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February 18, 1999


The Rediff Special/ Archana Masih, Syed Firdaus Ashraf

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

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Though the Sangh Parivar is absolutely sure that conversions are a constant phenomenon, it is unable to point out the areas that are prone to such occurrences. Based on the Christian population in districts like Sundergarh -- which has the maximum Christian population of all the state's 30 districts -- it says conversions are rampant in those areas which have a considerable Christian population.

"Graham Staines was a social criminal because he used to go to Manoharpur every January to convert people in the 'jungle mela'," alleges Mayurbhanj BJP district secretary Dilip Kumar Behra. "Because we don't have evidence to prove this, it does not mean he didn't convert tribals. Now that the Staines incident has happened, we will be more careful in exposing conversions."

In neighbouring Keonjhar district -- where Staines was killed -- former BJP district president Ashwin Patnaik and personal assistant to local MP Santosh Behra revealed that instances of conversions had come from Gunasika and Anandpur villages. Gunasika, 40 kilometres off the National Highway and in the middle of a forest, is known for its Shiva temple. It also has a Village Reconstruction Organisation, an NGO founded by a Jesuit priest, Father M A Wendhy, which runs a dispensary and a training institute for women. VRO Superintendent Jayanti Mahapatra revealed that the dispensary and institute are run by Hindus and the Jesuit is based in Hyderabad.

Gunasika has a residential Saraswati Kalyan Mandir as well -- run by an RSS organisation; the second after Kalahandi in central Orissa. Dyananidhi Mahanto, the teacher-in-charge, said he had heard of certain Christians showing video films about Jesus Christ to some people, but didn't know of any place in the area where forced conversions were taking place. "There are hardly any Christians here, but yes, I heard two boys got converted in neighbouring village one-and-a-half years back," says Mahanto.

In Mitrapur, near Balasore -- which has 51 Christian families -- a local school teacher living opposite the Saraswati Kalyan Mandir, says Christian children also went to the Kalyan Mandir. "They have good relations with the Church people who live across their wall." Recently married Malini Patro, a tribal whose husband works in a stone quarry, says most of the Christian families are earlier converts and to her knowledge she hasn't heard of any recent conversions. The village, which falls under the Remuna police station, does not have any record of complaints against conversions. Says ASI Babucharan Mohanty: "This is a very peaceful area, there has been no tension here."

The Sangh Parivar maintains that because the missionaries have carefully targeted villages and hamlets in the interiors of the state, theirs is a slow but lethal process. Tribals are spread over 24 of the 30 districts of the state. "Moreover, they don't try and convert people everywhere, they see places which have least resistance, and it is much later that the word about conversions gets out," alleges Subhash Chauhan. He further added that state BJP vice-president Kharavela Swain had even made a list of the conversions, but unfortunately their office did not have a copy of the same. "The Vanwasi Kalyan Ashram, an arm of the RSS, is trying to bring Hindu awareness among the innocent tribals so that they do not fall prey to the international agents of Christianity," continues Chauhan.

The RSS and its affiliates in the region say the Vanwasi Kalyan Ashram is bringing converts back to Hinduism. However, there seems to be almost no evidence of the organisation's activities in the neighbouring three districts. "They are not well organised, more so because they are a travelling group," says BJP member Dilip Behra.

Father Jose of Baghmara, in Mayurbhanj district says his parish had existed since 1974, but of the 800 Santhals in the region there are only two Christian families. "And these two families have come from South Orissa. If we were converting people, wouldn't there be only Christians in this tribal hostel that we run?" asked Father Jose who had heard rumours that his parish was going to be the next target. As a precaution, two Home Guard personnel have been deputed at the gate by the administration, a measure that has been extended to almost all Christian institutions in the area.

There are a handful of foreign missionaries left in Orissa. Christians say they are not sure what their number could be. In the districts of Balasore, Baripada and Keonjhar there is only one foreign missionary -- Father Edward Mcgrath, a Jesuit who spends most of his time travelling around the country lecturing personnel officers about managerial skills. The other is Gladys Staines.

The Church says it is unfortunate that its missionaries have been depicted as anti-national. "If we had converted the way our detractors accuse us, Baripada would have had 50,000 Christians instead of 5,000," says Father Bimal Joseph Singh of the Vincential Seminary.

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