Business Standard / New Delhi October 05, 2008, 0:32 IST
What can Naveen Patnaik have been thinking these past five weeks? Violence, mostly against Christians, has been going on in his state since late August, and he seems to have done precious little to stop it. This has done Orissa's reputation no good, after Graham Staines and other killings of the past; nor can it help the Orissa chief minister's own image as a new-generation politician who wants to take his desperately poor state forward.
It couldn't be that Mr Patnaik is communally minded, for no one has hinted at such. Perhaps the state's police force is useless; after all, it did little to protect the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader whose anticipated murder in late August set off the latest cycle of violence against Christians. Perhaps Kandhamal is a forested district, with isolated hamlets — and the police cannot be everywhere. Which is fair enough, except that the rape of a nun took place in front of a police station, which did nothing to protect her and then did not bother to pick up the medical report until a newspaper splashed the inaction more than three weeks later. Whether deliberate or because of incompetence, the police inaction speaks poorly of a chief minister who has been in office for the best part of a decade.
Or, perish the thought, Kandhamal may be Gujarat all over again. There is a communal divide, between the predominantly Hindu tribals and the predominantly Scheduled Caste Christians. There is economic tension, because the latter has been more assertive, has become better educated (thanks perhaps to the church) and has acquired land and moved ahead, unlike the tribal majority, which now feels resentful. There is competition between those espousing different religions; there has been an increase in the percentage of Christian population over the decades, the result almost certainly of the presence of large numbers of Christian priests and churches in the district (though forcible conversion has not been established). Various RSS organisations have been there, too, for decades, with their own schools and other establishments. The result, if reports are to be believed, is that the Christian population showed little or no growth in the last census. With rival forces in a stand-off, was this a situation ripe for conflagration? Perhaps, and if an assertive Hindu majority gets violent, can there be any protection offered?
If that last is indeed the explanation for the continuing violence, then Mr Patnaik must know that he will reap the electoral reward just as Narendra Modi has done in Gujarat. So perhaps the state's inaction is deliberate. That would also explain why, as in Gujarat, the Congress does nothing other than mouth a few platitudes. Who would want to alienate the 95 per cent Hindu population of Orissa, to protect less than 2 per cent who are Christian? Even the Centre did not send in troops quickly, when the state government asked for them.
All of which is possible to understand (though not accept). But what does it say about the Indian state, if it cannot protect a 2 per cent minority, whose very smallness gives the lie to the allegations of mass-scale conversions? And what of those who practise genuine secularism, as opposed to the pseudo-secularism decried by Mr Advani? Is killing, arson and rape the genuinely secular answer to communal tension? And if the Congress is to be pilloried in Delhi for its anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984, following Indira Gandhi's assassination, do Mr Patnaik and his BJP partners in Orissa justify similar reprisals in the wake of the killing of an RSS leader — especially when the killers have not been identified? Orissa testifies to many things, but most of all to the weakening of the secular structure of the state as free rein is given to bodies like the Bajrang Dal to settle scores as they think fit.
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