A Christmas Update From KandhamalBodimunda village in Kandhamal, Orissa, celebrated Christmas for the first time in three years. And in Barakhama village several kilometres away, a strong police posse kept watch as 2,000 Christians prayed a little distance from where a 500 strong group was “observing” events that led to death and mass destruction in December 2007, and then again for seven weeks from 23 August 2008.
Christmas will never be the same ever again in this part of Orissa which at the peak of the violence saw 54,000 internally displaced Christians – over 30,000 of them in government refugee camps and the rest in forests or far away from home. But the people would not be denied celebrating the birth of Christ – many of them had faced death when asked to leave thier faith, drink some cow urine and become Hindus if they wanted to live in their villages.
Midnight Mass had become a memory, but this time two Catholic priests, a religious brother, the head of the Mother Teresa Sisters in Orissa and their friends decided to challenge the fear and the “Kui” group of the dreaded Lambodhar Kahar and celebrated the Christian festival as it should be.
Fr Ajay Singh, himself born in a hamlet near Brahmanigaon village which bore the brunt of the 2007 Christians violence, told me on the phone that there was absolute fear on the Eve of Christmas. There had been posters and repeated announcements by the Kui Samaj that they would go ahead with their programme, recalling the Kui programme on 24 December 2007 that was the trigger to the mass violence, and had been surprisingly allowed by the government authorities. The District government allowed the programme once again, but this time ensured there were some policemen to keep guard.
In Delhi, I had been receiving frantic and repeated calls from contacts in Barakhama and Tikabali who said about the same thing, urging with me to get the federal government in the national capital and state authorities in Orissa’s capital Bhubaneswar to ensure that Christmas passed off peacefully.
On Sunday, Lambodhar Kahar, leader of Kandhamal Kui Samaj, had told reporters that his group would hold the rallies to honour Mallick, a tribal villager who had died under mysterious circumstances in December 2007. Kahar and local Hindu leaders blamed Christians for his death and wanted to “honour him as a Hindu martyr. “ Mallik had earlier been accused of pulling down a church. Villagers said Hindu radicals held secret meetings and distributed leaflets asking people to congregate in large numbers in every area to observe the “memorial day.”
St Gabriel Brother Markose, an advocate who from Jharkhand who has made Kandhamal his temporary home, told me on the phone that in Bodimunda village, the most tense this week, the Catholic catechist who was forced to become a Hindu, came back and animated prayers at the local church. The Catholic community celebrated with a night mass. The Believers Church repaired their church and celebrated on 25th during day. Baptists and Pentecostals were still afraid to openly celebrate Christmas in the hinterland areas.
Br Markose said armed police personnel were deployed and subordinate officers and senior officials kept on visiting. Towards end of the mass The Collector and the SP too reached the village.
Fathers Ajay Singh and Nicholas Barla, another priest-lawyer who ahs been working on human rights and legal issues in the district for some time, volunteered to say night mass at the sensitive village. Sr Suma along with other Nuns of the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa was also present.
Br Markose narrated: “Before the Mass as we moved around the village, we stopped at the only tea shop for tea. All of us from outside took our cups of tea and the last cup of tea was taken by a person from the village. Just as he was about to sip the tea, the shop keeper told him in the local Kui language ‘if you took tea, I will have to pay fine of Rs. 1000. Hearing this, the villager was returning the cup of tea. I understood, and told the shop keeper that I would reimburse if he had to pay fine and I gave him my phone number. If he is fined by fanatics, he can call me and I will reimburse his expense, of course it will give me a chance to expose the social boycott of Christians in that village.”
According to Br Markose, about 10 days ago a Christian woman purchased
'muri' -- puffed rice -- from an old lady. That old lady was imposed a
fine of Rupees 500 for selling muri to a Christian. Since she was too
poor to pay the fine, she pleaded and her fine was reduced to Rs. 100.