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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 February 2006, 17:43 GMT
Christian fears over Hindu festival

By Geeta Pandey
Dangs district, Gujarat

A poster for the event on the main road in Dangs
Officials are expecting over half a million people at the festival
Hundreds of thousands of Hindu faithful are making their way towards the tribal-dominated Dangs district in the western Indian state of Gujarat for a newly-discovered pilgrimage.

Many in the minority Christian community in the region are on tenterhooks.

Some hardline Hindu groups, including the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council), have called a gathering of the devout at the tiny Subir village for a three-day event beginning 11 February.

Officials estimate more than half a million will visit the area during the festival, named the Shabri Kumbh.

Christian missionaries have been working in this impoverished tribal land for the best part of a century and Dangs has had a history of religious trouble.

Some Hindu groups accuse the missionaries of using job offers and money to lure poor Hindus to convert.

In December 1998, some churches and mission schools were burnt down, allegedly by Hindu miscreants.

Reverend Shiela Shende, who supervises the Church of North India's Presbyterian church in Dangs, says she hopes the festival will pass off peacefully.

"We know the local people are alright... but a large number of people will come from outside. Our people are a bit scared."

Saffron flags

The population of Dangs is a mere 150,000 and making arrangements for visitors more than three times that number is not an easy task.

Hindu houses in Dangs marked by saffron flags
Hindu houses are marked by saffron flags to spot the minorities

But officials say all arrangements are in place to ensure the festival passes off peacefully.

The federal home ministry sent AK Mitra to assess the situation. The Hindus "have promised that the event will go off peacefully," he told the BBC.

"Also, we have no intelligence input to suggest that there will be any trouble."

But despite his assurances, tension has been running high.

All the Hindus in the district have been asked to fly saffron flags on their houses, making it easier to identify the Christians.

Some Hindu groups have announced they will welcome the "grih-vapasi" (or the homecoming) of those who have converted to Christianity.

This has also led to rumours that the organisers of the festival will attempt large-scale "re-conversion" to Hinduism.

Worry

Shantaram Guniya is a resident of Gubariya village.

Located barely two and a half kilometres from the venue of the festival, this village is one of the few settlements in the area where Christian households are in a majority.

Shantaram Guniya
Mr Guniya says organisers are hinting at re-conversions

"We have not had any problems so far, but we are worried as the festival draws nearer.

"The Hindu families were escorted from the village in a truck to the venue of the festival. We have heard the organisers are saying there will be many more Hindus when the festival is over."

Mr Guniya converted from Hinduism 10 years ago. His hut is easy to identify - colourful crosses are painted on the doors and a picture of Christ watches from a wall clock hung on a wooden pillar.

Guniya says he does not want to become a Hindu again.

But Hindu groups deny any plans for "re-conversion".

Prem Sharda is the former vice chancellor of the South Gujarat University and an RSS activist.

"The Christian community need not worry," he says. "The purpose of this festival is to create a brotherly feeling, and if they are here to welcome people coming from all parts of the country, why should there be trouble?"

Mr Sharda says the festival will benefit the area - it will result in the development of the place as a pilgrimage centre and that will ultimately lead to social and economic growth.

As evidence, he points to the work being done in Dangs.

Development

Dozens of workers are laying a new road in the town centre and a spanking new road has been built right up to Subir village, the festival venue.

Workers build roads in Dangs before the pilgrimage
Many tribals in the area have found work at the festival venue

The village and its surrounding areas now have drinking water pipelines and the tribal residents of the area say there are ample work opportunities available now.

Danabai is a resident of Karanjida village, some half a kilometre from Subir village.

"Earlier I had to travel 130 km (80 miles) to find work in a sugar factory. Now we can find work right at our doorstep," Danabai says.

"Before we could work only six months a year, but now we can work up to nine or 10 months, a road runs through our village and we get clean drinking water."

Danabai's husband and many of her neighbours have found work at the festival venue, a tented city visited by hundreds of pilgrims daily.

It is lunch time and volunteers at a communal kitchen are serving a hot meal to all the visitors. After eating, the pilgrims wash their steel plates under a line of taps.

Among them is Bhanuben Patel, who is visiting from Surat. She is in a group of 11, all members of a women's club, and she is visibly excited.

"We wanted to visit some holy place so we came here. It has been fun. I would like to come back during the festival."

Under the shade of a large tree, young tribal children sit in a circle around a man wearing a saffron scarf, a symbol of his religion.

The children sing a religious hymn, and then queue up for food. Before serving them, one volunteer asks them to chant Lord Rama's name.

Hindu groups say Subir village is the place where Lord Rama was fed berries by a tribal woman, Shabri.

But some NGOs and local journalists say the Hindu groups, who have so far neglected this backward region and its tribal population, are rattled by the growing clout of Christians in the area.

The festival, they say, is an attempt to counter that.

Gujarat has had a questionable record when it comes to protecting minority rights, but administration officials say this time all fears of trouble are misplaced.

"We are not leaving anything to chance. Of the 311 villages in the district,183 have Christian households and police and paramilitary forces will be deployed in each of these villages to keep peace," says Mr Mitra.

It is an assurance the Christian community here is banking on.




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