by K. P. Sasi in countercurrents.org
What is it that makes human beings express more violence than animals? This is certainly a significant question we may ask in our journey called life. While the animals express violence for food, protection of territory and out of fear, which the human species also do on a much larger scale, the most brutal expressions of violence by the human beings can shame and shock the brutes themselves. This is the only species which can kill hundreds, thousands or millions on the basis of their ideologies, world view, belief systems, political power, economic power, power of social and cultural identities and the need to control nature. In that sense, unfortunately, we belong to the most insecure and violent species on this planet and it is because of this insecurity that we took extreme pride of being part of an identity called `human beings’. On this day of August 25, 2013, which rightfully should have been observed as a Khandamal Day nationally and internationally and unfortunately being ignored by this largest democratic, secular and sovereign State called India, it may be more appropriate to begin with our own limitations – our own silence which became the cause and effect of any large scale violence expressed in history.
It is five years since the major violence took place in Khandamal on August 25, 2008. It was the biggest anti-Christian violence in Indian history and the biggest communal violence in Orissa. The organized violence started in 2007. More than 600 villages in Khandamal district alone were attacked and 5600 houses were looted and burnt. Around 54,000 people became homelss and thousands fled the region out of fear. Over 100 people were killed, including women, children, disabled and the old. Women were raped and subjected to sexual assault. 295 churches were destroyed. 13 schools colleges, and offices of non-profit organizations were destroyed. Dalit Christians and Adivasi Christians were forcefully converted to Hinduism, though there is no tradition to convert from other religions to Hinduism, since the caste identity in Hinduism comes from birth only. All those who were converted into Hinduism at the axe-point are back into their own faith in Christianity today. Education of more than 10,000 children were disrupted and many of them still live with mental trauma. There were no proper systems of counseling.
After five years, when you look back, you will find that the rehabilitation process and compensation to the victims are not properly or adequately carried out. Most of those who are responsible for this gruesome communal crime are still to be punished. People are still waiting for justice. Thus Kandhamal remains as a blot on India’s secular image.
The question why Kandhamal happened is not much different from why the communal fascist genocide happened in Gujarat. The process of years of preparations for violence in both Gujarat and Kandhamal was similar. Teesta Setelvaad had warned years before both Gujarat communal violence and the Kandhamal communal violence that the preparations for violence is going on in both these places, in her famous magazine called Communalism Combat. These warnings were not sufficiently heard by the activists. The disaster of communal violence in Gujarat and Kandhamal could have been reduced to a certain extent if such warnings were discussed right from the initial stage of preparations for violence.
However, there is a difference between the situations of Kandhamal and Gujarat. There was still a small crowd who tried to speak out and act against the violence in Gujarat. There were feminists, trade unions, various shades of left and secular forces, civil liberties organizations, NGOs, Christian organizations with people like Fr. Cedric Prakash, secular Muslim figures like Prof. Bandookwalah, a small section of film/media internet activists to respond right from the initial stages. The social context in Kandhamal did not have this luxury. There was a weak or non-existence of various shades of left and secular forces, like minded trade unions, Muslims or other religions other than Christians and Hindus, lack of civil liberties organizations and an obvious lack of urban middle class activists who could respond and sustain the campaign effectively. Hence, whatever national campaign that has sustained the campaign for the human rights and justice for the people of Kandhamal was to a great extent due to the efforts few people like Fr. Ajay Singh who was based in Kandhamal, human rights activists like Dhirendra Panda who was based in Bhubaneswar and many other individuals and groups based on the sustained energies of such people. But the obvious lack of a diversity of potential individuals, groups and political forces in Kandhamal during the time of communal attack, could have been one of the main limitations, to explain why the Kandhamal Day is still not being observed widely at a national level.
No matter the limitations of social contexts, even with the existing forces which care for justice for the victims of Kandhamal ought to receive further support and strength. Perhaps one factor which is still blocking a proper national action on Kandhamal is the fact that all the churches that have been attacked belonged to Dalit and Adivasi Christians. I have always wondered, if the mainstream Christians and other potential voices in this country would have reacted differently, if the destruction of Churches, worship places, houses and properties along with the gruesome violence on men, women and children had happened to the upper caste Christians. This question came to my mind when I happened to see the photograph of the news of a public meeting in Malayalam mainstream papers showing the Bishops along with L.K. Advani, soon after Kandhamal communal violence. If I as an atheist was insulted and humilitated by such an act, one can imagine what could be feelings of the the Dalit Christians and Adivasi Christians on such a behaviour. It is a well accepted understanding among the activists who work on Kandhamal today that the memories of Kandhamal still do not hold the consciousness of the mainstream India, since the immediate victims were Dalits and Adivasis.
While the notion of secularism as defined so far is being debated in India and while I agree with many of the criticisms on the limitations of its present defined meanings, I would still use it due to the following reasons: 1. It provides at least a minimum protective space for the victims of communal violence through the Indian Constitution, and 2. There is still a lack of a proper alternative category to execute the political functions of a word called secularism. Therefore, in the absence of a politically accepted category, it may be wiser for activists to appropriate it and redefine the word secularism in such a way that all spiritualities, belief systems and religions are treated with equal respect and harmony irrespective of the number of followers. When I say belief systems, I would include atheism also. However, I am a bit critical of the way secularism is promoted so far as an excluded community of those outside religions. In the case of Kandhamal, I have met many people within different faiths, to be rightfully called secular Hindus or secular Christians. Take the cases of Hindu houses who provided shelter to many Christians in spite of knowing that their lives would be in danger if the blood spitting fundamentalists had found out about it, at a time when Kandhamal was burning. How did ordinary Hindu women express such courage? During the partition time, ordinary Muslim families in Pakistan have expressed courage to provide protection to the Hindus against the fanatics. In Gujarat, there were Hindus and Christians who expressed such courage. If this is not secularism, what else do we call such behaviour? To my mind, the only wide-spread secularism that exists today is within different faiths more than outside. The community of people like me still belong to the smallest minority in the country. And I hope that people like us can also apply for the minority status and protection of minority rights for the atheist community, if we are slightly organized in future! But unfortunately, it may not happen, since the heads of each atheist is turned in different directions from the other!
Perhaps what distinguishes the human species from the rest of the species is the expression of compassion undertaken by different individuals from different faiths, risking their own lives due to the firm conviction that lives of others from other religions, other communities and all those whose freedom is denied, are also as important as theirs. If the word called humanity has any meaning, it is this expression of compassion coupled with fearlessness. We must always remember that the fruits of our freedom that we enjoy so far are only due to such fearless compassion expressed by many individuals, groups and movements, articulated and expressed throughout the segments of history. And the only hope for the survival of the human species and the rest of the species is this fearless compassion expressed by a section of the society, in spite of being part of a human race. This is the best lesson we can learn from those fearless people of Kandhamal, so that their concerns can be taken forward on the forthcoming Kandhamal Days, to remember the gravity of the problems as well as hopes for the future!
is an award winning film director and a political activist. He is also an Associate Editor of Countercurrents.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org