It is unlikely that Orissa has forgotten the horrific incident eight years ago that secured its place on the hatred map of India. In January, 1999, one of the worst crimes against humanity was committed when Graham Staines, a missionary, with three decades of hard work among the leprosy-afflicted behind him, was burnt alive along with his two young sons. That memory must have weighed heavily on the Naveen Patnaik government when it sounded a high alert in the state as southern Orissa turned violent after several churches were burnt in the Kondhmal district on Christmas eve. But the move, which, incidentally, has failed to contain the violence, comes a bit late in the day. This is not merely because the government did not react in time to the first sparks of sectarian fury, but because it has continued to turn a blind eye to the gathering storm in the years following the Staines’ killings.
That episode and, thereby, an infamous Dara Singh’s singular feat in the defence of his faith have obviously been remembered by sections of Orissa’s population in a way very different from that of the establishment. The recent violence in Orissa shows that the powerful anti-conversion sentiment among the majority that motivated the killings in 1999, and innumerable others before it, still holds its sway. The feeling made its presence felt in Gujarat as well — where missionaries were attacked in distant Kwant — at the same time that southern Orissa burned and a victorious Narendra Modi earned kudos from the sangh parivar for saving its political face. A resurgent Hindutva, now trimmed in Gujarat under Mr Modi’s diligent care, is likely to scorch Mr Patnaik’s backyard with as much vehemence as before if it is allowed to grow unchecked. Governments may not be able to force harmony on the people. But they can establish the rule of law that makes it impossible for one religious community to negate the constitutional guarantees of freedom and equality given to another. Governments renege on this responsibility when they let political parties reap advantages from discord and allow the administration to become complicit in this negation. The Orissa government, which could not help improve communal relations, and the Gujarat government, which has not given missionaries any security, are both guilty on these counts.