Posted on Tue, Oct 14, 2008
Sunday Herald, October 14,2008 : AS IT got dark, Ratna Naik and her husband, Jikhario, heard the chanting from the forest getting louder. A neighbour had warned them to leave two days earlier, but it wasn't until they saw the flicker of torches that they bolted shut the door of their house and fled.
"We saw two or three hundred of these Hindus come to our village, wearing saffron headbands and shouting Hindustan for Hindus' and Kill the Christians,'" said Ratna, 47, who trekked nearly 20 kilometers through dense, wet forest in her flip-flops to a government relief camp in Udaygiri, a six-hour drive from Bhubaneshwar, Orissa's capital.
"Our neighbours were among them, to show them the homes of Christians. Only these did they loot and burn," she said, angrily flipping the end of her peach-coloured sari across her shoulder.Her story is similar to thousands of others at this relief camp in the Kandhamal district of the western Indian state of Orissa. Hindu gangs here have embarked on a spree of violence against Christians that has left 60 dead, hundreds injured and more than 50,000 displaced.
A third of these are crowded into 14 squalid government camps, too scared to return to their villages. In many cases, there's nothing left to go back to.
So-called "Saffron Brigades" in these remote, mist-covered hills of Orissa have ransacked and burned hundreds of churches as well as schools, orphanages and health clinics run by Christian aid groups. Their atrocities include the gang rape of a 27-year-old nun and the murder of a 20-year-old Hindu girl who was mistaken for a Christian. One man witnessed his wheelchair-bound brother doused with fuel and set ablaze.
Even though more than 3000 Indian police and paramilitaries have been deployed to the region in recent weeks, Orissa's government appears unable - or unwilling, critics say - to stop the attacks, sparked by the killing in August of an 84-year-old Hindu spiritual leader who opposed the spread of Christianity in India. Police say the region's Maoist rebels killed him, but Hindu groups blamed Christians.
Many villages nestled in the thick green hills of Kandhamal are now ghost towns. Roadside merchants display saffron flags, mainly to protect their businesses from Hindu mobs by signifying that they are Hindu.
Anti-Christian violence has spread to other parts of India. In the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala, long-smouldering tensions have ignited between Hindu extremists and Christian evangelists accused of illegally converting Hindus with promises of food aid, education and jobs.
"Conversion is the biggest violence," said Milind Parande, a senior leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu extremist group that has launched a campaign against Christian missionaries in India. "It is generating all this reaction. A Hindu is a peaceful person. A Hindu does not believe in violence, but if you provoke him, then I do not know what will happen."
The surge in religious strife is another sign that right-wing Hindu groups are on the rise in India. In August, Hindu protesters, enraged by a botched land deal, shut down the only highway connecting Kashmir to the rest of India, choking off supplies of food, fuel and medicine to more than 12 million people in Kashmir, a mostly Muslim enclave in the foothills of the Himalayas. They attacked scores of truck drivers, killing at least one.
Hindu militant groups such as Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, are gaining notoriety for the viciousness of their attacks against Christians and Muslims.
Analysts say these groups are linked to India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, the main opposition party. India's ruling Congress Party has blasted the BJP of instigating Hindu fury against Christians and Muslims to scare up votes as the country gears up for national elections next year.
"The problem is that some people are trying to give the violence a communal colour, but it, most likely, has more to do with politics," said Ajay Maken, a top Congress Party minister. "Perhaps it is the same kind of experiment that was performed in Gujarat is being performed here. It is an election year."
The experiment Maken refers to is the 2002 riots in Gujarat state in which Hindu mobs, egged on by the RSS, massacred more than 1000 Muslims after a train fire killed 58 Hindus.
Investigators ruled that the fire was accidental, but the incident galvanised Hindu support for Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, a Hindu hardliner whose "get-tough" stance against Muslims catapulted him to BJP stardom.
In India, a mostly Hindu nation of 1.1 billion people, Christians make up less than 3% of the population. But some Hindus see the spread of Christianity as a threat to India's culture and its centuries-old caste system. Most Christian converts are low-caste Hindus, who are accused of using a foreign religion to escape the confines of their caste.
Meanwhile, Christians such as Ratna and Jikhario, a church pastor. are still too scared to return home.
"The brotherly love we had with our Hindu neighbours has been burned and the trust is no longer there," said Ratna.
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