From Kashmir to Orissa, the saffron camp’s violent role (Comment)

August 30th, 2008 - 11:00 am ICT by IANS  

Just as the deaths of ‘kar sevaks’ (Hindu pilgrims) in an arson attack on their train led to retaliatory violence by the Hindutva brigade against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, similarly the murder of five Hindus, including the head of an ashram in Orissa, has sparked off attacks against Christians by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal activists.Why the Christians should have been targeted is not clear because the murders were reportedly committed by Maoists. However, since it is not easy to track down the Maoists in their jungle hideouts, the saffron warriors seem to have vented their wrath on the Christians with whom they have long had a tense relationship. Only last winter, the longstanding feuds between them erupted in violence.

The most gruesome incident was in 1999 when a Christian missionary, Graham Staines, was burnt alive with his two young sons by saffron activists. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power at the centre then, apart from being an ally of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa, there was even an initial attempt by George Fernandes, the convener of the National Democratic Front, to pass off the tragedy as an “international conspiracy”, with Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik sitting quietly besides him.

This time also, a woman was burnt alive when an orphanage was set on fire while houses, shops and churches have been attacked over a large area.

The latest incidents have provoked several BJP legislators to threaten to withdraw their support to the government of Naveen Patnaik since, first, he failed to prevent the attack on the ashram and, secondly, he has apparently been less tolerant of the rampaging Hindutva mobs than Narendra Modi was in Gujarat during the communal riots.

One of the grouses of the BJP, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal against the Christians is their missionary activity among the tribals. Churches, therefore, are a prime target of the saffron mobs, as they were in Gujarat’s Dangs area where, too, the saffron brotherhood had targeted the Christians before their attention turned to Muslims.

The VHP had set up their bases in Orissa with the specific purpose of wooing the Christian converts back to Hinduism. The murdered head of the ashram, Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, was one of the leading figures engaged in the reconversions.

Given the competitive nature of such missionary activity, with its focus on religion and education among simple-minded villagers in poverty-stricken areas, there is little chance of an improvement in the tension-ridden atmosphere in the near future if only because of the BJP’s political and official clout as a part of the government.

What is more, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal seem to have begun to act on their own not only in Orissa but also in Jammu where it is involved in the agitation on the Amarnath land transfer issue.

The VHP was also involved in vandalising an exhibition of M.F.Husain’s paintings in New Delhi while two Bajrang Dal activists were killed while making bombs in Kanpur a few days ago. There were reports following the deaths that the organisation was considering carrying out acts of terrorism against the minorities by Hindu volunteers. Only last June, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had called for the formation of Hindu suicide squads.

From Jammu to Orissa via New Delhi and Kanpur, the saffron lobby seems to have become more active than before. One reason is that the Amarnath issue has given it a chance to whip up xenophobic sentiments against the Kashmir separatists. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar have generally tended to be quiet about Kashmir, especially after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s initiatives regarding both Kashmir and Pakistan.

But the Amarnath issue has given them an opportunity to unfurl the nationalistic agenda although the RSS and the VHP are seemingly wary of the BJP playing too active a role in Jammu.

Orissa, on the other hand, has been a long-festering sore. A friendly administration there enables the Hindutva brigade to implement Item No. 2 on Guru Golwalkar’s list which identifies the Christians as the country’s second group of “internal enemies”, the Muslims being the first. Besides, in states like Kerala, Jharkhand or Nagaland, where there are a fair number of Christians, the BJP does not have much influence.

When the saffron camp started its anti-Christian campaign in right earnest after coming to power at the centre in the late 1990s, it was discomfited by the fall in the percentage of Christians in India from 2.5 to 2.3. So, it began to spread the myth that there were crypto-Christians who hide their true religious commitments, apparently waiting to come out in the open when the time was ripe. According to the Hindutva group, the percentage would rise to 11 or 12 if these hidden elements were considered.

One can understand from this absurd accusation how desperate the Parivar is to foment dissatisfaction against the Christians. Since it is difficult to argue that a group as small as 2.3 percent can pose a threat to Hindus, the saffron lobby decided to inflate the figure.

If its objective in Gujarat was to ghettoise the Muslims by terrorising them, in Orissa the VHP’s plan apparently is to compel the isolated Christians communities to change their faith by attacking people and places of worship.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

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