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February 18, 1999


The Rediff Special/ Archana Masih, Syed Firdaus Ashraf

Journey into Orissa's land of strife

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Chief Feature Writer Archana Masih, Special Correspondent Syed Firdaus Ashraf and photographer Jewella C Miranda journeyed through Baripada and Mayurbhanj districts of Orissa to verify claims of large-scale conversions to Christianity. This is the first part of their report.

The mud graves of Graham Stewart Staines and his two sons still had some fresh flowers. Beyond the locked cemetery gate, the three graves occupied a neat, quiet corner in an otherwise weedy graveyard, and -- in some kind of surreal interpretation -- mingled with the dry and fresh petals on Staines' grave were also some charred remains...

A few 30-odd kilometres away, in neighbouring Baghmara village, Father Jose Thundayil had mentioned hearing rumours of a fire coming out of Graham Staines' grave. "Some said it was a miracle," said Father Jose who looks after a hostel for tribal boys. However, R Balakrishnan, the district magistrate, Mayurbhanj, debunks any such possibility. "Someone had placed candles, and the dry leaves on the grave must have caught fire."

When Graham Stewart Staines of Australia started corresponding with a pen-friend in Baripada, little did he know that one day, he, along with his little sons, would be buried in its only cemetery five days after his 58th birthday. A trip to Baripada to visit his friend had made him change his mind and Staines decided to move to this staid town in 1967.

While the remaining two members of his family, wife Gladys and daughter, were away in Uthagamandalam, the Staines home in the Baptist Church premise in Baripada had a cluster of police personnel at the entrance. Parked outside was the brand new Tata Sumo given to Gladys Staines by the district administration, while within, a part of the old house had been left open for co-worker John Mathias, who is in charge in Gladys's absence. A banner in memory of the Staines stretched across the quaint living room where the family had seen happier times not so long ago.

Three weeks after his death, people are still aghast at the brutality which took the life of the missionary and his boys. While his death has been condemned universally in Orissa, it is ironical that Graham Staines has become part of the folklore in the area. Since his death, visitors to the town, passersby and the media have been asking for directions to 'Staines's house. Staines's church. Staines's place of death. Staines's graveyard.' At the same time, a journey through the districts between Bhubaneswar and Keonjhar, where Staines was killed, reveals that the missionary has become a symbol of an intolerance which until now was little known in a state which saw King Ashoka adopt ahimsa after the Battle of Kalinga.

"This attack is to terrorise and demoralise us," says Thomas Thiruthalil, the bishop of Balasore. "Although the common people have no complaint against us, attempts are being made to provoke them. In this kind of a movement, leaders who have political affiliations get away. Moreover, these attacks have increased since the BJP came to power at the Centre."

Some senior members of the Catholic Church believe the missionary community is facing a well-planned movement to obstruct its work. That after the incidents in the Dangs in Gujarat, the Orissa Christians are the next target in what could be a greater plan of the Hindu Right Wing. They feel that because they work among the poorest tribals, Hindus think they have access to an easy flock to convert. "They think we will make Christianity stronger. This is not our goal. We want to make better human beings," the bishop claims.

The Orissa Bajrang Dal dismisses such missionary philanthropy: "When the missionaries say they are working for the downtrodden, it is all a myth. In fact, their agenda is to convert poor people to Christianity," says Pratapchand Sarangi, Orissa chief of the Bajrang Dal.

The Hindu Jagran Samukhya, a Dal affiliate, maintains it has on its record no less than 5,000 conversions in the last one-and-a-half years, but its officials cannot present any evidence for the same. "They have got a morale-booster after Sonia Gandhi came on the political scene. We knew Staines was involved in such conversions, but we strongly condemn his killing. The guilty must be punished," says state convener Subhash Chauhan, who says he is perplexed at Gladys Staines's lack of grief. "She did not show enough grief on her face, instead she was smiling and talking to people," he says disapprovingly.

The Bajrang Dal office in Cuttack has in its possession a pamphlet titled AD 2000 Plan For Orissa, reportedly circulated by the Church among its workers. The paper earmarks plans of 'Winning Orissa by Christianity by 2000 AD'. On scanning the report, which is now in Rediff On The NeT's possession, Bishop Thiruthalil agreed that while the information in its introduction was correct, the portions about the goals of establishing Christianity were fabricated. He went on to say that he had never heard of the Rev P R Parichha, who had written the paper.

The Protestants, on the other hand, believe that in recent times the population of Christians has been on the decline in the state. With far fewer institutions than the Catholics, the headquarters of the Protestant Church in Cuttack -- in whose jurisdiction lies the Baptist Church in Baripada where Staines worshipped -- is of the view that it was ten years since Staines worked as a preacher, and no conversions had been made in Manoharpur in a long time.

Reveals Reverend Pradhan of the Church of North India, that of the 35 families in Manoharpur only 13 are Christian. "Staines cannot be bracketed as a missionary -- which means one who spreads a message of hope and the word of God," he says. "He was more like a doctor confined to his leprosy patients. He worked in such isolation that even people of the church didn't know much about him."

The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, prohibits forced conversion. And although the 'converter and convertee' have to inform the district administration of any conversion, the administration in Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar say they have received hardly any such intimation so far. The same is largely seen in other districts of the state and that is why the Vishwa Hindu Parishad maintains the Act has been grossly flouted. Nor have any complaints of illegal conversions in the area been registered. Apart from petty incidents, there has been no recorded tension between the Christians and Hindus, the neo-converts and original tribals.

Yet, government officials do not rule out conversions. In fact, they know it happens -- if not, in quick regularity. However, though the Bajrang Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party's district offices claim there has been a considerable jump in the Christian population, senior government officers reveal that of the 18 lakh population in Baripada district, only 5,717 are Christian; while of the 13.5 lakh people in Keonjhar, just 3,000 are Christian (1991 census).

Church officials say even if people show a desire to accept Christianity 'inspired' by their work, they are allowed to do so only after much deliberation. "Maybe conversions were done 20, 25 years back for numbers, not anymore," claims Father Roy of the 100-year-old Krishanchandrapur parish, "We now wait not less than 6, 7 years before registering a person as a likely convert."

Krishanchandrapur is where the nun who was allegedly raped by men dressed as women lives. The parish has 3,400 Christians, most of whom -- says Father Roy -- are settlers from West Bengal. Top church officials claim that an individual who wants to convert has to produce an affidavit from the collectorate before the church and only then is his conversion possible.

At the same time, Bishop Thiruthalil of Balasore also says a tribal movement is a mass movement -- where sometimes a change of religion by tribal leaders sees the entire village doing the same. Asked whether the church has informed the administration of any such conversions, Bishop Thiruthalil said since the affidavit for conversion is given by the administration, it would be wrong to say that the officials do not know about it.

However, the Sangh Parivar refuses to believe that the church does not indulge in illegal conversions. Oft-repeated instances that innocent tribals are given medicines in the name of Christ and when cured told that after their gods failed them, it was 'Christ bhagwan' who healed them -- are cited as examples by Parivar members. Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, in an interview, spoke about how Christian missionaries removed the ignition plug and asked the tribals to push the vehicle in the name of their gods. When proved unsuccessful, they would then put the ignition plug back and ask them to push in the name of Christ instead -- and, of course, the engine would roar. These stories, says Reverend Pradhan, are mere rumours and "even my great-grandchildren would hear the same tales in the years to come."

'If we are converting, wouldn't there be only Christians in the tribal hostel we run?'

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