PHULBANI, India // Steven Digal is 11 and carries a knife the size of his right arm. "I am ready to fight next time they come," he declares. A little over a year ago, a mob of more than a thousand Hindus and tribal people stormed Steven's town of Bujuli Mendi, in Kandhamal district, burning Christian families (predominately Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian) out of their homes and destroying the local church.
Those that did not flee into the surrounding forest were beaten and some were killed. "There is no escaping the Hindus. There will be more violence," Steven says, throwing a stone at a banyan tree. In total, close to 60 people were killed, 151 churches destroyed and over 50,000 people left homeless across Kandhamal, according to the All India Christian Council. The violence left another bloody notch on what a US panel recently called India's "disturbing increase in communal violence against religious minorities". The report, released this month, places India on a Watch List for religious violence along with countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Indonesia.
Citing the violence in Orissa as a primary factor, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom chided the government for an ill-prepared response given that sectarian tensions were long-standing in the area. World attention was brought to the state in 1999, when an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons were burnt alive by Hindu activists while sleeping in their estate car.
However, a year on from the most recent flare-up and the government is being chided for taking little action against the perpetrators or in protecting those who survived the violence. Only 12 people have so far been convicted with six sentenced earlier this month to four years imprisonment by a fast-track court in Phulbani. Yesterday, a senior police officer sent a letter to the director general of police accusing more than a dozen of his fellow officers of failing to contain the violence in Kandhamal.
The letter said that the officers neglected to take appropriate and timely measures to check the violence and questioned why none had been called to appear before Justice S C Mohapatra, who is currently hearing testimonies into the riots. Hindu nationalist groups had blamed missionaries for the assassination of a local Hindu swami and unleashed a wave of attacks on Christians in a string of towns north-west of Phulbani, Kandhamal's district headquarters, in late August last year. Some days later, local Maoist guerrillas claimed responsibility for the swami's assassination, but the attacks against Christians continued. A bulk of the attacking force, those persecuted say, were tribespeople from nearby villages who were unhappy about the domestic and foreign aid received by Christian groups.
After the initial hostilities, the government sent 50,000 paramilitary troops to the region. While the presence of so many armed men did at first impose calm, the vast majority left just three months later and those who stayed on have been accused of turning a blind eye to continued attacks, intimidation and forced conversions. "Our job is to guard this camp. What happens out there is not under our jurisdiction," a soldier, originally from a town outride Mumbai, said, when asked about reports that some of those who left the displacement camps were attacked.
Initially, there were 13 such tent-cities, housing about 20,000 people who lost their homes or were terrified into fleeing. This week, the government closed the final two, evicting about 1,000 Christians, many of whom have been too scared to return home or even venture past the barbed wire perimeter of the camp. The government denies it is dragging its feet over protecting the Christians. Local authorities have bolstered Kandhamal's police force. Two new police stations and an additional 500 constables have been sanctioned since the riots, said Krishan Kumar, the collector for the district.
"There has been a huge mistrust between these two communities that has been going on for some time," said Mr Kumar, who is in charge of law and order for the area. On top of added security, he said the local government had put money towards the rebuilding of churches as well as Dh37,590 in compensation to families who lost relatives in the riots. Several kilometres west of Phulbani, 60-year-old Mauda Digal overlooks the construction of his new family home. His previous residence, charred and in ruins, lies only 10 metres away.
"The mob set my house on fire, then they tried to throw me into the burning building," the patriarch of a 12-strong family said. "We lost most of our belongings and have very few possessions left." The local church is in a state worse than Mr Digal's home. Entire walls have been torn down and pews ripped to kindling before the entire structure was set on fire. The Digal family now holds quiet prayer services at night in their semi-constructed mud brick home. It is too dangerous to do so outside, he said. Other families are doing the same.
"The Hindus still want us dead. Nothing has changed since the attacks last year," he said. Father Bijay Kumar, 49, is secretary of the peace-building forum and head of the Catholic Church at Raika, one of the largest and still-intact churches in the district. While his church escaped attacks in the latest outbreak, it suffered damage in a similar incident in 2004. "Faith matters here," said the church leader, who hosts services for two to three thousand people each day, many of whom had filtered in from the relief camp only a few hundred metres down the road.
"Many worshippers lost their lives because they refused to convert to Hinduism. Many pastors, too, have been killed here." The role of religious conversion in India's religious violence has been an ongoing flashpoint. In Orissa, Hindu activist groups such as Bajrang Dal and VHP blame Christian groups for illegal conversions under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, which states that all conversions must be declared before a magistrate.
Christianity grew in the region during the late 17th century, when Portuguese missionaries preached their way from their colonies on the west coast to the shores of the east. Many Christians in the area have been so for more generations than they can recall. "Farmers have lost their land and children have lost their education. It will take Christians here 50 years to recover from this," Father Kumar said.
In the district collector Kumar's opinion, peace for Kandhamal's Christians lies in their ability to refrain from retaliation. If they pick up the sword, he says, it will become another case of one group fighting another in India. "We hope that this won't happen again as the government has now accepted the ground realities that there are issues that have been troubling the population for a time since the independence of India."
* The National