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Odisha: Hindutva’s gateway to the East

By Vivashwan Singh
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In the Panchayat elections held in 2017 in Odisha, the BJP has improved it’s tally by a whopping 850 per cent as compared with the 2012 elections. With a failing Congress, the Hindutva party hopes to unseat the four term chief minister Naveen Patnaik and do a Tripura in the assembly elections to be held in 2019. The BJP has already become the primary opposition in Odisha and the significance of Odisha in BJP’s strategic plan for 2019 can be judged from the fact that the party has started calling it the ‘epicentre of eastern India politics’.

In 2000 the victory of the BJD-BJP alliance covertly supported this process and emboldened the activists of Sangh Parivar. The Hindutva’s considerable progress 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 32 in 2004. 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. In June 2003, the Dal announced that it would organise ‘Trishul Diksha’ (weapon distribution), despite chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s ban. The Naveen Patnaik led BJD parted way with BJP, because in return for its support, the Sangh expected Patnaik to tolerate its excesses. But by the end of the alliance government’s first tenure, the VHP had successfully managed to mobilise the tribals into a mainstream Hindu agenda by building a tribal Hindu consciousness.

The Hindutva project began in 1969 in Odisha’s Kandhamal with the arrival of VHP leader Laxmananand Saraswati. The Kandhamal district counts among India’s poorest districts. It tops the chart in malaria deaths and healthcare is a distant dream for the villagers. Literacy is at 65.12 per cent and school dropouts are high. Social service and education are key channels through which recruitment into Hindu extremism is taking place.

More than 3% of Orissa’s 40.5 million people are Christians, many of them devout converts from Hinduism, according to the World Christian Database. They are prime targets of Sangh Parivar and to counter the Christian missionaries the former had replicated their work.

After the cyclone of 1999, relief work undertaken by RSS organisations granted the sangh a foothold 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. By 2003 the Sangh Parivar operated through at least 35 different organisations including political, ideological, service and charitable educational and health institutions. The RSS runs 1352 shakhas in Orissa, with a membership of 100,000 while the VHP has a base of 60,000 in the state. The Bajrang Dal has 20,000 members who serve in 200 Akharas and the Durga Vahini has 7000 members working in close coordination with RSS, and VHP cadres. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh is pursuing its agenda of ‘mainstreaming of tribals’ under the larger Hindutva umbrella through their Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams. 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.

Although the Ashrams say that they are a social service organization, the links to the party are hard to ignore. The work of Hindutva fringe groups had been a political project as much as a religious and cultural one. Full-time workers from these ashrams help in election canvassing, touring tribal villages and telling people to vote for the lotus flower that is the BJP’s symbol. The long-term aim of the ashrams is to have students always think of Hindutva and become lifelong supporters of the BJP.

In October 2005 Laxmananda Saraswati reportedly said: “How will we make India a completely Hindu country? The feeling of Hindutva should come within the hearts and minds of all the people.” In April 2006, celebrating RSS architect Golwalkar’s centenary, Saraswati conducted seven yagnas, and mobilised more than 30,000 tribals for the Hindutva cause. The death of Laxmananada Saraswati on August 23, 2008 and its aftermath exposed the extent and expansion of Hindu right wing penetration. The state of Odisha also saw rising atrocities on the Dalits and the riots in Kandhamal proved that the Hindutva forces will go to extreme ends to polarise the people as the Hindus by creating other. In the case of Odisha, that other was Christians. The statistics from tribunal hearings and fact-finding missions, state that more than 600 villages were ransacked, 5600 houses were looted and burnt, 54000 people fled and were left homeless, hundreds of people were murdered, hacked, dismembered and tortured, including women, disabled and aged persons and children; and an unestimated number suffered severe physical injuries and mental trauma. Many more victims of physical and sexual assault are believed to have been intimidated into silence. 295 churches and other places of worship, big and small, were destroyed. 13 schools, colleges, and offices of 5 non-profit organizations were destroyed and ransacked. During this period about 2,000 Dalits and Adivasis were threatened and assaulted into rejecting their faiths and publicly declare themselves “Hindu”.

According to Sangh’s own figures, they reconverted about 50,000 people into Hinduism in the past 40 years. The biggest challenge to our democracy, and perhaps to the very integrity of our social fabric, is political Hindutva which clearly finds the diversity of India to be disturbing. The Hindu beef-eating Malayalis and the Ravana-worshiping Tamils are interesting examples of a diverse Hinduism. Anyone’s idea of the nation must have space for others within it, otherwise, that idea can turn exclusivist. As soon as one section begins to impose its exclusivist idea of the nation on others, and labels those who imagine the nation differently as traitors, it becomes anti-democratic and potentially dangerous. The creation of an image of the crusading foreign funded Christian had been crucial to the expansion of the Hindutva project and the building of a communal consciousness in tribal people. This also forms the basis of the anti-Christian violence and polarisation which surfaced in Naveen Patnaik’s rule.

The BJD has launched a propaganda war to showcase its achievements and to counter the Modi government’s claims of having rolled out sundry schemes for Odisha’s poor and youth. Naveen Patnaik, who is mostly seen as laidback about self-promotion, has woken up after the BJP’s success in the recent panchayat polls. The Odisha government has lately approved a proposal for setting up a legislative council in the state. The House of MLCs is aimed at thwarting the state BJP’s plan to tap the incumbency burden of BJD MLAs in the next election. It’s not going to be easy for BJD to replace its heavyweight MLAs with new faces. The BJP’s interest in eastern states is a part of a larger strategy to reduce the party’s dependence on Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, BJP won 71 out of 80 seats in UP. Fearing the success of Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP wants to account for a possible anti-incumbency factor and cover the possible gap from the seats it couldn’t win in 2014 across the nation.

The strongest pushback to the BJP has been from strong linguistic states, such as Kerala, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Odisha was the first linguistic state that was created by the British on April 1, 1936 but there isn’t any lingual unity among Odias. However, apart from the annual Ratha Jatra, there is hardly any common platform for Odias to rally around and that is where we should look to see what troubles the Odia identity.

When the Census religion data of 2011 was released in 2015, newspapers carried out stories which stated that the Christian population in Odisha has grown by 478% and Muslims by 323% in the last 50 years, as against Hindus increasing by just 130%. But despite growing by 478%, Christians are just 2.77% of Odisha’s population today, rising from 1.15% in 1961. While Muslims comprise a mere two per cent of the population, there exists a resonance for Hindutva consolidation in the state. All districts in Odisha are Hindu majority.

The Christian population has crossed double digits in only in Sundargarh (18.39%), Kandhamal (20.31%) and Gajapati (37.98%) districts. Before the pogroms took place, the area of Kandhamal was already bristling with the Caste and religious tension. Brahminical forces were at odds with local populations of Dalits and Adivasis who were ever-increasingly rejecting being called “Hindu”, and entering into the Christian faith which they found offered them a more respectable position in the society. In Gajapati district, RSS and BJP workers burned down 150 homes and the village church in October 1999. By the end of June 2002, the VHP and RSS had converted around 5,000 people into Hinduism.

The Indian constitution guarantees the right to practice and propagate one’s religion and conversion is a necessary corollary to this right. If backward communities are capable of voting and choosing governments, surely they must be capable of choosing their religion. In Orissa today, the Sangh mobilises for a Ram temple among people for whom Ramayana is a fable from afar. The making and articulation of the Hindu tribal identity overtook all other contradictions in Kandhamal. The communalisation of the tribal consciousness has been a planned project since the early 1970s which in turn has structured the ethnic conflict. Nearly a decade has passed since the events of terror and many Dalits and Adivasis who have lost their homes, property and family members remain without justice. Kandhamal Dalit Christians are still suffering and living out in jungles almost 10 years after the killings. The primary task is to de-communalise the tribal identity and reduce an ethnic divide through social, political and developmental action.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.


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