August 26, 2008 11:17:46 pm
When 30-odd masked gunmen walked into an ashram in Kandhamal district on Saturday night, Orissa was busy celebrating Janmashtami, a prominent Hindu festival. In the Jaleshpata Kanyashram, a residential school for tribal girls, an ageing Swami Lakshamananda Saraswati was in the toilet when the gunmen barged in and riddled the 84-year-old man with bullets from automatic guns after breaking open the door. Four others, Arupananda, Chinmayananda, Mata Bhaktimayee, all disciples and inmates of the ashram, and an unsuspecting civilian, Sadanand Gachha, also could not escape the murderous assailants who vanished into the night.
As Orissa erupted over the killing of the ageing Swami, a member of the influential Kendriya Margdarshak Mandali of the VHP who has been working against conversion of tribals into Christianity, the ruling Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party Government, led by Naveen Patnaik, quickly labelled it as the handiwork of Maoists. Leaders cutting across party lines condemned the killing and the Chief Minister instituted an inquiry by a retired judge of the Orissa High Court.
Born in 1924 in Gurujang village of Talcher, a coal-mining town in Orissa, Lakshmanananda wanted to dedicate his life to the poor. He was married and had two sons. But one day, he renounced his family and left for the Himalayas to meditate. He returned in the 1960s and joined Vinoba Bhave in his Goraksha movement (anti-cow slaughter movement). During the Kumbh mela at Allahabad in 1966, he met Bhupen Bose, an RSS pracharak, who persuaded him to come to Orissa and work for the tribals. In the next few years he chose Chakapada village in Kandhamal as his place of work. Over the next decades he set up hostels for tribal girls, hospitals, and organised massive yagnas. He soon became a crucial part of the Sangh Parivar’s growth in Orissa through his preachings of the Vedas and for stopping tribals from converting to Christianity. In fact, he became an icon for the saffron brigade in the state.
In Kandhamal, where Lakshmanananda worked, more than 75 per cent people live below the poverty line and are illiterate. While Christians form 2 per cent of the state’s population, in Kandhamal, their population has grown from 75,597 in 1991 to 11,7950 in 2001. In Kandhamal, it was mostly Dalit “Panas” who converted to Christianity and were wooed back to the Hindu fold by Lakshmanananda. In terms of percentage, the Christian population in Kandhamal district was 6 per cent of the total populace in 1971 and 27 per cent in 2001. “Most of it is due to forced conversion,” alleged Ashok Sahu of Hindu Jagaran Sammukhya.
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Apparently, it was his role as a Hindu preacher and his zealous campaign to stop conversions that brought Lakshmananda’s gory end. Earlier, there had been two attacks on Lakshmanananda in 1971 and 1995. His recent troubles started last year when his car was stoned on December 24 by Dalit Christians in the native village of the Congress’s Rajya Sabha MP, Radha Kanta Nayak, himself a Dalit Christian. The previous day some Christians in Brahmanigoan village of the district wanted to erect a gate in front of a Hindu place of worship. This led to a clash between the two communities. As the news of clash reached Lakshamananda, he set out for Brahmanigoan, where Dalit Christians attacked his car. This led to a violent clash between the Kondh tribals and Dalit Christians, resulting in three deaths and burning of several houses belonging to the Christian community.
Poverty and illiteracy have made Orissa a perfect hunting ground for religious zealots. These factors have inspired both Christian and Hindu groups from working overtime to make one of the country’s poorest regions into the biggest battleground for conversions and reconversions. In January 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines was burnt alive with his two sons by a murderous mob led by Dara Singh. Though the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act was passed by the state Government in 1967 to prohibit conversions by inducements, it could not come into effect till 1989 when the Government framed the Rules of the Act. It was only in 1993 that the Orissa police first booked 21 pastors in tribal dominated Nowrangpur district under the Act.
Though the VHP and others saffron bodies have scoffed at the state Government’s claims that Naxals were involved in the attack, intelligence officials said that the Naxals who were already present in the district wanted to cash in on the opportunity to mobilise their base. “Since the Christians were at the receiving end after the December clash, they could have taken the help of Naxals. But we are not sure,” said a senior police official. Ajai Sahni of the Institute of Conflict Management added: “Naxals may not have anything to gain but they could have realised that the reconversion drive of Lakshamananda was hitting at their base of mass mobilisation.”
Curiously, the state police did not act on the threats received by Lakshamananda. Last week, he received an anonymous letter that threatened to liquidate him. He lodged a formal complaint with the Tumudibandha police station, but both the district SP had ignored his misgivings.
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