The first day of the Karwan e Mohabbat (caravan of love) in Odisha revealed a state torn apart by the same ruptures of communal and caste mobilisation against religious minorities and disadvantaged castes that lacerate many parts of the country. But in Odisha we found that after the Kandhamal massacre of nearly a decade back, when Hindutva groups had killed over 50 Christians and attacked their homes and places of worship, the breaches between religious groups and castes have not led to many examples of targeted murders. Instead, in all the three episodes the Karwan team looked at on the first day of their Odisha travels, it was instructive to observe that the chosen instrument of subjugation of suppressed castes and minorities was the same – of arson, setting on fire their homes, a place of worship and their shops, rather than murderous attacks on the bodies of the victims.
In the first village we visited, Gurudijhatia in Cuttack district, it was the homes of Dalit residents that had been set on fire by their upper caste neighbours. The immediate provocation seemed political. For over 25 years, they had voted in Ranjan Acharya as their village sarpanch. In the panchayat elections in the summer of 2017, Acharya put up his teenaged son Deepak. He was backed by the ruling Biju Janata Dal, although nominally panchayat elections exclude party affiliations. A rival candidate decided to contest the polls. A former school teacher, he too had a long association with the ruling party, but since he had been overlooked for this candidature, he decided to fight as a rebel independent candidate. The Dalits of the village conferred and took what for them was a momentous decision – to vote for the rival candidate. “His [Deepak Acharya’s] father had done nothing for us even though we had been loyal to him for 27 years,” said one resident. “We thought, let us give a new man a chance.”
For a community that was landless and at the bottom of the caste heap, it was a brave decision. And taking the guarantees of the Constitution of electoral freedom at face value, they voted against Deepak Acharya. Deepak Acharya won by a significant margin. But it was not lost on him and his father that the Dalits of his village had dared to vote against him. Many of the Dalit men pulled cycle rickshaws in neighbouring Cuttack city. A day after the polls, as these men made their way to Cuttack, they found their path blocked. A few blows fell on them. The elders of the village were assembled, and they advised restraint on all sides. But later the same day, a large crowd of upper caste young men gathered, pulled the Dalit residents out of their homes, and set these on fire.
When we visited, the huts were burnt-out shells. The families had moved in with relatives. The continuing fear was palpable. An old woman wept quietly, recalling that their life savings had been lost in the fire. Men from both communities were jailed for brief periods. Even though the Dalits had been attacked and their homes burnt, the police were scrupulous in ensuring an even count between the communities of the men sent to prison. Even the possibility of justice seemed remote for the survivors of the violence. No state help was forthcoming for them to rebuild their homes. The best they could hope for was an end to the informal social and economic boycott, so they could find work again on the farms of their upper caste neighbours. And live without fear of another attack. The next time they stand before an election booth, they have been taught their place and it is a lesson they are not likely to forget, not for generations.
Prayers in hiding
In the second village in Bhadrak district that we drove to in the afternoon, it was a Christian place of worship that had been set afire and demolished. About 17 families from surrounding villages had over the last two decades decided to convert to Christianity. They were led by a man in his forties – for his safety, we will not name him or his village. Let us call him Rajesh Naik. He recalled he had read a pamphlet as a young man. It spoke of the shubha samachar or “auspicious news” that Jesus Christ had died to save them, free them from the burdens of sin and bondage, and lead them to heaven in the after-life. He found himself drawn from his soul to the pamphlet, and read the address at its bottom. It was of a Protestant church in Kolkata. He had completed his studies in electric engineering at an Industrial Training Institute. He decided to find his spiritual path in life, and took a bus to Kolkata. He spent two years there, and while there converted to Christianity.
His father was furious, he said, and his back still carries the scars of the beating he received. His mother and brother, the community elders, his friends and neighbours tried to dissuade him, but he was firm that he would live his life as a Christian. His father then disinherited him from his share of the family land. Naik found a young woman who was similarly drawn to the teachings of Christ. They married and raised a family. Over the years, more than a dozen families from various castes in surrounding villages converted to Christianity. From the savings from his work as an electrician, Naik saved money to build a small one-room chapel, which he raised on cement pillars with a roof of asbestos sheets.
Every Sunday morning, Naik would lead the prayers in this chapel. There was no major church in the vicinity, no trained and formally ordained priest to guide them in their worship. Naik became the religious head of his small community, which he described as a fellowship. On the land adjoining the chapel, he created a small graveyard, in which two members of their fellowship were buried.
One Sunday morning in August, just months before our visit, a group of men from the villages – men Rajesh Naik recognises, all members of the Bajrang Dal and other Sangh organisations – surrounded the chapel, shouting fearsome slogans. The small congregation ran away in fear, and the mob burnt down the chapel and knocked down the gravestones, desecrating and turning over the graves. Although they gave the names of the men who destroyed the chapel to the police, no action had been taken. The small Christian community lives in fear, but still takes at face value the promise of the Constitution that guarantees them their freedom of faith. They refuse to give up their chosen religious faith or their routine of meeting every Sunday to pray together. They meet quietly in different homes by turn, but even as they pray, they worry about another mob attacking them.
Before we left, Naik urged us to gather in the home of a Dalit brother and join them in prayer. John Dayal, the senior comrade of the Karwan team, led the prayer, saying the gathering had people of many faiths, including an agnostic like me, and he sought protection and well-being for all. Naik followed with his own prayer, speaking of their sins and the redemption he had found in Christ.
WhatsApp message sets off tension
Our last halt for the day was Bhadrak town. Here, the communal tension, again from a few months ago, had seen around 25 shops set on fire. This is a town with almost an equal number of Hindus and Muslims living together since Mughal times. They live in separate settlements, although a small number of families live in the midst of the other community. It is a town of long interregnums of communal peace, interrupted from time to time by brief but bloody outbreaks, the last of which was in 1991 and saw many dead. In April 2017, tension flared up after two teenaged school friends exchanged private messages that were disrespectful of each other’s faith. The message fell into the hands of a member of a communal organisation that has been trying hard to deepen the communal divide between the religious groups. He extracted a portion of the post that was disrespectful to Hindu gods and circulated it on WhatsApp.
The aftermath was predictable, with crowds gathering, armed with sticks, daggers and cans of petrol. They set out to attack the homes of the Muslims who lived in the midst of Hindu settlements. The saving grace was that there were a number of respected seniors who gathered under the banner of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and stood between the mobs and Muslim homes. This act saved many lives. But the crowds then turned to the marketplace and set fire to many shops owned by Muslims. The next day, in retaliation, a group of Muslim youth set fire to a smaller number of shops owned by Hindus.
At a meeting at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, we took heart that unlike in most places we had traversed during the Karwan, there were still women and men from both communities in Bhadrak willing to come forward visibly to rebuild social relations. Everyone gathered in the room testified to the role the administration played in enabling the violence to continue, when it could have stemmed it at the start. They pointed also to the arrest of a much larger number of young men from the minority community, on graver charges. Some spoke openly, some in muffled tones, about the role played by organisations of the Sangh to divide the communities to gain politically at the hustings.
Scars of Kandhamal
The next day, we travelled to Kandhamal, where 10 years ago, across nearly 500 villages, Christian minorities were killed and raped and their homes burnt and looted. I will write a separate account of their unhealed wounds, of many families still too frightened to return to their homes, and the spectacular subversion of justice.
On our last day in Odisha, after our return from Kandhamal, we went to the Bhubaneswar Railway Station where in May a group of cow vigilantes, who claimed membership of the Bajrang Dal, had gone on a rampage when they found 25 cows being transported on a train. It did not matter to them that these cows were being shifted by the Tamil Nadu veterinary department from Salem to their counterparts in Meghalaya. They attacked the transporters and railway officials, chained two innocent men (including a passenger who had nothing to do with the transport of the animals) to an iron pole and beat them, released the cows, and held up the train for two hours. The railway officials did nothing to restrain the attackers, who proudly spoke of their feats in front of television cameras. Eight men were ultimately arrested but released on bail in just a few days. The cows were sent to Meghalaya on another train a few days later.
We left Odisha with sombre memories of these many fires – of Dalits homes, of a Christian place of worship, of Muslim and Hindu shops. Common to each of these were organisations on a mission to intimidate religious minorities and disadvantaged castes and compel them to submit to the power and will of the majority. We carried the grief of the families whose loved ones were killed or raped in the Kandhamal carnage, bereft of justice and healing. We encountered a seething Odisha but a land in which blood has not flowed the way it did 10 years ago. However, fires of hate have since risen to the skies in many parts of the state, vigilantes roam, and hearts have been filled with dread and fear. Meanwhile, the state government, the “secular” Opposition and even progressive civil society just stand by.