Page last updated at 13:47 GMT, Tuesday, 30 September 2008 14:47 UK

India's conversions controversy

Anti-Christian riots have rocked several parts of India over the past month. The BBC's Soutik Biswas travels to a remote region in the eastern Orissa state, where it all began, to explore the touchy issue of religious conversions.

A church attacked in Orissa's Kandhamal district
Churches have been attacked in Orissa

Sixty-year-old Indian farmer Kanduri Digal says he converted to Christianity a decade ago because he found "it a very useful religion".

For most of his life, Digal languished at the bottom of India's caste pyramid as a Hindu untouchable. But he doesn't say he escaped Hinduism because the caste system gave him a raw deal.

Instead, he says, Christianity offered him a road to redemption.

"When I was a Hindu I was stealing, doing bad to others. I have become a better man after I converted. Salvation is ensured in Christianity," he says.

Forty-year-old government messenger Ashok Kumar Behera, who converted to Christianity 18 years ago, says he changed faith to get some "peace of life and salvation".

"The Bible says when we die we go to heaven. The holy book also lays down the instructions about life in detail, unlike Hindu scriptures," he says.

However, Digal and Behera have now discovered that in the Kandhamal district of Orissa state where they live their leap of faith has a darker side to it.

They are among the over 13,000 Hindu untouchables-turned-Christian converts who continue to live in 11 camps in the district a month after a wave of anti-Christian violence convulsed the area. Most have fled their homes which were looted and torched by mobs shouting pro-Hindu slogans.

At the root of the confrontation is an age-old rivalry between the majority local Hindu-tribes people and the converted Christians over land, affirmative action benefits and identity rights.

Touchy issue

But last month, it took an overtly religious turn after the killing of an octogenarian Hindu holy man who was a working among the tribes people, railing against conversions and arranging for reconversions of people returning to Hinduism.

It is still unclear who killed Laxmananda Saraswati. But angry tribes-people turned on their Christian neighbours triggering off a spiral of violence that left over 20 dead.

Kanduri Digal

Radical Hindu groups say Christian missionaries and NGO's are responsible for the situation.

One of them, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, says in a pamphlet that the "Christians in the area have long been trying to convert the tribal population... The tribals in the region over the last few years have been despising conversion due to the attacks on their cultural moorings by the Christian community".

Christian groups deny these allegations and say nobody is being converted against his or her will.

Religious conversions have been a touchy issue here. Orissa is an overwhelmingly Hindu majority state, and at just 3.8% of the population, Christians make up the largest minority.

Changing faith has also become a messy issue thanks to a controversial 31-year-old state law which outlaws religious conversion by "force, inducement and fraud". It also instructs that every case of conversion has to be reported to and recorded by the local authorities.

It is clear that the law was introduced primarily to stop the state's Hindu untouchables and tribes people, who comprise 39% of Orissa's population, from converting to Christianity. The punishment for converting these groups illegally is harsher than for converting groups such as higher caste Hindus..

But both Christians and Hindus have flouted the law openly: only two cases of conversions - both, from Hinduism to Christianity, have been officially recorded in Kandhamal in the last 31 years!

But the Christian population in the district has gone up by 56% between 1991 and 2001 alone, over four times the average population growth in the district. The Hindu population has grown by a more modest 12% during the same period.

Orissa has a long and chequered history of Christian proselytising.

Protests against attacks on Christians in Orissa
There have been countrywide protests against the attacks

On the one hand, large numbers of untouchables and tribes people have converted to escape poverty and deprivation.

It is a moot point whether that has worked: nearly 80% of the people in Kandhamal, for example, continue to live under the poverty line, according to official records.

At the same time, Christian zealots have sometimes operated with impunity: a state pastors gathering in November 1996 openly made a call to "win Orissa for Christ by 2000". And, in 1993, the police booked 21 pastors in Nowrangpur district for carrying out "induced" conversions, invoking the conversion law.

It is another matter, as some analysts argue, whether the state should get in the way of personal faith and keep tabs on and demand explanation from a person who is changing faith.

'Dangerous paternalism'

"Crude evangelism is a reality. We may also be uncomfortable at the fact that people seem to convert for all kinds of inducements," says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

"But as a mature society we have to recognise this fact. The state cannot be in the business of saving anyone's soul. Why people convert is a matter entirely for them to decide. There is a dangerous paternalism if we give the state the right to decide whether someone's conversion is genuine and when it is not.

"For that matter why not also inquire into the fact whether staying in any faith is often due to inducement, coercion and false representations as well?" he asks.

Whatever the reason, the religious fault lines in Kandhamal are now beginning to look ominous and threatening to tear asunder two indigenous communities who have lived in mixed villages for centuries.

A Christian villager in her house which was burnt down in Orissa
Christians in Orissa are scared to return to their villages

Things are so bad that a spokesman of Orissa's Christian community, Dr Swaroopananda Patra, has been given, of all things, a bullet proof jacket by the police to protect himself.

"The Christians are so angry in Kandhamal that they want gun licenses to protect themselves. I am telling them to restrain themselves," he says.

And in Kandhamal, the head of an influential Hindu tribes people organisation sits in his house-cum-office surrounded by two bare-chested armed constables of the local police.

"I am scared that this has become a religious war now. I don't want our tribal agenda to be hi-jacked by religious interests.," says Lambodhar Kanhar.

Kandhamal, clearly, needs a respite from proselytizers of all kinds to return to normalcy and calm. After which, the people and authorities can begin sorting out the real issues.

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