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Love and fire


Focussing on the issue of conversion in Orissa, ANANT KUMAR GIRI gives a first-person account of how and why religious animosity is intense among the tribals of Manoharpur village even today.

IT is two years ago that Graham Staines and his two children Philip and Timothy were burnt alive in the tribal village of Manoharpur, 10 km from the small town of Thakurmunda in the Mayurbhanj district, Orissa. Three months ago, I spent a week in this district talking to Hindus, Christians and members of the administration trying to understand the situation from the point of view of both the victims as well as the perpetrators of violence. While talking to the advocate of Dara Singh, the prime accused in the above case of killing, in Karanjia, I met Kamal Mahanta (a pseudonym), an associate of Dara Singh. Mahanta told me: "When I think of it, I am pained that those two young children were killed. I am not sorry that Graham Staines was burnt as he was engaged in conversion, but I am sorry for those two children." On hearing this, quick were the words from the advocate's betel-chewing mouth: "No. Do not feel sad. If their father had initiated so many conversions you can imagine how many conversions those children would have done on growing up."

The advocate is part of Dara Sena, an organisation which has come up in the locality to fight for the cause of Dara Singh. Kamal Mahanta, like many in the locality, are its supporters, projecting Dara Singh to the public as Dharma Rakshaka, protector of religion. In fact, a parallel organisation Dharma Rakshaka Sri Dara Singh Samiti has been formed and its Delhi-based president Mukesh Jain demands that Gladys Staines be arrested and evicted from the country for continuing the missionary work of her late husband. Such a demand is being made when Gladys Staines, showing remarkable courage and generosity of human heart, has forgiven the killers of her husband and two sons. But supporters of Dara Singh continue to urge the Hindus to join the "righteous war" with Christian missionaries, using the idiom of the Bhagavad Gita. They consider Christian missionaries as anti-national and terrorist.

Dara Singh, whose original name is Rabindra Kumar Pal, is not from Orissa; he comes from the U.P. town of Etawah. A boy from the village Malipushi near Karanjia had gone to Delhi for work when he met Pal and a fast-growing friendship between them made Pal accompany his friend to Malipushi ten years ago where he started as a teacher of Hindi in the local school. Even in the early days, Pal had an inclination to fight for the cause of Hindus, especially on the issue of cow protection. Rabindra Pal, alias Dara Singh, put up a statue of Bajrang Bali in the locality and organised raids in the nearby highway on the cattle-carrying trucks on their way to slaughter houses in Kolkatta. He would distribute the cattle among the tribals. That way he became popular. Some of them continued to provide Dara Singh food and shelter when he was on the run for a year after killing the Staines. With their support, he could also dare to organise the killing of a Muslim trader, Abdul Rehman, in broad daylight in the market place of Padiabeda on Rakhshabandhan day and the catholic priest Arul Das in the remote village of Jambabani on Janmashtmi day.

Sympathisers of Dara Singh told me that both Rehman and Arul Das were killed because they were morally bad. But allegation of sexual misconduct is a familiar strategy here to kill selectively from the minority communities. In fact, Hindus of the locality have been mobilised on these two issues: Christian priests and missionaries are charged with enjoying the tribal girls and drinking the blood of calves during the conversion ceremonies. The sympathisers of Dara Singh, who are otherwise respected citizens, do not feel the remorse of conscience to make wild allegations involving Staines and the leprosy-stricken women in his leprosy home.

Young sympathisers of Dara Singh told me: "Why should Christian missionaries go to the remote areas without intimating the police? If they are attacked and killed, it is their problem. They are using the pretext of providing service in health and education to convert Hindus. If they want to serve the downtrodden then let them give all their money to the Government and the Government can provide education and healthcare to the people on their behalf." After being with them for two days and on the eve of my taking the bus to Cuttack, I felt that my duty as an anthropologist was not just to listen but also to initiate a critical conversation. I told one of those with whom I had struck a chord of friendship: "Whether tribals are Hindus or become Christians, they face the problem of abject poverty. Are we at all concerned about their poverty, their well-being? There is so much land lying vacant and unused in the villages. Have you thought of irrigating such vast tracts of land? This is what the socio-spiritual movement of Swadhyaya is doing in Gujarat. You are using the language of the Gita to kill Christians, but Swadhyaya is using the Gita's philosophy of karma yoga to dig wells in tribal Sabarkanta so that the people there can lead a dignified life."

But dignity of the tribals has never been the concern of Hindu fundamentalist forces. For them, tribals are being manipulated to Christianity and they cannot think that tribals can make their own choices. But when tribals join Christianity there is a change in their lifestyle such as abstinence from drinking which help them prosper compared to the other tribals in the village.

But this is perceived as a threat to the vested interest in the tribal society because the Christian tribals stop depending on their exploitative ways. Tribal Christians also stop paying for the village festivals and this creates tension in the village and is perceived as a threat to the village solidarity. But while earlier such intra-community conflicts around religion could be settled at the village level, now this is deliberately being made part of a wider political contestation and religious war. D. K. Singh, collector of Mayurbhanj, says: "Traditionally tribals practise both burning and burying of their dead. But now native tribals are made to undertake the Hindu practice of burning and the Christian tribals burying and these are becoming rigid markers of identity."

The village, Manoharpur, only after one and a half years of the burning of the Staines, witnessed another great drama: the reconversion of nearly 40 tribal Christians of the locality into Hinduism with great fanfare. But what happens to those who are reconverted? They are required to give two goats, ten pots of handia (the local drink) and 20 kg of rice for a community feast which would cost them not less then Rs. 2,000. Many who have been reconverted have not been able to make this payment and they are now suspended in a limbo. But in this state of suspension they have gone back to drinking alcohol as well as handia. Christian tribals do not drink and thereby prosper. Hindu fundamentalists characterise this prosperity as the product of the outright giving of money by the missionaries. But a visit to this area does not give us a picture of the flow of money. For example, most of the tribal villages which have some Christian population do not have even their own churches. The ones that have a church do not have even a concrete building, only thatched roofs. It is these poor Christians and their modest churches which are now subjected to attacks and the Christians of the locality feel that instead of providing them security, agencies of State are either colluding with the perpetrators of violence or remaining mute spectators.

I asked Niskama Murmu of Manoharpur whether he as the village chief was invited to the reconversion ceremony. His negative reply reflected a sad heart. He also could not understand anything of what the Shankaracharya of Puri, the priest of reconversion, was saying because he was speaking in Hindi. One does not know how long the Shankaracharya has stayed in Orissa and whether he has cared to learn Oriya. While the Shankaracharya can speak only in Hindi in a tribal village, Graham Staines spoke to the tribals not only in Oriya but also in Santali, one of the tribal languages. Says Niskarma Murmu: "Graham Staines was a nice man. He used to come here every year and anytime he would see me, he would speak to me lovingly in our own language."

The writer is on the faculty of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and is a visiting fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies, Amsterdam.

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