Journalist | Writer | Analyst
16 April 2009
A campaign where hate is integral
Visiting a local BJP office in election mode reveals more about the true nature of the party’s politics than the dissembling of its national leadership.
In a constituency which tops the infant mortality and malnutrition charts in the country, why would a political party which claims to be young, forward-looking and dynamic wage an election campaign focused solely on the politics of hate and fear? For all its supposed emphasis on good governance, the Bharatiya Janata Party campaign in Kandhamal, Orissa offers a chilling snapshot of the values that lie at the core of the sangh parivar’s worldview and which animate its footsoldiers.
During a visit to the constituency last week, I had the opportunity to interact with a large cross-section of BJP and RSS activists at the party’s election office in Raikia town. I began my conversation by asking them what the BJP, if elected, would do to restore normalcy in the district so that the Christians who fled their ancestral villages in the wake of last year’s violence could safely return home. More than 40 Christians were killed and two Christian women raped in mob attacks that were staged on minority homes in and around Raikia last August. The violence erupted soon after the assassination by Maoists of Lakshmananda Saraswati, an RSS missionary who had been proselytising in the district, and eight months on, thousands remain displaced, too scared to return home.
A number of socio-economic factors account for the historically fraught relationship between the adivasi Kondhas and the mainly Christian Panos in Kandhamal. Today, Kondha grievances revolve around the fear of land grabbing, the use of fake Scheduled Tribe certificates and the demand by some Pano organisations for the community to be reclassified as ST because it speaks the same Kui language as the Kondhas. But violence was never a part of the equation until the RSS, which entered the district in 1969, stepped up its work in the 1990s.
Duryodhan Lenka, who introduced himself as a representative of the BJP’s panchayat samiti, shook his head and said it was false propaganda that his party had been responsible for the arson and killing. The riots took place because of the murder of swamiji, he said. “He stood for the protection of Hindu culture and society so the Christians killed him.” Regardless of who might be responsible for the violence, I said, surely the party has a strategy to bring peace so that the pressing issues of development could be addressed. Lenka and the other activists looked at me as if I was a mad person. Vinayak Panda, president of the BJP’s district youth wing, shrugged his shoulders. “What can we do? We have no strategy.” The main issue, said another activist, was that the “false cases” that had been filed against 10,000 “innocent people” for the violence should be withdrawn and that swamiji’s killers be caught. Among the men he described as innocent was Manoj Kumar Pradhan, the BJP candidate for the G. Udaygiri Assembly seat, who the administration alleges was the chief executioner of the anti-Christian violence.
As the BJP activists warmed to the discussion, one young leader told me that the scale of the violence had been exaggerated and that many Christians had burnt their own “toota-phoota.” or dilapidated, homes in order to get government compensation. “You have to understand that they are lazy,” he said. “If they stay in camp instead of going home, they get free food and relief. They don’t have to work. And then they know the money they are getting from America will stop the minute they leave the camps.”
Ashok Sahu, a young RSS activist (not to be confused with the BJP candidate currently in jail for hate speech) then listed out a number of sins that he said the Christians were guilty of. These included falsely accusing Hindus of committing crimes, abducting Hindu girls, grabbing adivasi land and reservation quotas, and, of course, engaging in religious conversion. And now “they” had joined hands with the Maoists to kill Lakhsmananda Saraswati. I turned the discussion back to the late swami’s work. Some scholars have written that he also tried to influence the religious practices of the adivasis so that they were more in line with the Hindu mainstream, I said. He wanted the Kondhas to give up traditional practices like ‘dhangda dhangdi,’ for example, in favour of more brahminised Hindu rituals. “Definitely swamiji tried to promote good sanskaras among the adivasis,” an activist replied. But doesn’t that amount to the same kind of religious conversion you accuse the Christians of doing, I asked. They bristled at the suggestion and turned to an older adivasi supporter who was sitting among us for support. “Did the swamiji try to get the adivasis to change their religion?” someone asked him. To their surprise and horror, the adivasi, G. Pradhan, said yes. It was also dharmantaran, or conversion. A bitter argument followed, but Pradhan stuck to his guns. Panda, the BJP youth leader, quickly brought the discussion back to the violence. “If swamiji had not been killed, this would not have happened,” he said, adding in English, for effect: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
I wanted to say there was at least one Christian, Newton, he seemed to approve of but resisted the urge. The discussion had come full circle and it was time to leave.