairing efforts to survive — the sale of children by families. In Jajpur district, a mother, a daily wage earner in a stone quarry, sold her 45-day-old child for Rs. 60 this July. These measures have not evoked reflection and commitment on the part of the State. Rather, unconscionable attempts have been made to show that such action is emblematic of Adivasi and Dalit cultures.

Systematic disregard for the human rights of ‘lower’ caste, Adivasi and Dalit peoples is a social and structural predicament. In December 2000, Rayagada witnessed state repression of Adivasi communities protesting bauxite mining by a consortium of industries in Kashipur that is detrimental to their livelihood. The industries were in breach of constitutional provisions barring the sale or lease of tribal lands without Adivasi consent. In response, state police fired on non-violent dissent, killing Abhilas Jhodia, Raghu Jhodia and Damodar Jhodia.

The absence of adequate social reform, the disasters of dominant development, economic liberalisation and corporate globalisation further antagonise already overburdened minority and disenfranchised groups, pitting them against each other. Hindutva targets the religion and culture of the disempowered as globalisation abuses their labour and livelihood resources. Such conditions produce the contexts in which marginalised peoples embrace identity-based oppositional movements.

The sangh exploits the fabric of inequity and poverty deviously to weave solidarity built on tales of a mythic Hindu past. Hindutva defames history, speaking of Muslims as the ‘fallen traitors’ among Hindus who converted to Islam. This revisionist history obfuscates the severity of inequity within Hindu society that led to conversions historically. Alternatively, Hindutva misrepresents Muslims as ‘terrorists’ and ‘foreigners’, Christians as ‘polluted’. Adivasis are falsely presented as Hindus who must be ‘reconnected’ to Hinduism through Hindutva. Dalit and lower caste people are raw material for manufacturing foot soldiers of dissension.

At the same time, caste oppression prevails in the sangh parivar’s mistreatment of Dalits in Orissa, who have been assaulted for participating in Hindu religious ceremonies. In April 2001, a Dalit community member was fined Rs. 4,000 and beaten for entering a Hindu temple in Bargarh.

Poor Muslim communities are often socially ostracised in Orissa. Cultural and religious differences are diagnosed as abnormal. A Muslim community member from Dhenkanal said, "When Hindus celebrate a puja we are expected to pay our respects and even offer contributions. For them this is an example of goodwill, of how we are accepted into their society, indeed we are no different as long as we do not act differently."

A Muslim woman added, "Women face double discrimination, from men of our own community as well as from the outside". Women fear the sangh will perpetrate violence on their bodies to attack the social group to which they belong.

In witch hunting for the ‘enemy within’ to blame for India’s befallen present, the sangh demands absolute loyalty to its tyranny, requiring an unequivocal display of obedience. The sangh dictates the rightful gods to worship, prayers to recite, legacies to remember. Hindutva imagines its actions above the law. It makes the unification of Hindus central to its mission. To do so, it organises Hindus to fulfil their ‘manifest destiny’, fabricating Hinduism as monolithic across the immense diversity of India.

Grassroots movements in resistance to the debacle of nation making are combating the sangh. Where Dalits, Adivasis and others are allied in subaltern struggles for land rights and sustenance, Hindutva intervenes, seeking to divide them. Grassroots democracy threatens upper-caste Hindu dominance and contradicts elite aspirations. To domesticate dissent, the sangh invigorates militant nationalism. In village Orissa, emulating Gujarat, the sangh works to create enmity between Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Christians. Progressive citizen’s groups have initiated opposition, including the ‘Campaign Against Communalism’ in Bhubaneswar. Their capacity to contest despotic religiosity is linked to redressing political oppression, redistributing economic resources and overcoming injustice.

Fear of the sangh parivar runs deep in Orissa, producing acquiescence. The sangh’s methods are sadistic, contributing to violations of life and livelihood. In January 1999, as the vehicle with Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, was torched in Keonjhar district, the mob’s homage to ‘Jai Bajrang Bali!’ pierced the state. Then followed the murder of Catholic priest Arul Das and the destruction of churches in Phulbani district. After much delay, last month, the Orissa district and sessions court delivered a verdict on the Staines’ murder case, sentencing Dara Singh, the primary accused, to death, and 12 others to life imprisonment.

The Bajrang Dal continues its virulent onslaught in Orissa. In June 2003, the Dal announced that it would organise ‘trishul diksha’ (trident distribution), despite chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s ban. Praveen Togadia planned on launching the trishul distribution campaign in Banamalipur in Korda district to provoke an area with a significant Muslim population. The Bajrang Dal plans to present trishuls to 5,000 as part of the Janasampark Abhiyan (mass contact programme) that anticipates reaching 100 million people in 2,00,000 villages throughout India.

The objective? To spread aggression. Between July and September 2003, the Bajrang Dal organised intensive programs in Bhubaneswar, Sundergarh and Jajpur. Aimed at securing a 1,50,000 membership in Orissa, this is part of a larger campaign that targets Gajapati, Phulbani, Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Koraput, and Nabarangpur districts.

In Orissa today, the sangh mobilises for a Ram temple among people for whom Ayodhya is a tale from afar. By 2006, the birth centenary of RSS architect Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, sangh organisations promise that Orissa will be a poster state for Hindutva. The sangh’s considerable advance in rural and urban Orissa has helped the BJP consolidate its position in the state, reflected in its gains in the state Assembly from one seat in 1985 to 41 presently. In return for its support, the sangh expects the government to tolerate its excesses. In March 2002, a few hundred VHP and Bajrang Dal activists burst into the Orissa Assembly and ransacked the complex, objecting to alleged remarks made against the two organisations by house members.

Development and education are key vehicles through which conscription into Hindu extremism is taking place. After the cyclone of 1999, relief work undertaken in a sectarian manner by RSS organisations granted the sangh a foothold through which to strengthen enrolment. Today, the Utkal Bipannya Sahayata Samiti works on disaster mitigation with facilities in 32 villages. The Dhayantari Shasthya Pratisthan manages four hospitals and six mobile centres.

In offering social services and carrying out rural development work, the sangh makes itself indispensable to its cadre as a pseudo-moral and reformist force. This continues the sangh parivar’s long history of implementing sectarian development. Targeting the livelihood of the ‘other’ is a technique of saffronisation. The Bajrang Dal has been strident in stopping cow slaughter in Orissa, an important source of income for poor Muslims who trade in meat and leather. Muslims have been beaten and threatened by Hindutva mobs. In India, amid the staggering poverty in which 350 million live, the participation of government agencies in debating a ban on cow slaughter is contemptible. This debate is not about animal rights. It arrogantly contravenes the separation of religion and state. It is anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit, anti-Christian and anti-poor.

In Orissa, egregious infringements of human rights are taking place with the disintegration of Adivasi and other non-Hindu cultures through their hostile incorporation into dominant Hinduism. Sectarian education campaigns undertaken by RSS organisations demonise minorities through the teaching of fundamentalist curricula. There are 391 Shishu Mandir schools with 111,000 students in the state, preparing for future leadership. Training camps in Bhadrak and Berhampur aim at Adivasi youth.

Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram runs 1,534 projects and schools in 21 Adivasi districts. The sangh has initiated 730 Ekal Vidyalayas in 10 districts in Orissa, one teacher schools that target Adivasis. The primary purpose of the schools is to indoctrinate villages into Hindutva. The teachers are offered Rs. 150-200 per month as honoraria, no salaries. The schools are free, supported through donations from organisations like the India Development Relief Fund. For Adivasi peoples, this facilitates cultural genocide that imperils self-determination movements struggling against a violent history of assimilation. The sangh asserts Adivasi political emancipation is a process of ‘tribalism’ that jeopardises the nation.

The sangh drives spiritual centres that use religious scriptures to incite sectarianism among Hindus. Vivekananda Kendras and Hindu Jagran Manch are active in Orissa together with Harikatha Yojana centres in 780 villages and 1,940 Satsang Kendras. There are 1,700 Bhagabat Tungis in Orissa, cultural reform centres run by the sangh that aim at Hindus and Christians. Another line of attack is to forcibly convert Christians into Hinduism. Churches and members of the Christian clergy are apprehensive. In Gajapati and Koraput, Christians have sought state protection in the past.

In Gajapati district, RSS and BJP workers torched 150 homes and the village church in October 1999. A Dalit Christian activist said, "RSS workers tell me that Christianity brought colonialism to India, and I am responsible for that legacy. How am I responsible? Feudalism, imperialism, post-colonial betrayal. That is written across our bodies. How am I responsible?" In June 2002, the VHP coerced 143 tribal Christians into converting to Hinduism in Sundargarh district. The Dharma Prasar Bibhag claims to have converted 5,000 people to Hinduism in 2002.

Orissa passed a Freedom of Religion Act in 1967 protecting against coercive conversions. The law, open to problematic interpretations, was overturned in 1973 and returned in 1977. In 1989, the state government activated requirements for religious conversion. In 1999, Orissa enacted a state order prohibiting religious conversions without prior permission of local police and district magistrates. Hindu fundamentalists diligently manipulate these provisions to intimidate religious minorities. Sangh organisations work with sympathetic police cadre to ensure that Hindu’s do not convert.

The sangh purposefully confuses the distinction between the right to proselytise and the use of religion to cultivate hate. Hindutva propaganda accuses Christian communities of the former and labels it a crime. The sangh justifies its use of the latter in the interests of a higher truth, the ‘righteous’ action of reuniting Hindus. ‘Reconversion’ is working well among the Christian community in Orissa, Subash Chouhan says, but not with Muslims. "Muslim reconversions are going slowly because mullahs, maulvis have created mosques and madrassas in village after village, and guard their children like chickens. That is the kind of people they are and that it why it is not so easy to get them back." For Muslims, the Bajrang Dal anticipates a different approach. Mr. Chouhan said that the Dal would engage in militancy if needed to "get the job done".

Hindutva stampedes across Orissa, inciting tyranny to establish itself. As power, culture and history shape the imagination of a nation, genocide is emerging as India’s brutal legacy. In denial, in silent and active complicity, we allow Hindu extremists to march to the guttural call of hate. Hindutva hijacks the nation’s aspirations. Its doctrine of ‘blood, soil and race’ rewrites the circumstances and complex histories that produced India. While the separation of religion and State in India is attempted at the constitutional level, Hindu militancy derives consent from Hindu cultural dominance.

Hindu ascendancy is assisted by the degree to which the authority of religion and the enabling cultural and gender hierarchies are enshrined deep within the popular psyche of the nation. This dominance assumes that to restrict religion to the private realm would deny India its historical ‘consciousness’.

India, a land of 1.2 billion, a profusion of peoples, is bound to the promise of a different destiny. In the flux between yesterday and tomorrow, dreams and desires, inequities and intimacies collide to infuse the hybridity that is India. Her survival is contingent upon the Hindu majority’s commitment to an inclusive, plural, secular democracy. The idea of a Hindu state in India is filled with discontent, held together by force. It must never come to pass.

(Angana Chatterji is a professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies).

(Note: Information used in this article is derived from multiple sources, including interviews with persons affiliated with sangh organisations).