When the attacks against Christians started in Orissa in late August, one lady in faraway San Francisco was not surprised at all. Angana P. Chatterji has been warning of exactly that since 2003. Dr. Chatterji is associate professor of social and cultural anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies and has studied Orissa’s land reforms and witnessed the state’s growing communalization for more than a decade. Her forthcoming book, Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present. Narratives from Orissa examines the mobilization of divisive Hindutva forces in the state within the larger narrative of Hindu majoritarianism. I discussed with her Orissa’s communal conflagration, the Sangh Parivar’s dangerous propaganda about minorities and the threats to Indian democracy.
Q) Maoists claimed responsibility for the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati, a Hindu priest in Kandhamal district in Orissa. His killing started the violent attacks against the Christian community. But what do you make of this Maoist claim?
A) The murder of Saraswati was brutal and a Maoist group claimed responsibility even while Maoist activity in that particular area is actually not so strong. On the other hand, Subhas Chauhan of the Bajrang Dal blamed Christian militants for this. The Sangh's propaganda is not linked to truth. It doesn’t really change things if the Maoists claimed responsibility. They are now alleging that Christians are part of Maoist groups, and are still targeting Christians who have no connection to the murders.
Q) Hindus don’t justify the violence against minorities, Christians in this case. But there is a latent anger even amongst ordinary people not involved in the Parivar’s organizations who genuinely believe that Hinduism is under threat in India. The threat in the Orissa case is from supposed forced conversions of Hindus of lower caste into the Christian fold. Therefore the violence against minorities is often explained away as “spontaneous” although not justified. Why are Hindutva groups so easily able to tap into the anger of ordinary people?
A) The blur between soft Hindutva and hard Hindutva gives the Sangh Parivar this permission. In the United States, for example, when there are instances of racism, what is our response to that? That people need to unlearn racism, right? That because they are the dominant group they are unreflective of national privilege and unreflective of structural and racialised privilege. Reciprocally, in India, which is an emergent superpower, Hindus are the dominant group. Where is the national commitment to addressing Hindu majoritarianism, revisionist history, and the subjugation of minority and disenfranchised peoples?
If you participate, and this is what Romila Thapar has warned us of for a long time… if you participate in writing revisionist history and then starting to believe in it, within a generation it begins to masquerade as true. Isn’t that what we saw in Germany?
Q) By way of corrective measures then, what should the Orissa state government be doing?
A) There are two things the government needs to do – one immediate, the other long-term. There is an abdication of responsibility for education. The text books are teaching, in many instances, revisionist history and at a parallel there is the extensive network of educational institutions run by the Sangh Parivar where there are no standards of curriculum, no commitment to social facts and ethical history. Then there’s a growth of Sangh Parivar organizations which has reached staggering proportions in Orissa. There’s no scrutiny or intervention into their activities. How are they influencing communities? How are they communalizing the polity? The activities and status of these groups must be investigated, and they must be held actionable. Civil society groups and the Left need to be far more vigilant. There needs to be a national outcry - other than the few leaders who insist on the integrity of India's secular state.
Q)You were part of a Tribunal that published a report in 2006 warning the government of such violence but your report was ignored. You even deposed before the Commission of Inquiry looking into the Kandhamal violence of December 2007. How is the Orissa government complicit in this violence against Christians?
Congress introduced ‘The Communal Violence Prevention Control and Rehabilitation of Victims Bill of 2005’ twice. But it hasn’t been passed. The Bill talks about holding the state accountable in instances of violence against minorities, crimes against humanity, genocide etc. That bill hasn’t been passed, so legally there is also abdication of central responsibility.
Then in terms of the state so many times it has been pointed out that the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, the Cow Slaughter Protection Act all of these acts should be repealed. No action has been taken. The two most urgent things that need to be done – one an investigation into the status, rights and privileges enjoyed by these groups - the Bajrang Dal, the VHP, the RSS, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram etc. Some of them have charitable status but they function as political organizations. They should not have charitable status and they need to be scrutinized in terms of the activities they undertake and its impact on society and their intent to communalise. They openly state that they are working for a Hindu state in India.
The second failure is the response to the riots. Why is it that both in December and now it took so long to stop the violence? The December riots were premeditated, and yet there was no timely action on part of the state. As well, the government should have anticipated Hindutva groups violence after Lakshmananda Saraswati was killed, especially following the statement made by the VHP and other Sangh groups.
Q) Do you think this was simply lethargic governance or complicity or both?
A) I think both. Lethargic governance has a lot to do with complicity with Hindu majoritarianism. So many in dominant society believe that minority groups (here Christians) are 'anti-national' and deserving of repression. And, so many in dominant society see Hindutva's violence as an aberration. The state and central government's refusal to restrain Hindu militias evidences their linkage with Hindutva (BJP), soft Hindutva (Congress), and the capitulation of dominant civil society to Hindu majoritarianism. How would the nation have reacted if groups with any other affiliation than militant Hinduism executed riot after riot?
Q) Have you seen any evidence of Christian groups, bribing or coercing people to convert to Christianity in Orissa? That is the main grievance against the Christian minority in this case.
A) I have spoken to so many people of the church from the Archbishop of Orissa to peasant Dalits and Adivasis who are Christians. I have not found coercion in terms of bribery, or in terms of threat. When I have spoken to Adivasis and asked, “Why did you convert?” They have repeatedly stated because Christians seem to have dignity, because in Christian society they would be held equal even when they are poor. For Adivasis and Dalits, conversion functions as resistance to structural and habitual caste oppression within Hinduism. For example, in August 2008, Madhusmita Das, a Dalit girl from Oranda village was barred from offering prayers at the Balunkeswar temple in Khaira in Jagatsinghpur district. As well, the priest asked that Das pay 5,000 rupees for the purification of the shrine.
Q) So given that what you’ve seen in Orissa is that there is no coercive conversion in the way that the Sangh Parivar would like people to believe, how come there is so much ready anger for them to work with? If indeed there are no forceful conversions then how are right wing groups able to turn the Adivasis and the Dalits so strongly against Dalit Christian groups and the missionaries?
A) India remains segregationist. The average upwardly mobile person of Hindu descent in Orissa has little relation to Muslims or Christians. Their sense is these are people different from them. The Sangh Parivar has capitalized on this to portray difference as a threat - to portray difference as something 'other', as an enemy to India and to India’s national culture.
Q) What is the problem with the way Orissa is being discussed in the mainstream media? Is there something in the story that is missing?
There are 6000 RSS shakas in Orissa. You have a decade of unchecked communalization in conditions that, at times, mirror those of a feudal society. Leaders of civil society, many ordinary Hindus in villages, in quiet places where they are not subject to the Sangh Parivar’s propaganda, think differently. Media representation of the Sangh's communalization also, often, reflects Hindu majoritarianist perspectives.
The brutality of Hindutva's violence should concern us, and the the extent of communalization, the creation of popular perception, and the unchecked access to resources, people, and propagandising of the Sangh Parivar in Orissa and so many other states should absolutely frighten us.
Q) What about the politics of reservation? Hindus feel that the government is stealing from them to give to minorities. Are they justified in their frustration with state policies?
I am of Hindu descent and I think that people, who are historically disenfranchised, by virtue of their gender, caste, creed or religion, deserve the state's support to exercise their right to equality, so that they have an equal opportunity in life. In the United States, where I also live and teach, I argue for affirmative action. I insist on the same for India. In India, Hindu majoritarianists allege that reservation gives minorities greater access to resources that rightfully belong to Hindus, upper castes, men, heterosexuals... . No. The non-disenfranchised within the majority community have disproportionate access to resources in the first place - resources that are not just their own. That’s the thing to understand. The majority community does not own the nation. Just because we might not understand difference, that does not make it undesirable. We have to share and shape the nation equally. Otherwise, it fails. Let’s start there.
Q) A lot of people argue openly that India “belongs” to the Hindus. What would you say to that argument?
It’s like arguing with someone who states that the Third Reich was worthy. There has to be to a large-scale secularization of society by having acknowledgement of, and care for difference, secularization, and democratization. Democracy dies with the assertation that India belongs to the Hindus.
Q) The majority community in India believes that minorities are actually well protected, indeed appeased. It is also often pointed out that the fact that a Muslim and Dalit can become the President of India is evidence of democracy’s success. But clearly, as the repeated riots and death toll suggest, minorities are threatened in India. So, what does Indian democracy need to do to really protect its minorities?
Not in reality. An argument that Dr.Ambedkar made is that to 'protect' minorities as secondary citizens, already tells us that they are not equal in the nation. To have Indian democracy function minorities and other disenfranchised groups cannot remain people with special rights and special laws that work at the discretion of the majority community.
Q) Tell us something about your book ‘Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present’? What is the central argument you make on the communal situation in Orissa?
Since June of 2002, I made 15 research trips, to about 73 villages and towns across 17 districts in Orissa.The book is an intensive look at the slow and spectacular violence of Hindutva in Orissa since 1999, against a larger story of Hindu militancy and majoritarianism in India. It offers an account of the regimentation of Hindu militant mobilizations in the making of 'nation', manifest through culture and society, politics and economy, religion and law, on gender and body, and land and memory. I examine Hindutva's proliferation, linking village to state and state with nation, in manufacturing imaginative and identitarian agency for violent nationalism.