Orissa Burning: Turmoil in the Subcontinent

As the temperature along the Bay of Bengal rose toward 100 degrees, I had staked out a spot on the hotel veranda facing the beach road hoping to write. But I found myself following the back and forth movement of a soccer ball that inexplicably came bouncing out of the hotel lobby. In the small courtyard the ball attracted the attention of three young men who clumsily passed the ball back and forth among them, before allowing it roll down the sidewalk to the hotel gate.

Alice and I had come 14 hours by overnight train from Calcutta to the town of Puri in the State of Orissa to enjoy the seacoast. With us were hundreds of Hindu pilgrims and an occasional American or European university student seeking religious enlightenment. Puri is home to one of India’s holiest shrines, and through the heat of the day Hindu worshippers streamed into the temple grounds with its 9000 priests and 120 shrines. We were in a strange and different spiritual universe.

A gray, frizzled guard in a dark green uniform picked up the ball with as much dignity as he could muster and lofted it back up the sidewalk. A hotel guest then dribbled it back to the gate and with one good kick sent the ball flying across the road onto the seashore.

The previous afternoon when visiting the Puri Catholic Church we were impressed by a large crucifix behind the altar upon which hung a suffering savior in his once and for all saving act, specific and unequivocal. Hinduism, by contrast, seemed indefinable. The unpredictable movement of the soccer ball was a metaphor for Hinduism: a religion in which the divine particles of our individual and collective spirits connect and reconnect in diverse emanations. At Puri, as much as any place in India, one encountered first hand a great world religion with its ritual washings, it altars, chants, flower garlands, and processions. But with its thousands of gods, and open-ended belief system, Hinduism could not be pinned down.

Some children had found the soccer ball in the sand, and it was once again in play. Far out on the Bay of Bengal, a sailboat skimmed the horizon as religion and randomness flowed together.

In the ten years since that peaceful morning, the time spent in Orissa has remained a pleasant memory. Until recently, that is. I had been aware of tensions between Christians and Hindus but had not paid Orissa much attention. In 1999 there had been problems over the issue of conversions, and the week before we had arrived in Puri a Catholic priest had been murdered in hill country by a Hindu extremist. But these all were far away at that time and remained so until now.

In the summer of 2008 violence against Christians spread across the Indian state of  Orissa.
In the summer of 2008 violence against Christians spread across the Indian state of Orissa.

Orissa began to burn in late summer 2008. In August, a Hindu swami in the remote hill country west of Puri was murdered by a Muslim, mujahideen-led gang. Blaming Christians for his death, men of a right-wing nationalist Hindu organization descended upon a village in that district and torched Catholic homes. “They came in hundreds and just ransacked our homes, setting them on fire,” a woman recounted. “They told us we could only be safe if we converted to Hinduism. Otherwise they said they would kill us.” In successive days, the attacks continued. Some thirty churches were destroyed, and when the police failed to take action, thousands of Christians were forced to relocate to temporary camps set up in schoolyards and dispensaries. During a month of violence, at least thirty Christians were killed and a Catholic nun engaged in social service work was raped. A priest serving in the diocesan office was doused in paraffin and barely escaped being burnt alive. It was the worst anti-Christian violence seen in India in 60 years.

The proximity of upcoming national elections and concern about retaining the Hindu vote quickly politicized the tragedy. The Indian Supreme Court declined a petition for a federal investigation of police complicity in these events. On October 14 Pope Benedict urged “the perpetrators of silence to renounce these acts and join with the brothers and sisters to work together in building a civilization of love.” The nationalist party reacted by condemning the Pope for attacking the national sovereignty of India. There were voices demanding an apology from the Christian churches for having triggered the violence. As this is being written some 50,000 Christians have fled their homes, many going to neighboring states for safety. Only in recent days have the police restored some semblance of order.

The causes of the violence become lost in a welter of claims and counter claims: complaints against “unlawful conversions,” of “bribery” in which the poorest of the poor were won over to Christianity by offers of education and health care. The outbreak is attributed to caste differences, or to jealousy over who had better cell phones, or owned larger huts. Many of those involved in these attacks appear to be outsiders. Beneath it all, the Catholic community in Orissa is experiencing a religious persecution in the starkest form, and the face of Christ suffering, crucified and immolated is written upon India.

November 5, 2009