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Since 1st March, 1999
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Where armies of man & god vie
- Maoists thicken Orissa plot

Khajurisahi (Kandhamal), Oct. 12: For a location so remote and bereft, Kandhamal is riven by all too many armies of occupation.

There are the legions of Christ deputed across this hilly wilderness to win new recruits to the flock. There are the aggravated apparatchik of Hindu resurrection, more intent than ever on ambushing the march of Christendom, their zeal fired mostly by their own baloney, their exploits, on recent evidence, frightening.

There are the furtive surveyors of buried bounty (bauxite, mica, perhaps even aluminium?) reconnoitring overhead, their sights telescoped on where to bore for riches. And trying to tear a breach through the sectarian and neo-monopolist trenches are the shadowy Maoists, slowly creeping upon central Orissa from their southern Malkangiri stronghold; they’ve certainly let the communal cat loose among Kandhamal’s shuddered pigeons with their eager claiming of Laxmanananda Saraswati’s murder.

The Hindus believe the Maoists have joined the devious Christian plot; the Christians are happy to let the blame lie on Maoists but they are also secretly worried they could be next in their line of fire. Kameshwar Pradhan, a runaway from the ravaged Catholic settlement of Rupa, is as unsettled by the lash of Hindu activism as he is by the Maoist spectre. “Don’t forget,” he tells you, “the Maoists have no dharma, they will blow whatever comes in their way. And they clearly want Kandhamal.”

Militias of man and militias of the gods so profoundly enmeshed in one-upmanship that you could forgive yourself for mistaking Kandhamal for the lost myth of El Dorado. Lost it is, but Kandhamal is no kingdom of gold. Far from it.

You travel dozens of miles to find a water pump that would give; you see nothing but clusters of mud and thatch, like this were some rolling museum of prehistory; you see people living by fire of forest twig and shrunken forest fruit; you see people barely clad and barely provided.

You see no government other than in a manicured corner of Phulbani, the district hub. Beyond that, sarkar is sign-posted by absence or, at best, malfunction — a health centre here, a primary school there, its roof blown, its abandoned approach overrun by weeds. And there are police chowkis. It is a government that takes and does not give; over two days and hundreds of kilometres of traversing, we came across one public bus.

Why would this be such a prized field of battle?

The answers to that conundrum probably lie within. Kandhamal answers to all the classical reasons for the conquest of the world — an unexplored frontier drawing all manner of adventurists: priest and proselytiser, gold-digger and expansionist.

It swarms with the meek and the exploited, awaiting the message and salvation. It is crying out for leadership to resist the arrival of the new messengers. Its belly might hold treasure troves nobody’s ever bothered with and it has platoons of labour that will come cheap as slaves.

The governing eye is shut on it, the arms of the state idle; it is easy territory. Kandhamal, whichever way you look at it, is ripe for picking.

“Why do you think the Maoists are having it so easy in that region?” a senior bureaucrat had reasoned back in Bhubaneswar. “Why do you think the Christians are so successful with their missions? There is such poverty and exploitation, such absence of government, you can buy loyalty for toffee or establish hegemony with a leaflet, no more.”

The protagonists of Hindu activism rubbish the idea that there could be any reason for the burgeoning church congregations other than dark Christian design. “They are tricksters with money to offer,” Harishankar Raut, a schoolteacher, tells you, “And these Dalits, they are swayed by money. Christians are using Dalits to expand and Dalits are using the Christians to get back on the tribals, that is all there is to it, a tribal versus Dalit battle given the garb of a communal war.”

A district officer in Phulbani pushes that argument a level higher. “Please understand,” he argues with bureaucratic entitlement, “This is an old battle being given new colour. The Dalits want to be Hindus when it comes to grabbing the privileges of the state and Christians in private life because it suits them in all manner of ways.”

One of the ways in which turning Christian suits the Dalits of Kandhamal is that it unchains them from all manner of banishment — social and personal — and lends them a sense of self-esteem.

“For centuries these tribals made untouchables of us and treated us like animals,” says Parmachand Digal. “Now they think they can frighten us into going back to that life. Never, not after they have burnt my hold and all I ever had, not now, never.”

Parmachand, a retired Indian Army subedar, is a touch trite-Bollywood in articulating allegiances but that he says is his truth. “I am an Indian first, Christ and Dalit come later, I have given my blood for this country. And look at how I am treated? Like some traitor, because I go to church on Sundays.”

Should its manner of treatment be the touchstone of judgements, all of Kandhamal — Hindu or Christian, Dalit or tribal — could seek classification as traitor territory. The state has been worse than derelict, it has been step-motherly; no wonder it has so many armies competing to claim it.

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