Suffering has an uncanny fondness for poverty; it seeks and locates people living on the brink of survival only to push them further towards the precipice.
In a place where reaching adulthood through a maze of abject deprivation is a miracle, getting killed for thanking the wrong God makes for extreme irony.
This week, the Kandhamal district of Orissa, India, has witnessed horrific crimes committed by right-wing Hindu extremists. Orphanages razed, nuns raped, homes destroyed and entire families hounded out of their homes and villages. The pogrom was initiated against the Christians as a revenge for the alleged murder of a prominent local Hindu figure leading the revivalist Hindu re-conversion mission.
The government, as usual, was ill equipped, unprepared, and overwhelmed by the intensity of violence and emotional upsurge.
The guarantees and protections that the constitution grants stood crucified by blood-hounding mobs as the state fumbled.
Effective and immediate state intervention saves lives and homes, it is imperative that the Government act to protect its citizens. As a young law student, I asked my very eminent professor of jurisprudence of the value of the constitution in the face of such genocide. He called these incidents moments of “constitutional blackout”. For the people of Kandhamal, an integral part of the Indian republic, the constitutional darkness of lawlessness is pervasive and punishing.
The road to enlightenment is intriguing and the urge to kill or bribe for companionship on this journey is a deeper mystery. Religious identities lie at the heart of the conflict.
When I was twelve years old, I lived in a well-heeled residential area of Orissa’s capital, Bhubaneswar. Our immediate neighbour was a converted church where each Sunday large groups gathered early morning. In a couple of hours, the sound of noisy conversion rituals wafted through the humid Sunday breeze.
A hardworking adivasi (tribal) man by the name of Diggel from the region of Phulbani (a part of the same hilly tract as Kandhamal) was assigned odd chores outside the house. He was a dear and loyal friend and let me win every game of any sport. Confident of my skills and physical prowess I never suspected that the games were fixed.
Diggel never answered my queries about the neighbouring church, but one day he mentioned that ‘they’ had come to his village and placed an idol of a Hindu God and Christ in a village pond. The Hindu God sunk without a trace and to the amazement of the gathered crowd, Christ floated effortlessly.
Diggel said that a few suspecting villagers later discovered that the Hindu idol was filled with lead and the Christian idol was hollow. The laws of physics led to a Christian victory as Hinduism met its watery grave in an algae covered pond. The value of the narrative does not lie in its accuracy but in its existence.
Proselytism and conversions are seldom matters of only faith. In a region riddled with poverty, untouchability (based on the Hindu caste system), and neglect of large tribal populations the waters do tend to get murky.
The motives for converting can vary vastly, from love of another path to escape from a stifling social hierarchy. Each is as legitimate as the other.
The Hindu right violently questions the legitimacy of conversions. Any conversion that in part is guided by possible material and social benefits is termed as ‘forced conversion’.
People criminally neglected by their community and forced to eke out an animal-like living at the fringes of society are threatened with death for betraying the religion whose social structure does not consider them worthy of human dignity. If Christ gives me a school, a community, a shelter why must I not love him? Children bereft of parents need orphanages, orphanages that ended up burnt to the ground in a frenzy of violence.
Given the socio-economic context, the presumption that in any exercise of choice the motive must be singular and spiritual is preposterous, and the conclusion that in every case the faith element is entirely absent is equally foolish.
The self-styled Hindu revivalists seek to prevent conversions and in the present orgy of violence forced people to embrace Hinduism under the threat of death or rape. It is indeed a time-tested way of manufacturing affection.
The re-conversion rituals are called purifications as they seek to remove the ‘taint’ of Christian beliefs. After hundreds of years of foreign rule and decimation of their faith and dignity by invading Muslim marauders, a minority of Hindu fundamentalists want to be feared and recognized like their erstwhile conquerors.
Taking advantage of the demographic superiority and a lackadaisical and, at times, conniving state apparatus the intent is to locate the identity of the self through violence, intolerance and bigotry. The absurdity of the logic is baffling but it is not low on popularity.
As the flames subside there is nothing to suggest that it won’t happen again. In all likelihood it will happen again. As jaded a solution it might sound, the state, apart from proactively prosecuting the guilty, must address issues of development as quickly and efficiently as possible. Once the people are materially and socially comfortable, they would be better placed to make judgments on faith and driven, if at all, by the ‘right’ reasons to convert.
God is a mystery. Personally, the most enduring image of the lord in my mind is Jim Carrey standing on a cloud with a globe hanging by his finger declaring, “I am Bruce Almighty, my will be done”.
Yet institutionalized religion brings untold misery; in most cases it takes away reason and freedom. World over, major religions are losing their meaning, not to mention their proclaimed desire for tolerance.
They undermine human sovereignty to form moral fiefdoms and lay exclusive claims to that evasive truth. Yet the crowds of the ‘faithful’ swell. It seems that one of the most abiding contradictions of human nature is the love for freedom and the proclivity to be enslaved by dogma.
I close my eyes and imagine hundreds of God Idols sinking, jostling for space in the cloudy depths of the village pond in Phulbani. Such is the plight of our religions.