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Desperate Acts of Faith - India Today

Ruben Banerjee ()
March 30, 1998

Title: Desperate Acts of Faith
Author: Ruben Banerjee
Publication : India Today
Date: March 30, 1998

He is poor landless many others in the underdeveloped interiors
of Orissa. Jeeban Majhi, a villager in Gumma, Gajapati district,
has no avenues to change the course of his life. All he has done
in the past five years is change his religion twice. Born a
Hindu, he embraced Christianity and became Joseph. Last year,
however, he returned to his old faith. After a brief ritual that
included a tonsure, Joseph was "reborn" as Jagannath.

Moving back and forth from one religion to another is perhaps the
only change sweeping Orissa's backyard. Little else has changed
in recent years. Illiteracy is as high as ever, poverty as
grinding as always, roads are few and many pockets remain
inaccessible. Yet these steep odds have not deterred Christian
and Hindu fanatics from working overtime to make one of the
country's poorest regions into the biggest battleground for
conversions and reconversions.

Though low on expectations, Orissa is currently high on religious
fervour. dharma yudh (religious battle) is being fought here,"
says Subhash Chauhan, convener of the Hindu Jagran Samukhya, an
RSS front organisation. it all began with the arrival of
Christian missionaries, some 20 years ago, backed by foreign-
funded NGOS with the promise of changing the face of the region.
Schools and hospitals came up at certain places to help the poor,
but so did churches. With Christianity spreading, the Hindu
backlash has just started. "Since we were late starters, we are
trying to catch up with the missionaries. While they have been
converting at the rate of over 5,000 a year, we are logging about
500 reconverts now," says Basanth Rath, organising secretary,
state VHP.

"Compassion, the hallmark of any religion, has gone for a six.
Instead, what you have are fraying tempers and heightening
violence," says Rabi Das, editor of the Oriya daily Pragativadi.
That mutual hatred is getting the better of both communities is
exemplified by the frequent clashes reported from at least 10 of
the state's 30 districts no less than 30 clashes have occurred
all over the state in the past one year. Rival groups, egged on
by self-styled religious leaders, have burnt houses and
desecrated places of worship in towns like Phulbani, Bolangir and
Sundergarh. "Vested interests are fishing in troubled waters,"
admits Sudarshan Pal Thakur, collector of Gajapati district-one
of the worst hit by the clashes.

As conversions and churches multiply, protests by Hindus are
getting shrill. In January, at a huge rally in Padampur, Hindu
protesters armed with traditional weapons bayed for the blood of
the local sub collector, who they say is patronising the church.
Two months ago, the row over the desecration of a village temple
at Serang in Gajapati district ended in violent clashes. Sanity
prevailed only after the harried administration rebuilt the
temple with police protection and resettled the Hindus. A month
earlier, Christians in Sundergarh charged Hindus with poisoning
the village wells. And in Bolangir, most Christians stopped
visiting local hospitals fearing a sterilisation programme.

The widening communal divide cast its shadow on last month's Lok
Sabha elections as well. The hardened stand of the communities
was reflected in the political parties' choice of candidates.
Take the case of Frida Topno, a former minister and the Congress
sitting MP from Sundergarh. She's a known critic of Chief
Minister J.B. Patnaik, but the Congress denied her a ticket
because it wanted to woo the Hindu electorate which traditionally
votes for the BJP and the Jmm.

Political parties have compelling reasons to consider the
communal equations. The BJP, for instance, has benefited from the
backlash against Christian missionaries-apart from Atal Bihari
Vajpayee's charisma and the party's promise to provide a stable
government. The party's candidate, a nonentity to begin with,
finished a creditable second at Ramgiri during the last assembly
elections. "When the results came in, we did not even know that
we had a unit there," says a BJP leader.

Overzealous missionaries, many say, have contributed to the
consolidation of the Hindu vote. "Much ofthe resentment against
us is misplaced and motivated. We do not convert by force but
admit only those who volunteer," explains Father Rabindra S.
Singh ofthe Behrampore diocese. But the unusually high number of
such volunteers has left the missionaries open to charges of
adopting unfair means. "The conversions are illegal because they
are induced, " observes a senior state bureaucrat.

The missionaries, no doubt, are on an overdrive, apparently
following the call made at the state pastors' seminar in Cuttack
in November 1996 to "win Orissa for Christ by 2000 AD". Churches
of all shapes and sizes have sprung up in most areas of the state
in recent years. For instance, on both sides of National Highway
43 between Saunki and Nowrangpur and the state expressway between
Parlekhemundi and Mohana. The state already boasts of 90
Christian missions and over 8,000 churches. "In a state which
has no industry worth the name, building churches has become big
business, " remarks Sajjan Sharma, a BJP spokesman.

People are worried about the widening communal divide, but the
state Government is loathe to admit it. "Many of the stories
doing the rounds could be unfounded but the damage they are
causing is real," says a senior official. With local Christians
referring to Krishnapur as Krishtopur (after Christ) and Hindus
maintaining an all-night vigil in Bhubaneswar in January to
resist a possible conversion, fanatics are holding centrestage.
In recent months, Hindu organisations have been organising yagnas
to reconvert those who have left their fold. In January alone,
they prevailed upon 75 families in Sundergarh and Malkangiri to
return to Hinduism.

The state is a perfect hunting ground for religious zealots
because it has an illiterate SC/ST population of 38 per cent.
Though it has the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, to
prohibit conversions by inducements, the Government has rarely
cracked the whip. In 1993, for the first time, a superintendent
of police booked 21 pastors in Nowrangpur for breaking the law.
But he was transferred immediately as many, including a sizeable
section within the administration, were outraged by his

The Government's critics say that it's (he lack of a deterrent
that has led to the present impasse. As missionaries seek to win
over Orissa for Christ, Hindu organisations have begun to strike
roots in many places. The RSS, the VHP, the Hindu Jagran and the
Banabasi Kalyan Ashram together have chosen to help people
rediscover Hindu traditions by starting over 3,000 schools in the
state. With no sign of a let up on either side, it's no surprise
that conversions and reconversions have become the order of the
day in the land of Lord Jagannath.

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