Monday, 24th August 2009. 5:07pm
By: Vishal Arora.
New Delhi: It was on this day (August 24) in 2008 that India
witnessed its bloodiest spate of violence against the Christian
minority since the Independence. At the epicentre was Kandhamal, a
forest district of scenic beauties with waterfalls and natural
springs around hill tracts, situated in the eastern state of Orissa.
That such a district became a scene of bloodbath was ironic and
extremely unfortunate but not surprising. The region had been tense
since the Christmas season in 2007 thanks to alleged activists of
the Rightwing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Christmas season violence killed at least four Christians, burned as
many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.
The spark that ignited it was a minor conflict between VHP
supporters and Christians over the pitching of a tent for Christmas
celebrations. Christians were beaten up and their shops were
destroyed as they went ahead with their celebration plans. In the
melee, a prominent VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, who was
believed to be behind the clash, was attacked. And a Â“retributiveÂ”
Eight months later, in August 2008, when hundreds of displaced
victims were still living in relief camps set up by the state
government, Maoists (extreme Marxists) assassinated VHP leader
Saraswati and four of his disciples on the evening of August 23.
Although the media promptly reported that Maoists had attacked
Saraswati, Christians were blamed for it.
Until the following morning, there were no reports of violence. But
there were strong indications, as VHP leaders made public statements
blaming the killing of their leader on local Christians, claiming it
was to avenge the December 2007 violence. Fearing tensions, the
administration of Kandhamal clamped curfew. The VHP, too, imposed a
closure across the state to protest SaraswatiÂ’s death.
Defying the curfew imposed by the administration, the VHP mobilised
hundreds of supporters and took out a public funeral procession
carrying SaraswatiÂ’s body from his ashram in Jalespata area to
another ashram in Chakapada area, taking a detour covering more than
The local police was apparently under political pressure not to take
action against the organisers of the procession, as the Hindu
nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has close links with
the VHP, was still part of the ruling state government, in
partnership with a regional party, Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
It was not that Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik did not know
the consequences of letting the VHP carry out the procession. For,
not long ago, a similar sequence of events was witnessed after a
train compartment in the western state of Gujarat had caught fire on
February 27, 2002. The following day, the VHP imposed a closure
throughout Gujarat, and the state government, ruled by the BJP,
decided to transfer the charred bodies of the fire victims to
Ahmedabad city. At the Ahmedabad station, large crowds were allowed
to see the bodies that were later taken in a public funeral
procession. The communal frenzy the funeral procession caused
resulted in the death of over 2,000 people.
But the Orissa chief minister also knew the possible outcome of
taking on its ally, the BJP. For, anticipating a split between the
BJD and the BJP, the opposition Congress party in the state seemed
ready to exploit the coalition tensions hoping to overturn the
Patnaik government. (The Congress passed a no-confidence motion
against the ruling party on August 29, requiring it to prove
majority in the state assembly.)
As the VHP was allowed to take out the funeral procession on August
24, with police escorts, reports of violence began to flood
newsrooms across the country Â– a dÃ©jÃ vu for most journalists who
had reported on the 2002 Gujarat violence. The violence in Kandhamal
in August-September lasted for around two months, killing more than
100 people and burning more than 4,500 houses, over 250 churches and
13 educational institutions.
The state government excused itself by blaming its inability to
prevent arson, rape and murder on the Â“difficultÂ” hilly terrain of
Kandhamal. And the Central government ruled by the United
Progressive Alliance (UPA) did nothing more than tokenism. The UPA
issued an official warning to Orissa under Article 355 of the
constitution, which empowers the government at the Centre to
proclaim an emergency. But the warning came three weeks too late Â–
by then the worst was over.
The BJD spoke against the BJP only after breaking up its alliance
with the Rightwing party in the run up to the April-May 2009
elections, both for parliament and the state assembly.
Today, the BJD is the ruling party in Orissa, and the UPA the
incumbent alliance at the Centre.
But the BJP is in shambles. Many believe that the party lost the
elections due to its hardcore Hindutva image which made people see
it as an irrelevant party in the new, progressive India.
After the BJPÂ’s second consecutive defeat in the 2009 general
election Â– which witnessed a fierce infighting in the party Â– the
unsuccessful prime ministerial candidate LK Advani, seen as the
architect of minority persecution in India, reluctantly came back as
the Leader of the Opposition. It was actually its reluctance that
had qualified him for that post. But, recently, he declared that he
wanted to retain his office for the full-term. The BJPÂ’s parent
organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is furious. And so are
many second rung party leaders who cannot wait any longer to call
It was AdvaniÂ’s last chance to become the prime minister, and he
didnÂ’t make it. And his partyÂ’s hope that it would gain politically
from the numerous riots that India witnessed in the recent years,
including the one in Kandhamal, turned sour.
However, one cannot yet say that the BJP has finally paid for
playing divisive politics. For the BJPÂ’s disappointment cannot be
compared to the loss of hundreds of lives and the sorrows of their
A year after the Kandhamal mayhem, one cannot help being at a loss
for words on how human lives are sacrificed for shameful political
experiments. One can only hope that the BJP and those in authority
in the government have learnt their lessons well. For although the
wounds of the victims of communal violence cannot be healed even by
time, at least we can hope that last yearÂ’s Kandhamal violence was a