CWN.org - Christians in Orissa state are anticipating Christmas with fear as Hindu extremists have called for a state-wide bandh, or forced shut-down on all sectors of society, on Dec. 25 - a move that could provide Hindu extremists the pretext for attacking anyone publicly celebrating the birth of Christ.
Last year one of the area's worst spates of violence came during the Christmas season.
The state's chief minister has said there should be no such shut-down but stopped short of prohibiting the Hindu extremists' plan. The federal government has expressed its disapproval of the proposal, but the Hindu extremist umbrella organization Sangh Parivar has vowed to press ahead with the shut-down, reported newspaper Outlook India on Nov. 20.
Though such shut-downs were declared illegal by India's Supreme Court in 1998, the president of the Laxmanananda Saraswati Condolence Society sent a threatening notice to the Orissa government on Nov. 15, warning that the Hindu extremist group would impose a bandh on Christmas unless the state government arrested those who murdered Hindu leader Laxmanananda Sararawati on Aug. 23.
A Maoist group on Sept. 1 admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, and police on Oct. 6 confirmed that Maoists killed them, but the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad has continued to blame local Christians for the assassinations, stoking anti-Christian sentiment that led to a wave of violent attacks for more than two months. At least 500 people, mostly Christians, were estimated to have been killed, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team, and at least 4,500 houses and churches in Orissa's Kandhamal district were destroyed.
Ratnakar Chaini, president of the SLSSS, has demanded the release of Hindu leaders arrested in connection with the killing of Christians in the violence following the assassination of Saraswati.
In a massive rally in Delhi on Nov. 15, Chaini called for the shut-down in order to ensure "a completely peaceful Christmas."
The general secretary of the Christian Legal Association took the Hindu extremist's comment as sarcasm.
"How can they have a peaceful Christmas if there is a bandh?" Tehmina Arora told Compass. "There can be no celebration, no going out the house also. So there can be no question of peace."
Inflammatory speeches at the rally by Chaini and other Hindu extremists against Christianity and its leaders in India led Christians to believe the shut-down would serve as the pretext for another spate of violence against those publicly celebrating the holiday.
The Hindu extremists' rally also included pledges that all Christian converts would be "re-converted" to Hinduism.
"If Hindus decided to take on anyone to protect our religion and culture, then nothing can stop us," Chaini said. "Unchecked conversions by churches would be opposed with tooth and nail."
The Sangh Parivar, including the state unit of the VHP, said in a press statement that the government has been shielding those guilty of murdering Saraswati.
Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath told Compass that the intention of the Hindu nationalists in calling the shut-down was malicious and done for political advantage - a way of garnering tribal peoples' support for Hindu nationalist candidates by setting up Christians as disobedient trouble-makers.
"If the government allows the bandh to take place on Christmas Day, it will mean that they are allowing more attacks and violence against the Christians," said Archbishop Cheenath.
Violence has broken out against Christians on previous shut-downs in Kandhamal district.
"There is a great deal of apprehension, because it was on previous bandhs that there have been attacks against the Christian community," said Arora of the CLA. "The district collector informed us that they were taking strong steps to ensure that the bandh would not be taking place. Unless the district collector and state administrator take serious steps to see that it is not enforced, it would again be a violent attack against the Christian community."
Orissa church authorities headed by Archbishop Cheenath met a team of visiting government ministers on Nov. 19. Subsequently Christian leaders delivered a memorandum demanding the proposed shut-down be prohibited as illegal. The memorandum demanded the state punish the people and organizations involved in such activities.
The team of central government ministers visiting riot-hit areas on Nov. 19 advised the state chief minister to ensure that there be no shut-down on Christmas Day. Finding the Kandhamal situation tense and Christians fearful, the team leader, Union Agriculture Minister Sharah Pawar, said they requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to see that the shut-down on Christmas Day does not take place.
"We don't understand why Christmas was chosen for calling the bandh," Pawar told Outlook India. "Agitation should not be allowed on major festival days like the Hindu festival of Diwali, Christmas and the Muslim festival of Chhath."
Stating that the minority community is under tremendous pressure because of such a threat, Pawar reportedly said the need of the hour is to restore normalcy in the riot-affected areas.
"We have requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to make efforts to stop such a bandh on Dec. 25, a major festival day," Pawar told reporters after meeting with Patnaik.
Patnaik later said, "There should not be a bandh on Dec. 25," but he made no appeal to the Sangh Parivar to refrain from the Christmas Day shut-down.
Church leaders also requested the ministers pressure the state government to put a halt to Hindu extremists forcing Christians, under threat of death, to convert to Hinduism. Christians are allowed to live in the district only if they became Hindu, they said.
Deaths Continue in Orissa
A Christian woman who had fled Hindu extremist violence was killed on Nov. 25 after leaving a relief camp to harvest her paddy.
Lalita Digal, 45, was murdered in Dobali village, Kandhamal district, where she was staying with a friend, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. She had returned to the village on Nov. 21. On Nov. 25 she was allegedly dragged from the house and murdered. No arrest had been made at press time, according to EFI.
The state administration has forced people to leave relief camps even though they have no homes to return to, according to a local Christian body. Representatives of the Kandhamal Christian Jankalyan Samaj said at a press conference this week that threats continue from Hindu nationalists demanding that frightened Christians "re-convert" to Hinduism.
Conditions at the camps remain poor. At Daringbadi camp, Leunsio Digal died on Nov. 24 due to lack of proper medication, EFI reported. He had been suffering a fever for a week without access to medications to alleviate it. Digal had served as catechist for 25 years at Simonbadi parish, in the archdiocese of Cuttack- Bhubaneswar.
On Nov. 22, Orissa police fired at two Christians in Kandhamal's border village of Kutunniganda, killing one and severely injuring another, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians.
Junesh Badaraita died on the spot. The injured Karnel Badaraita later told a television station that they were searching for lost cattle with a flashlight when police fired at them.
Police were combing the area in their hunt for a Naxalite Training Camp. Under Inspector-in-Charge Narbada Kiro, they reportedly fired at the two Christians from a distance of 350 meters.
Police claimed that the two Christians were Naxalites, though villagers refuted this assertion. In protest, the agitated villagers blocked a public road and kept government officials from arriving at their offices in the area.
At press time, the district administrator promised compensation to the family of the deceased and suspended the squad in charge, said the GCIC.