By Dan Isaacs
BBC News, Orissa
Some of the displaced are in a refugee camp in the town of Bamunigan
Hundreds of families in a remote region of the eastern Indian state of
Orissa remain homeless and without support after a wave of violence swept
the region last month.
The minority Christian community in Kandhamal
district, many of whom are forest tribal people and low-caste Dalit converts from Hinduism to
to Christianity, say they've been targeted by radical Hindu nationalist
organisations seeking to put an end to the church and its activities in the
This is rejected by the Hindu groups who say the violence is the
consequence of local issues unconnected with their presence in the area.
The district has remained under night-time curfew since the tensions
erupted and has been largely inaccessible to foreign journalists until now.
Father Ravi Samasundar stands amid the burned out ruins of his church in the
town of Bamunigan.
Lakhanananda Saraswati says he was attacked by a mob
"They brought oil, and kerosene, piled everything they
could find in the middle of the church and set fire to it. They destroyed
or looted everything."
Across this remote region, deep in the highland
forests, the pattern was repeated over and over.
ransacked, entire villages razed and their inhabitants forced to
flee into the forests.
The violence, which began on Christmas Eve, has now largely abated, but the
plight of the people has not.
Many are now living in the shells of their burned
out homes, all their possessions lost.
The conflict has pitted Hindu against Christian, tribal against non-tribal.
All share some responsibility
for what has happened, all have suffered. Years of relatively peaceful
co-existence of these communities, living a fragile rural existence, has
The Christian community blames the virulently anti-Christian rhetoric of Hindu nationalist organisations;
and one person in particularly, a revered local holy man, Lakhanananda
Father Ravi Samasundar seethes with anger at what has been happening. "Saraswati
speaks against Christianity, against the priests, against the nuns," he says.
Hindu activists accuse the local Christian community of stirring up trouble by making
"unreasonable" demands - a reference to their attempts to be granted the
same preferential access to jobs and education given to low-caste Hindus and
"Political parties or organisations have nothing to do with this. It is a
clear social problem", says Jagabandhu Mishra, editor of Rashtra Deepa - a
newspaper in the local Oriya language, which reflects the more
extreme views of the Hindu nationalists.
When I met Mr Misra in his office, the front page of a recent addition of
the paper lay on the desk between us.
It accused the 'Sons of Jesus' of
attacking Hindus, and reported on a Christian mob brutally injuring the local Hindu
leader Saraswati, an event which triggered much of the worst violence, and
which subsequently turned out to be entirely false.
Was there, I asked, a
campaign of conversion, or re-conversion of Christians to Hinduism in the
area? "If those Hindus who converted to Christianity want to come back," he
told me, "the door is now open to them."
No side is left blameless in this conflict. After the initial attacks on
church institutions and the shops and homes of Christian families, Christian
mobs responded in kind.
A Hindu woman walks through her destroyed village
In the village of Gadapur,
Hindu families, standing amid the charred rubble of their homes, told me how
a mob of tribal Christians had descended on them,
forcing them to flee into the forest, before destroying every shop and
dwelling in the village.
For those now living in makeshift tents, or in the ruins of their old homes,
aid from the state government has been limited: a few tents, some plastic
sheeting, food and cooking utensils.
But far more is needed on a sustained
Ministers from the Hindu nationalist BJP-controlled state government
have toured the area, made promises, but pledged little constructive support
for those in most need.
Perhaps more alarmingly, NGOs and church
organisations have been banned from offering direct assistance. The official
reason given is that by helping one community and not another, they may
provoke further violence.
Church and other aid organisations, desperate to
help their local communities see
sinister motives at work.
This elderly Hindu woman lives with her adopted Christian son
"This conflict is fought in the name of religion," says NGO worker Kailash
Chandra Dandpath, "but the real motives are economic and political.
business community here, with its links to the Hindu nationalist
organisations, were once in complete control here. They'd lend money to the
tribals and the Dalits at incredibly high rates of interest, up to 120% per
year, and then the debtor would have to sell his farm produce to the lender
at a price controlled by the businessmen."
Mr Dandpath is describing the system
still widely practiced in India, of bonded exploitation, where a family
might well be indebted to the lender for generations.
"What's happening now", says Mr Dandpath, "is that the farmers, the most
marginalised of whom are from tribal and Christian communities, are being
linked by the NGOs to local banks, lending at perhaps 10% interest a year -
ten times less.
"This is clearly a threat to the businessmen. And they are
trying to break this link, using religion as an excuse... in India, the easiest method of politics is to take religion to
divide and rule."
The dynamics of conflict are rarely easy to dissect.
There are always
economic and social divisions within society to be exploited by those more
rich and powerful, particularly when the existing order is threatened.
there's no doubt that the diverse communities in Kandhamal district have
suffered a terrible tragedy in recent weeks, which threatens to break down
the existing delicate social order there forever.