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September 17, 2008
National Commission for Minorities vice-chairman Michael P Pinto visited the violence-hit Kandhamal district and neighbouring places over the weekend. The mostly Christian tribal population in the area has been under attack by Hindu extremist organisations after a sadhu, Swami Lakshmanananda, who has been working for the welfare of the downtrodden, was killed by an armed mob in his ashram on Janmashtami day.

After the violence broke out, Pinto was told by government officials that the situation was under control whenever he asked. But when he visited the place what he saw, Pinto said, was worse than what the situation was in the aftermath of the December 2007-January 2008 violence after Swami Lakshmanananda was attacked just before Christmas.

In this interview with Special Correspondent Krishnakumar, Pinto speaks about the current situation, the immediate steps that need to be taken, and long-term measures that will ensure lasting peace in the region.

How was the situation in Kandhamal when you visited?

The situation is very bad. I started at Phulbani and visited nearby places like Raikia and Udayagiri. I visited camps where a large number of people have been living ever since violence broke out.

They said there is no way they can return to their villages. There is this threat that you can't return if you don't convert to Hinduism. One lady even showed me a letter personally addressed to her with her name on it. It said if she wanted to return to her village she had to reconvert to Hinduism. And that if she doesn't she will lose her property too.

While there is this threat, the violence also continues unabated. Only yesterday, we got reports that two more churches and a lot many houses were burnt down in Kandhamal district.

How many people have been displaced?

The number of the people in the camps keeps varying. It would be safe to estimate that about 15-16,000 people are in these camps at any given time.

The situation is better in the towns. People get the ration and supplies from the camps and get back to set up their homes again. But in the rural areas, the people are very reluctant to go back. There are still people who have taken shelter in the forests. So as long as the government doesn't act and ensure that the elements who are perpetrating the violence are dealt with strongly, these people will not be able to get back.

Who all did you meet in the government? What did they say?

I met with all the top government people including the chief minister. He said Orissa is a secular state and that the government is trying to do everything possible to ensure that the situation returns to normal.

I told them that the problem has not subsided and it has been going on for too long and they should quickly take strong action against those who are causing trouble.

What immediate measures did you recommend to the government?

The first need is to stop all the rumour-mongering. The government should ensure that none of the victims who are living in the camps are forced to reconvert under duress. If they want to reconvert willingly, there isn't any problem. But the State must ensure that they are not forced.

I also recommend that the government strictly apply the freedom of religious practice against those who are forcing people to reconvert. Unless those people are stopped and action taken against them, the situation will not become normal.

How would you compare the situation with how it was in the aftermath of the previous incident in December?

I visited the place in April, some time after the violence has stopped and the situation had returned to normal. Everything was peaceful then and the process of building houses for those who had lost their property had started. This time it is far worse. The problem still exists.

And this is a systemic problem that exists. I had made a detailed report last time.

When you say systemic, what is it?

Well, the most obvious problem is the murder of the swamiji. We are told that a large number of people barged into his ashram and killed him. Now this should have been foreseen. When a religious leader of his eminence is shot down, there will be repercussions. If the state had been alert, this could have been avoided.

Last year too, an attack on the swamiji sparked the violence�

Last year's violence started with a number of things. There is the issue of reservation policy where Dalit Christians do not get reservation. Upwardly mobile Christians who opened a shop and put up an arch in a public place and was traditionally used by Hindus also had a part.

But the point, is there is more than one cause. Not only a question of religious tolerance it is also a question of people fighting for economic space and a question of reservation.

After your last visit, what were the key recommendations that the commission made?

First was that there was a strong need for confidence building measures. I visited a place called Bamunigaon in the most remote region. I found that there was a Christian sahi (a settlement) and a Hindu sahi. Despite my persuasion, the Christians didn't come when I visited the Hindu sahi and vice versa. These places were a mere 25 to 30 metres apart. There was a divide even though they belong to the same homogeneous people who have been together for centuries. There was an artificial divide.

Two, economic betterment of the region as a whole. In the same Bamunigaon, there were two Christian sahis next to each other and one was attacked and the other was not. Hindu sahis were also attacked. I went to the ones that were attacked and saw that those were into business and upwardly mobile. So, we have to find out ways in which there is economic prosperity and everyone benefits from it.

The third recommendation was that the places of worship should be reconstructed. The government said it is not policy to spend government money on constructing religious places. I would agree with this argument, but when there is a Hindu-Muslim problem for instance, temples are rarely destroyed and mosques are very rarely desecrated. Someone might throw a cow or a pig's head into the places. But when you remove it, the places of worship still stand.

And four, it is important to have a minorities commission. It will act as a sounding board, where the minorities are able to sound off and the government will have a place from which it can listen to their grievances.

How many of your recommendations has the government implemented?

Not much. That is the problem. When there is peace if we do not do these things, then it is difficult to tackle periods of strife like the one we are seeing now. It is like the ant and the cricket story. What you do in periods of calm will help you handle such situations or even prevent them.

You spoke about reservations and the economic reasons. How much of an issue is the conversion issue, which some perceive as being forced?

It is difficult to answer that question. One thing is certain. The rights to preach practice and propagate should not be denied to anyone. So if people are motivated to change, there is nothing wrong.

But one who uses force is my enemy as much as anybody else's. There are adequate pieces of legislation where action can be taken. If there is any is any allegation I think we should take action.

Do you see the condition of minorities deteriorating across the country?

I can't answer that question in general terms. There are areas where things have taken place and areas where things are normal.

Like for instance, Ahmedabad [Images] and Hyderabad are two different cities these days...

I didn't see it in Hyderabad. I certainly take the point that there has been a divide in recent years. There has been a wedge driven in certain cases and that is terrible.

Are we seeing the minorities resorting to violence to safeguard their interests? Do we have a militant Christian fringe in Orissa for instance?

I am not aware of militant fringes. In certain villages there have been Christian youth who had taken to arms. I think this is an exception rather than a rule.

If we have this system in which we have an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will only have blind people unable to eat.

But to answer your question, I don't have any evidence of that now. I don't think Christian groups are coming together and encouraging people to take to arms.

Have the Maoists hijacked the agenda and made hay in places like Kandhamal in Orissa?

Of course! That is the thing that is more worrying. When there is a conflict of this nature and the State does not come forward, this is what happens. Any form of extremism breeds in places where the State has ceded its place. So, here when religious differences have been allowed to fester, that is an ideal situation for extremists to step in.

Finally, about providing ST status Dalits from Muslim and Christian communities, has the commission made any recommendations?

It has been a longstanding demand of the commission that Dalits of all religions should get the benefit from affirmative action. Right now, it is only Dalits from Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions who get it. Muslim and Christian Dalits are neglected. Our theory is that affirmative action cannot be denied on the basis of religion, because changing religion does not alleviate all the problems of a Dalit.

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