Valson Thampu

When the state that fights terrorism of one kind remains an onlooker in the face of terrorism of another variety, the faith of citizens in the state is at stake.

“You cannot begin to help the world,” said Confucius, “unless you begin to call things by their right names.”

What has been staged over the last several weeks in Kandhamal and areas adjoining it is, quite simply, terrorism by broad daylight. The fact that a veneer of religious zeal, peppered by calculations of mega electoral profit, is cast over it does not make it any less so. The seed of this national shame lies in the inability or unwillingness of the law-enforcing agencies in Orissa to book the killers of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and his followers. This would have, perhaps, arrested the ongoing carnage. It is regrettable that the swamiji was killed and justice must be done with respect to the killing. But, surely, raping nuns, killing priests, burning down churches and houses and driving thousands of innocent citizens into the forest are no way to bring justice to the late swamiji.

Terrorism must be identified not by who resorts to it, but by the nature and purpose of what is done. Our repugnance to atrocities should not depend on the religious identity of the perpetrators or their victims. It cannot be that avenging individuals or groups of a certain religious identity who resort to burning, killing, rape, destruction and spreading panic are not terrorists; whereas their counterparts in some other faith resorting to blasts and assaults are. All those who mock the rule of law belong together and have to be treated alike. To countenance terrorism of one kind is to lend legitimacy to terrorism of every other kind.

Much worse, it fuels further terrorism by eroding faith in the state and endorsing the dogma that violence alone pays. By abandoning the tribal Christians of Kandhamal to marauders, the state could — and that is a perverse prospect — drive them to the Maoist and naxalite camps. It is a sad day when the state that fights terrorism of one kind remains, for weeks together, an onlooker in the face of terrorism of another variety right under its nose. The faith of citizens in the impartiality and dependability of the state is at stake here. Let us remember what Jawaharlal Nehru said: “Those who want to attack the minorities will have to do so over my dead body.” Look where we have reached. For the minorities in particular, the ultimate terror is being abandoned by the state to blood-thirsty mobs.

Communal atrocities such as those in Orissa, Gujarat and elsewhere have to be viewed, first and foremost, from the perspective of national integration and our collective need to create a peaceful and terror-free society. Gandhiji’s commitment to the freedom and integrity of India made him give priority to national unity. He knew that truth alone could be the foundation for that unity. So he proclaimed, “Truth is God.” Terror is the alternative to truth.

It is laughable that, on the one hand, we carry on with the campaign against terror and, on the other, we continue with our callous indifference to truth. Multitudinous falsehoods are mass-produced, widely distributed and nationally consumed. We can no longer delay asking, what is the sort of society we want to live in? What is the ‘security environment’ we seek to achieve? It cannot be that we patronise falsehoods of every kind and still expect to live in a sane and safe society. Terrorism, whether it is local, national or international, cannot be contained without a willingness to seek, know and accept the truth of the given issue in context. War on Terror becomes War of Terror when, in pursuing it, truth is nudged aside by falsehood. Remember the run-up to the Iraq imbroglio?

The wilful indifference to truth that underlies the Kandhamal riots pertains not only to the identity of the killers of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Equally, it involves the reluctance to face the truth about conversions in this region. Are conversions by force, fraud or allurement taking place there? If yes, to what extent? Who are the perpetrators of this perfidy? Why are they not dealt with under the law in this regard? What are the factors that fuel large-scale conversions in tribal belts? Nobody cares to find out. Rumours fly fast and furious. Tensions mount. Nothing is done to bring the facts to light. Intriguingly, no one listens to the so-called victims of “conversion by force, fraud or allurement.” They are not listened to, I suspect, because they could tell the truth. Some unpleasant truths at that. As an alternative, thousands of people are terrorised, driven out of their homes into forests, denied their citizenship rights, including the right to life. The situation is akin to a nightmare, rather than to life in a sane, civilised society.

Incidentally, there is something funny about the paranoia that Hinduism is endangered by this religion. For long, Islamists were the ultimate threat. Then, for some strange reason, Christians were discovered to be enemy numero uno. Wonder what these worry-pots of Hinduism think of this amazingly resilient faith. Is there no way to convince them that Hinduism is not a religious hencoop which has to be protected against poachers? That it is as enduring as the Himalayas, as secure as the sky, but also, like any other religion, as vulnerable to pollution as the Ganga, if spiritual vigilance is not exercised over what is dumped into it. No religion has been hurt, much less destroyed, by external enemies. Hinduism is in no danger from any other faith. To insinuate otherwise is to ‘propagate’ a ridiculous view of a faith that has proved its mettle against all odds and challenges.

The Kandhamal carnage that followed the swamiji’s murder is a national tragedy. The rest of the nation cannot afford to stand and watch indifferently, because this involves an issue crucial to our belonging together as a nation. The communal turmoil in several BJP-ruled States is not unrelated to the approaching general elections. What this means is that communal terrorism is deemed an alluring strategy of assured electoral returns.

The flip side of it is that a party does not have to deliver good governance so long as it can play the communal card and catch votes in the net of communal polarisation. The assumption at work here is the same that drives terrorism: violence pays. Surely, this is an alarming sign of the sickness of our democratic culture and social cohesion.

The question posed by the communal clouds over Kandhamal is whether or not Article 25 should stand. Regrettably, the Supreme Court of India, in Stanislav vs. The State of Madhya Pradesh (1976) pronounced that “the right to propagate is not the right to convert.” In a sense, it is like saying that while one is free to eat, one is not free to digest what one eats. What is proscribed is ‘conversion by force, fraud or allurement’ which is indeed laudable. But there is a huge problem. Who decides whether a given instance of conversion is by free choice or by force or fraud? On the ground it is lynch mobs, as in Kandhamal, that will decide. What the Supreme Court overlooked was the likely impact of its stand on the right of every citizen to choose and practise a religion of his or her choice.

There is a necessary connection between the right to choose a religion and the right to propagate one’s religion. Freedom of choice vis-À-vis religion becomes absurd when the right to practise religion is made birth-based. The word ‘propagate’ was retained in Article 25 after a prolonged debate in the Constituent Assembly, because it was recognised to be basic to the freedom of religion. Judicial pronouncements as well as legislative whittling down of the ambit of Article 25, that sever the link between the right to propagate one’s religion and the right to choose any religion through conversion tend, albeit unwittingly, to legitimise communal pogroms of the Kandhamal variety. If we are committed at all to national integration and religious freedom, we need to review and, if need be, rescind judgments and legislation that undermine the legitimacy of the rights enshrined in Article 25.

The state has a duty to protect the life, liberty, material assets and dignity of its citizens. The loss, destruction and trauma that they suffer due to dereliction of duty on the part of the state must be compensated. The state must realise the costs from the perpetrators of destruction. Those who have lost everything have to be enabled to pick up the threads of their traumatised life and move on. Those who kill people and destroy property must pay for their cruel sport. Why should the taxpayer’s money be wasted to finance the vandalism of any group? Presumption of assured immunity to consequences makes cowards trigger-happy.

All citizens have a duty to respect and protect the sanity and unity of our society. No one shall gain from degrading a society into a theatre of anarchy where every man’s hand is on his neighbour’s throat. Religious and political activities undertaken in the public domain need to pay heed to promoting harmony and mutual trust. At the same time, preserving the health of a society should not be understood as the mere avoidance of offensive acts or words. Justice and equity are basic to the sanity and stability of a society.

Justice, in its proactive sense, involves the creation of conditions conducive to the development and empowerment of every citizen. If crass poverty and deprivation of education and healthcare are what drive conversions in the tribal belts, the just remedy is not communal terrorism and re-conversion by force. It is an initiative to eradicate poverty and to reach out to the likely ‘victims’ of conversion who live smarting under social, economic and caste degradation.

For the millions who exist suspended between life and death on tenuous strings of destitution, hunger, humiliation and helplessness are the tangible faces of day-to-day terror. Conversion should not be the only survival strategy or escape route for them.

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