THE GUJARAT MODEL - Why the last week in Orissa was historic

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By MUKUL KESAVAN mukulkesavan@hotmail.com
  • Published 9.04.09
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In retrospect, the violence in Kandhamal in Orissa last year seems like the first step in an electoral strategy, a strategy that can be broadly described as the Gujarat model. For those who don’t remember those events, starting in the last week of August, Christians in the Kandhamal district suffered a month and a half of systematic intimidation, killing and displacement. Figures released by the Orissa government put the figure at over 12,000 refugees, fed and sheltered in government camps. This doesn’t account for those Christians who fled their homes and sought refuge in places other than these refugee camps, so the overall figure for the displaced is higher.

The troubles began after Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, was murdered by ‘Maoists’. The sangh parivar alleged that his murder had been organized by Christians and used his funeral procession to stoke murderous violence against Christians in the area. Having ‘cleansed’ Christians from their homes, Hindutva militants declared with impunity that they wouldn’t be allowed back till they re-converted to their ‘parent’ faith, Hinduism. There were reports of groups of Christians submitting to ritual ‘shuddhi’ ceremonies organized by these custodians of Hinduism’s integrity, to purge them of Christianity, that alien contagion.

The main accused in this campaign of carnage and killing was Manoj Pradhan. Charged with more than a dozen cases of murder and arson, Manoj Pradhan is currently lodged in jail in G. Udayagiri, a town in Kandhamal. The not-so-subtle irony is that Pradhan is also the Bharatiya Janata Party’s official candidate for the G. Udayagiri assembly seat in the approaching elections. B.B. Ramachandran, the BJP’s leader in the state’s legislative assembly, offered a familiar defence: “he has been arrested under false charges. In any case, he is not yet proved guilty in the court of law. Let the people decide his fate”.

The BJP’s nominee for the newly delimited Kandhamal Lok Sabha seat is a former IPS officer, Ashok Sahu, currently the state president of the Hindu Jagaran Samukhya, who is notable for having declared without the inconvenience of evidence that Christian terrorists had killed Laxmananda Saraswati.

A pogrom is the first step in the Gujarat model. The object of the pogrom is polarization, specifically the consolidation of a Hindu majority. The third ‘P’ in this grim sequence is political victory at the polls. What we’ve seen in the last week in Orissa is the BJP’s political establishment explicitly owning this strategy. The long history of rivalry and tension between the largely Hindu Kandhas and the largely Christian Panos has been brought to fever pitch by the violence. Apart from possibly firming up a Hindu vote bloc, the Kandhamal carnage led to the large-scale dispersal of Christian voters (thousands of whom never returned to the villages where they’re registered to vote) and the large-scale loss of identity cards of those who remained in Kandhamal whether in refugee camps or outside them.

The Catholic archbishop of Cuttack, Raphael Cheenath, even asked for elections in Kandhamal to be postponed because thousands of people had lost both the documentation necessary for voting and the belief that they could vote securely. He pointed out that the government had conducted no survey to determine how many Christians had been chased out of their neighbourhoods. In these circumstances, the BJP’s leadership sensed an opportunity. Freed from any political need for restraint (having been divorced by Navin Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal before the polls), it allowed its campaigners to give their majoritarian instincts full, feral play.

In a circumstance where, just over six months ago, dozens of Christians had been killed and thousands made homeless, Sushma Swaraj in a recent speech accused the BJD of not protecting Hindus. Narendra Modi, the pioneer of this political strategy first tested on the bloodied proving grounds of Gujarat, told an election rally that “[t]he spirit of Swami Laxmananda will shatter the dreams of Naveen Patnaik”. But the last word in this matter must be reserved for Ashok Sahu, the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate for the Kandhamal seat. He said, “What happened in Kandhamal is no reason to be ashamed about, at least not for me. Today Kandhamal symbolizes Hindu culture.”

The reason these contests in Kandhamal are of historic and of national importance is because they show us the BJP being true to its impulses, its gut beliefs. Over the last few years (with the exception of Gujarat), the BJP has been compelled by political and electoral necessity to abide by anodyne coalition manifestos. Now that the party doesn’t have a tiresomely ‘secular’ partner to alienate in Gujarat, it’s taking the opportunity to be itself.

As Jajati Karan reported on Ibnlive.in.com, Manoj Pradhan had already contested the assembly elections before, as an independent, and won over 15,000 votes. The winning figure was 34,000. The calculation is that with the ground-clearing violence of Kandhamal behind him and the endorsement of a major party, he might well win the election.

Manoj Pradhan is 30 years old, roughly the same age as the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from Pilibhit — perhaps the best way of understanding him is to think of him as someone who has walked Varun Gandhi’s talk. There were those who were surprised by the BJP’s reluctance to distance itself from the young Gandhi after the Election Commission condemned his hate speech and recommended that the party not give him a Lok Sabha ticket from Pilibhit. Their surprise was misplaced: to stand by Varun Gandhi’s Lok Sabha candidacy was no hardship for a party that was willing to reward Pradhan’s bloodier doings in the cause of a Hindu rashtra.

In recent times, majoritarian organizations in this country have tried to expand the domain of permissible violence. The Sri Ram Sena in Karnataka, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in Maharashtra, and the BJP in Orissa and Karnataka have used thuggish intimidation in the name of a defence of culture. Their targets have been the vulnerable and the weak: young women, poor north Indian men and religious minorities. This election is a pointer to the likely political behaviour of the BJP parties were it to be sprung from the straitjacket of coalition politics. And should it win the Kandhamal contests, something ominous shall have been proved.