The Common Good

Ethnic Cleansing in Orissa: India's Persecuted Christians

In India, the world's largest democracy, millions applauded the recent U.S. elections as a shining example of perhaps the world's greatest democracy in action. But the plight of Dalit and tribal Christians in Orissa demonstrates disturbing contradictions hidden by democracy in South Asia.

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Even as India was admitted to the global nuclear family through the efforts of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush, the same 'modern' India allowed ethnic cleansing in the last three months. In the eastern state of Orissa, Dalit and tribal Christians were devastated in a violent campaign orchestrated by extremist Hindu groups known as the Sangh Parivar. The Prime Minister said in a meeting with the European Union that Orissa was a "national shame." But then he said the Orissa violence was sporadic. This is far from the truth.

The displacement and violence against Orissa's Christians ebbed and flowed for over seven weeks. The murder of a Hindu priest on August 23, 2008, provided the original excuse for retaliatory violence against Christians. Early reports by The Washington Post and others conveyed the unfolding tragedy. Today statistics don't tell the story anymore: 53,000 homeless and displaced people, 4,640 homes destroyed, more than 60 recorded deaths, rape and abuse of women, at least 150 burned churches, and, as The New York Times documented, forcible conversions to Hinduism. False propaganda combined with state government apathy to produce a human rights tragedy.

The victims are largely the same outcasts of society, the Dalits (formerly known as untouchables), who were hounded and dehumanized as lesser human beings for millennia. At the epicenter of the violence, Kandhamal District, the majority of a tribe called "Pano" have chosen Christianity and slowly improved their standards of living over the past decades. The government had classified these people as Dalits while another tribe, which speaks the same language, was classified as tribals. Allegations that the Dalits are stealing resources from tribals led to sectarian violence. Much of the conflict seems rooted in jealousy of the Dalits who are lifting themselves out of poverty. Regardless, the violence aimed to brutally crush their right to choose their way of life socially and spiritually.

Gujarat seems to be the bastion of violent right wing Hindu groups. Narendra Modi, the sitting Chief Minister of Gujarat, was banned from entering the U.S. because of crimes committed in 2002 against Muslims under his rule. Now there's a full scale effort to turn Orissa into the next laboratory for the extremist Hindutva groups in north India. In south India the target is the state of Karnataka where over 30 places of worship were desecrated in September.

The demonization and victimization of Muslims groups in Gujarat and other places led to home-grown violent Islamist extremism. In 2008, India has experienced many bombing in major cities and dozens of deaths. In a similar way, young Christian tribals and Dalits could increasingly become a recruiting base for various violent extremist groups. This is because the Indian Church does not engage in violent reaction against the hardliner Hindu groups and, in many places, is too small and weak to respond even if it wanted to. When Christians see that the government and police won't defend them, their disillusionment could eventually cause them to join Maoist guerillas rampant in the interior of India. This would be a preventable tragedy.

The blame for the rise in violence and communal tension lies with the political class which has run India's parliament for the past 60 years. They practiced divisive politics and polarized large sections of society. They don't have an agenda of justice, reconciliation, and freedom. Some in the ruling Indian National Congress Party practice what is called "soft Hindutva" while the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, openly supports "hard Hindutva." Both versions of Hindu ideology are blatantly extremist and take away the rights of Dalit and minorities in an effort to make India into a Hindu nation. This month India has been rocked by revelations that Hindutva adherents had organized terrorist bomb blasts in late September. The rise of violent extremist Hindu groups cannot be ignored by the watching world.

Also, the criminal justice system does not work for the poor and marginalized -- those with money and power get away, literally, with murder. Cases languish for years in crowded court rooms piled high with paper records. An outdated law states that the police and security forces in a state serve the government and not "the laws of the land." The police in Orissa and Karnataka silently watched or even abused Christians in the midst of the mob violence and carnage.

If there is not decisive action to end premeditated violence against Christians, it will result in Indian Christians being driven into their own partitioned space, metaphorically speaking. This will be destructive to the world's largest democracy since India -

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