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The man, his death, and the madness

The ramshackle wooden gate that used to swing open for visitors to the ashram no longer stands wide open.

The ramshackle wooden gate that used to swing open for visitors to the ashram no longer stands wide open. There is a deceptive calm in the air as more than half-a-dozen CRPF men wielding AK-47s and INSAS rifles stare at every visitor to the Shankaracharya Kanyashram at Jalespeta in Kandhamal with suspicion. Gaunt sal trees dotting the picturesque mountainous landscape only add to the atmosphere.

A month after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, as Orissa continues to reel under a spiral of violence, the Kanyashram where the 84-year-old was gunned down along with three of his associates and the guardian of a girl inmate has fallen silent. The room in which the massacre happened on August 23 is locked. Outside sits a garlanded photograph of Saraswati. While students in saffron frocks and shirts go about their daily routine, the usual hubbub is missing from the ashram, which is a residential Sanskrit school for poor tribal girls.

The 199 girl students from the five tribal-dominated districts of Kandhamal, Gajapati, Raygada, Koraput and Kalahandi and the managers of the ashram are outraged over the police “inaction” and inability to hunt down his killers. “People in the entire district considered him a gharara loka (our own man). If only the former SP had provided adequate security, his life would have perhaps been saved. It’s natural that everyone is angry with the police and the administration,” says Kabichandra Nath, an associate of Saraswati and the new man in-charge of the Kanyashram.

Laxmanananda, a Dalit, first came to Jalespeta in Tumudibandha block in 1989, almost two decades after he arrived at Chakapada, his first port of call in the same district. Though Chakapada remained the focus of his anti-proselytisation and anti-cow slaughter activities, he slowly restricted himself to Jalespeta Kanyashram, devoting himself to the better management of the residential school.

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“In a region where illiteracy and school dropout rate are high, he managed to get them interested in studies,” says Simanchal Pattnaik, a local journalist. His focus was not just education of women, says Pattnaik, but also the merits of multi-crop cultivation, animal care and horticulture.

It was this “do-gooder” image that had endeared him to everybody in the area. “If anyone had any grievance, Swamiji would be at his house in no time offering solution and consolation. He was like the patriarch of the area,” says Nath.

Admitting that he was hugely popular among the tribals, a senior official adds that this was one of the reasons for the tribal outburst following his killing.

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Agile even in his 80s, Laxmanananda’s day used to start at 4 am, a practice he inculcated among the tribal inmates of the ashram. Most of them came from peasant families with little subsistence. He taught them the Vedas, Ramacharit Manas and yoga, which he thought would make them well-rounded personalities. “He even taught us things like milching a cow,” said Manjulata Kanhar of Dalpada village and now a student of Madhyama (secondary) class. Others like Kamalini Kanhar of Rabingia village in Phiringia block reminisce how Laxmanananda used to teach inmates to be “good Hindu women”. “He hated procrastination. If he had to do something he would do it then and there,” says Nath.

To the girl inmates of Kanyashram, Laxmanananda was more like a doting grandfather known for his deep sense of empathy and affection. In the attacks on Christians unleashed since Laxmanananda’s death — with Orissa seen as doing little to contain them — that image is receding ironically fast.

First published on: 24-09-2008 at 22:47 IST
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