People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 40

October 12, 2008


Kandhamal: The March Of Hindutva In Tribal Orissa

Archana Prasad

The Christians will be wiped out from Kandhamal. (A pledge taken by those present in the VHP Shhradhanjali Sabha of Laxmanananda Saraswati, Chakapad, Phulbani, September 6, 2008.)

You are just burning tyres. How many Isai houses and churches have you burnt? Without kranti (revolution) there can be no shanti (peace). Narendra Modi has done kranti in Gujarat, thats the reason why shanti’s there.” (Laxmanananda Saraswati, quoted in Tehelka January 19, 2008).

Attack on Swamiji is the same as attacking Hindu Religion. All saints and sadhus need to counter attack unitedly otherwise India will be converted into a Christian nation”. (Apurvananda Maharaj at VHP Shhradhanjali Sabha, September 6, 2008)

THE Hindutva project in Kandhamal, Orissa, began in 1969 with the arrival of VHP leader Laxmanananda Saraswati who established his ashram in Chakapad, Kandhamal district. The death of Saraswati on August 23, 2008 and its aftermath has only exposed the extent and expansion of Hindu right wing penetration. 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 2,273 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 (Rupen Bannerjee, ‘Spread of Saffron’ India Today January 27, 2003). This explains the aggressiveness with which the Sangh Parivar has responded to the slaying of Laxmanananda Saraswati, the main organiser and key functionary of the VHP in the state for the last 36 years.


The growth of the Hindutva project has been influenced by the under-development of the region which has compelled tribal and dalit families to depend on voluntary social welfare measures for their survival. Till the early 1970s when the first Ashram was set up at Chakapad by Laxmananada Saraswati, the Christian missionaries constituted one of the most influential forces that organised the pano scheduled caste (forming approximately 16.6 per cent in 2001) and the Kui and Kandh scheduled tribes (54.7 per cent as in census 2001). Since many of the converts belonged to the socially oppressed dalit communities, Saraswati largely concentrated on building a Hindu consciousness amongst the Kui and Kandha who formed a majority of the population.

Most of the dalits and tribals are marginal farmers and rural workers who also depend on the sale of forest produce as their supplementary income. Kandhamal, is a natural resource exporting region: tamarind, ginger, sal resin, sal seeds and Kandhamal turmeric being the most important produce. The collectors of this produce get one-third to one-fourth of the minimum support price offered by the government. As in the case of other tribal areas, there are at least four layers of traders between the government depot and the collectors. A majority of the big traders are outsiders (from Gajapati or Ganjam districts) who form the middle and upper castes that have traditionally supported the Hindutva agenda. But many of the petty traders are the Pano, an important SC group, a few of whom have come into the ownership of tribal lands. The economic empowerment of a strata of the Pano is attributed to their rejection of brahmanical Hinduism and conversion into Christianity many decades ago (Pralay Kanungo, ‘Hindutva’s fury against Christians in Orissa’ EPW September 13, 2008). The limited state infrastructure and the consequent Kui, Kandh and Pano dependence on non-governmental social welfare measures have resulted in the aggravation of social and economic contradictions. This has framed the Sangh Parivar’s intervention and also made a communal project look like an ethnic strife. In this conflict the Kui Samaj Samanavaya Samiti, an apex organisation of Kandh’s and Kui tribals, appears to have emerged as one of the main allies of the Sangh Parivar.


The current conflict between Christian dalits and the Kui and Kandh Hinduised tribals began with the Christian Pano demanding ST status. They argued that they too speak the Kui language and should be thus given the same status as Kui and Kandhs. But Kui Samaj opposed this and received full support from Saraswati. Inspired by this support the Samaj called for a bandh on Christmas day resulting in the riots of December 2007. The demand of the Pano assumes importance because Orissa VHP secretary, Gauri Prasad Rath stated that the parivar organisations would ensure that those who converted to Christianity would not get the benefits of any reservation and would loose both their SC and ST status.

The perception that Kui and Kandh Christians are not tribals has been internalised by the leaders of the Kui and Kandh communities. The Kui Samaj and its leader Lambodar Kanhar has supported and agitated for the VHP demand even though he denies the links of the organisation with the RSS. The anti-Christian feeling amongst the ST leadership is more than palpable. As Kanhar states: “How can we get along with Christians? It’s like cat and mouse. We don’t like the ways of even those who are Christians among the Kandhas. We keep them apart from places of worship.” (Tehelka, January 19, 2008). This segregation of the Christian dalit and tribals from those who have been converted to Hinduism under the ‘ghar vapasi” or reconversion campaign started in the late 1980s. But the Hindu influence on the articulation of the tribal identity began much earlier. Sangh organisations, under the leadership of Laxmananda Saraswati, presented Jagannath as part of the indigenous tribal tradition, and held dharma yatras and yagnas to socialise the tribals into Hindu rituals and culture (Pralay Kanungo, ‘Hindu Entry into a Hindu Province’, EPW, 2001).

In 2000 the victory of the BJD-BJP alliance covertly supported this process and emboldened the Sangh activists. Christians claimed that the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act was used selectively to implicate them in false offences (Rise of Fascism: Victims of Communal Violence Speak, March 2008, Anhad, Delhi, pp. 227-229). 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. 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. In September 2007, led by Saraswati, many Kui and Kandh tribals participated in the VHP’s statewide road-rail blockade on the ‘Ram Setu’ issue (Angana Chatterji, ‘Hindutvas Violent History’ Tehelka September 13, 2008).

It is therefore not surprising that the VHP secretary Rath proudly claims that in the last 40 years the organisation had brought atleast 50,000 tribals back into the Hindu society. It follows from this that the parivar organisations were converting about 1000 tribals a year into Hinduism. In contrast, Church reports 200-300 annual conversions under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, proving the charge of forcible conversions wrong. Another exaggerated claim by the Sangh Parivar is that the number of churches in Kandhamal has increased to over 921, while church sources put this number at just over 500. The creation of an image of the crusading foreign funded Christian has been crucial to expansion of Hindutva project and the building of a communal consciousness in tribal people. This also forms the basis of the anti-Christian violence and polarisation that has surfaced in the decade following Naveen Patnaik’s rule.


The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) describes the current genocide in the area as an ‘attempt to annihilate the Christians’. They estimate the damage in the following way: 96 churches, 14 residential and training centres and 4009 houses of Christians have been destroyed; 22,236 people are in relief camps and more than 40,000 people have displaced into forests. But more than this, the alarming aspect of this report is the use of the September attacks to hasten the process of Hindutva expansion.

As the CBCI report states “The Christian dalit and tribals are forced to convert to Hinduism under threat. The fundamental group announces a date fixed for conversion in a selected village. Those Christian members belonging to the houses of that village are told to inform their family people to return from the relief camps or anywhere on that date. They will be asked to convert to Hinduism. They are asked to sign a document that it is done freely. If they do not accept, they are tortured and killed. If they become Hindus, they pay a fine of 1000 to 1500 rupees.” Further, if the Christians stay away “Hindu neighbours are told that the houses, the lands belong to the Hindus. All their belongings are looted, burnt and destroyed.” (Report of the CBCI Fact Finding Mission in Spirit Daily) Clearly the politics of communal Hindu transformation promoted by Laxmanananda Saraswati has reached its crescendo and requires the purging of all Christians from Kandhamal.

The making and articulation of the Hindu tribal identity has overtaken all other contradictions in Kandhamal. The ruling BJD-BJP combine calls this communal divide as an “ethnic conflict with religious overtones”. This is clearly not true because the communalisation of the tribal consciousness has been a planned project since the early 1970s which in turn has structured the ethnic conflict. Thus this conflict is a communal polarisation with an ethnic dimension. Therefore the primary task is to de-communalise the tribal identity and reduce an ethnic divide through social, political and developmental action.