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Kandhamal Christmas under siege

Even freezing temperatures, police guards and hostile neighbors cannot dispel the joy of the season

Ajay Kumar Singh, Bhubaneswar

Ajay Kumar Singh, Bhubaneswar

Updated: February 24, 2011 03:01 AM GMT
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Kandhamal Christmas under siege
Father Ajay Singh
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This Christmas and New Year, television stations across India and even further afield have been broadcasting advertisements for Kandhamal as a dream destination for the holidays with the low temperatures the big draw card. And the tourists answered the call, flocking to the Orissa region for frolic and merrymaking in the temperatures that touched freezing. For the holidaymakers, the cold weather was a welcome relief from the more typical heat of India. For the hard-pressed Christians of Kandhamal it presented a nightmare and a new front in the struggle for survival. Thousands of people of Kandhamal, still homeless after the anti-Christian violence of two years ago, approached Christmas and New Year without a roof on their heads, not a stitch of warm clothing and few livelihood options. Two years after Hindu extremists raged through the region burning homes and killing people, nearly 2,500 households are still to receive any support for reconstructing their homes. Their only option to keep from freezing to death is to keep the fire burning throughout the night. It is still a quite painful, yet unforgettable, experience for me and my colleagues to visit major sites of the communal violence that marred Christmas and Easter from 2007 on. Every visit makes one feel sickened anew at the organized violence unleashed by the fanatics with mute support of officials. But that does little to undo the sufferings of the Christians. Even here, though, as Christmas approaches, one can notice the joy. Kandhamal Christians tried to forget their persecutions, pains, socio-economic boycotts and threats through the season. As we approached Mondakia village in Raikia Parish, we looked for Father Vijay Pradhan, parish priest and vicar general, to wish him a Merry Christmas. The relief camp was familiar to us, but not the village. The camp has now been abandoned. We went on to the church site - destroyed two years ago. Undeterred, the devotees formed a queue for confession under mango trees behind the broken church. Father Vijay and his colleague Father Manoranjan Singh were officiating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We could not imagine how they would celebrate the Christmas vigil in an open field without any tent, but under trees braving the cold was this testimony to their faith. We decided to celebrate the Christmas night vigil Mass at Bodimunda village in the Tikabali block, where nearly 90 of 280 households are Christian. We arrived about 5.30 pm. It was already pitch dark as we belatedly thought of buying batteries for our torch. We asked Rajat Nayak, a graduate youth whether he could buy batteries from the village shop. “The shopkeepers would not sell anything to us Christians,” Rajat said.

A church destroyed during the anti-Christian violence in Orissa (Photo by Michael Coyne)
We tested his pessimism, but alas it turned out to be true as the shopkeeper reluctantly parted with the batteries after seeing Rajat. It was clear there would be no sale if we had not been there. Advocate Brother Marcus and Advocate Father Nicholas Barla were having tea at the village chai stall where nearly 25 armed police personnel also took their ease. We were exhausted as well as chilled by the biting cold and thought some tea would warm and revive us. Brother Marcus ordered for two more cups. Rajat refused to drink. The usually cheerful young man suddenly grew pale and began shaking as the shopkeeper glared at him and told him that Rajat was putting him in danger. Rajat handed back his tea. Brother Marcus explained to the shopkeeper that he would be willing to pay any fine on behalf of Rajat and gave his personal cell phone number to the shopkeeper to collect the money if he is fined. The man relented but for Rajat there was little comfort. He sat sipping his tea, but frozen with fear. From there, we moved to a Christian household and were taken aback by moving stories how they face social and economic boycotts despite the increased police presence. But everywhere we found strength and resilience. It was heartening to see the village catechist, who had become a Hindu three years back. Only a month ago he had been too frightened to accompany us on a fact-finding mission to see how Christian families were faring. Now he was back, leading the prayer and organizing the choir, full of enthusiasm. But it was not long before the reality of the situation intruded again. As we started vesting for Mass, a man came to tell us that the police sub inspector had ordered the church’s loud speakers to be switched off. It was 10 pm, the hour ordered to turn of all sound systems in Kandhamal during this Christmas celebration. “How come we should stop the loudspeakers even before starting Mass?” Sister Suma asked the police sub-inspector, who was drunk. Non-Christian festivals can see roads blocked for days with loud noises and reveling throughout the night. We kept the speakers on but just before Mass, Brother Marcus turned down the volume. Fearing that we might not be heard, I asked Brother Marcus why. “To reduce the tension,” he replied. The Church was small and there were two small speakers inside and another two outside where more than 100 police personnel guarded around 150 Christians. We saw no Hindu around to complain. We could see the joy on the faces of the devotees as they were hungry for the service. There was the joyful Gloria which almost everybody joined in. One of the devotees started ringing the hand bell as it was a custom in the area as a sign of joy. But then, one of the sisters sensing the mood of the police personnel asked the person to stop it. But despite this intrusion, nothing could disguise the Christmas joy that overwhelmed the fear, at least during those sacred moments.
A temporary refugee centre for tribal people in Orissa, following the violonce (Photo by Michael Coyne)
Just before the end of Mass, news spread that the District Collector, Dr. Krishan Kumar and the Police Superintendent, Praveen Kumar were outside. They were invited in to the damaged building. They entered briefly, leaving after wishing the community well. The people by then had forgotten their sufferings and had started dancing. We had received several frantic calls from villagers just before Christmas Eve for protection during the celebration of Christmas Day at the township of Barkhama and so we decided to be with the Barkhama people, who were attacked twice in 2007 and 2008. Christmas Mass was celebrated at the ashram, abandoned by the Capuchin missionaries three years ago. They had a minor seminary with more than 30 students studying there. Under the Capuchin’s leadership the mission station had grown from two families to 20 in 12 years. But now tension and hostility are the main features. Around eight Hindu families faced with pressure to cut off their Christian relatives, nevertheless have started attending the occasional Masses. But they have paid a heavy price for celebrating Christmas. The Hindutva fanatics have barred any Hindus who openly associate with Christians from cremating a dead from the common cremation ground. Again, though, the strength of faith shone out as we began the Ecumenical Fellowship Service. “We are together and there is no denominational feeling. We are one as a community in the name of Jesus Christ. Praise be to the Lord,” said Prakash Nayak, a community leader. Again the service was notable for the joy that was undiminished by the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police with armed Special Operation Groups and Riot Police Force guards outside, or the memorial service for Hindu activist Sangh Parivar just 500 meters away. Knowing Christmas before and after 2007, one can see how Kandhamal has been changed. People cannot celebrate one of the holiest feasts of the year without police guard while tourists revel in the cool, oblivious to the hardship around them. Our prayers for the New Year are that one day, however distant, Kandhamal will be able to celebrate Christmas without police security and without fear. Father Ajay Singh directs the social service society of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, which covers Kandhamal, where the violence was most intense. He is also a social activist working among the riot victims. Related reports A church destroyed during the anti-Christian violence in Orissa A temporary refugee centre for tribal people in Orissa, following the violonce ID12715.1635
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