02 September 2008

Communal Strife in Kandhamal, Orissa

After a gap of one-and-a-half years I visited Bhubaneswar in the last week of August 2008. The reason was personal (my father has not been keeping well) as well as professional (to attend a workshop at the University). Apart from these personal and professional aspects, two things have drawn my attention - the communal strife in Kandhamal and some positive changes in Bhubaneswar.

On the wee hours of August 24 while Janmashtami (festival associated with the birth of of Lord Krishna) preparations were on way Swami Laxmanananda, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) member, and four of his associates were killed by unidentified gunmen in an Ashram in Kandhamal district. The Government's immediate reaction was that this was the handiwork of Maoist whereas some others thought that this was the work of some Christian groups. This led to communal strife in Kandhamal and other parts of the state.

Kandhamal has about 52 per cent tribals (more than 90 per cent of these being Kondha - hence, the name of the district as Kandhamal) and 17 per cent scheduled castes (nearly 80 per cent of them being Panos). The political power is with the scheduled castes - one parliamentary seat and one assembly seat (both for Phulbani, the district headquarters) whereas the scheduled tribes have two assembly seats (Baliguda and Udayagiri). The overall economic situation is not good. It is a district in the southern region (the poorest across the three regions as per the National Sample Survey Classification with 73 per cent rural and 55 per cent urban being considered as poor). The district wise human development index of 2001 indicates that Kandhamal ranks 29 across 30 districts.

The communal divide in Kandhamal is not new. There were similar instances in December 2007 and also earlier. It seems that the communal divide, asF. G. Bailey stated almost 50 years ago, is a continuation of the caste-tribe divide. Different sects of Christianity have been working among both tribals and scheduled castes. Some Hindu group have also been working in this district. A recent write-up by Angana Chatterji seems to indicate that Swami Laxmanananda had a greater impact on the tribals and a conflicting situation with Christian scheduled castes did exist. The situation is definitely complex - poverty, caste-tribe divide, religious differences are some of them. The challenge before the state government is to address all these on a continuous basis. This will help in the long run to bring about progress.

While talking about progress, I was quite impressed by some developments in Bhubaneswar, the state capital. I was told that this is the handiwork of the Municipal Corporation. Well-kept roads, signs indicating directions at junctions, zebra crossings, vending zones, cycling paths, and painting in public walls depicting the multiple cultural ethos of Orissa. We need some similar out-of-the-box thinking for Kandhamal.

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