September 2009

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Orissa’s History of Strife

by Wesley Kawato

Orissa, a state on the Bay of Bengal of eastern India, has been described as a place of violence. Violent incidents have put Orissa in the news in recent years, but that is nothing new.

Orissa has a history of chaos and violence dating back over 2000 years. In 261 B.C. the Hindu Mauryan Empire conquered the Kingdom of Kalinga in a bloody war. Mauryan Emperor Ashoka felt so guilty about the conquest that he went on a search for inner peace. That search led him to favor radical reforms in Hinduism. These reforms developed into what is now Buddhism. Ashoka began converting his subjects to Buddhism. Over time the Mauryan Empire became a Buddhist nation. This Indian state would remain Buddhist until after the collapse of the Mauryan Empire. By A.D. 795 the Hindu Harsha Empire conquered the small kingdoms that had succeeded the Mauryan Empire. This led to re-conversions and a reformed version of Hinduism. Today there are almost no Buddhists left in Orissa. The Muslim-based Mughal Empire conquered Orissa in 1756, killing the last Hindu emperor of this region. Muslim missionaries made few inroads among the common people of Orissa. Islam remained a religion of the royal court.

In the 1750s the British began gaining political influence in eastern India through a series of wars, but they couldn’t annex Orissa until 1803. The British takeover opened the door for Christian missionary activity. Baptist missionaries, serving with the London Missionary Society, were already active in the neighboring state of Bengal. Some of these missionaries moved south to preach the gospel in what is now Orissa. Later German Lutheran missionaries would also bring the message of salvation. Catholic missionaries were active in Orissa during the 1800s.

The Christian faith spread unevenly in Orissa at that time. Many new believers came from the “scheduled tribes,” meaning a tribal background. A smaller group of believers came from the lower strata of mainstream Hindu society, from groups that are now called “scheduled castes,” meaning they are from the low rungs of Hindu society. Such groups can take advantage of affirmative action programs, where the Indian government reserves a certain number of government jobs for them. People from the scheduled tribes see conversion to Christianity as a way to maintain an ethnic identity separate from India’s mainstream Hindus. People from the scheduled castes have become Christians as a way of escaping the legalized discrimination fostered by India’s caste system.

Today foreign missionaries and native evangelists are active in Orissa. Some districts of this state are more than five percent Christian while other districts don’t have a single known believer. The districts that have the largest number of people from the scheduled tribes have the largest number of believers. Areas under the control of the Hindu mainstream have been resistant to the gospel.

Orissa Today

Today Orissa is a social hodgepodge. Although over 90 percent of the people speak the Oriya language, there are many distinct people groups in this state. Some of these people groups have been fully absorbed into India’s mainstream Hindu society, and they are part of the caste system. Other areas remained separate from the mainstream and the people are considered to be from scheduled tribes who live on what amounts to India’s equivalent of the United States’ Native American reservations.

Though there are large forests that could produce a lumber industry and a long coastline that could support a vibrant fishing industry, the private sector remains weak. Orissa is one of India’s poorest states.

The national government is Orissa’s biggest employer. There is a large dam in Orissa, under the control of the national hydroelectric company. Orissa also has many beautiful Hindu temples, located in India’s equivalent of national parks. Tourism is a government-controlled industry in Orissa.

The competition for government jobs has strained ethnic and caste relations in Orissa. Those who don’t qualify for affirmative action programs often resent those who do. There are a number of scheduled tribes who have a higher than average Christian population. These tribes are often wealthier than their caste Hindu neighbors because they qualify for national government jobs. They may also have access to Christian community development projects operating among them. The resulting jealousy makes certain castes easy recruits for radical Hindu groups who want to rid India of all Christians.

The Christians of Orissa aren’t always united because of India’s conversion laws. A person from a scheduled tribe can change religion without losing his scheduled tribe status. A person from a scheduled caste who leaves Hinduism for another religion ceases to be a member of that caste. That means he is no longer eligible for certain government affirmative action programs. Despite this handicap people from certain low-income castes have been very open to the gospel.

The Communists have also found Orissa to be a fertile recruiting area because of that state’s rampant poverty. These guerillas are aligned with Communist China and have declared war on India’s caste system. They consider the Christians to be their natural allies, because most of them come from the low-income groups which they are trying to “liberate.”

Violence Against Christians

There have been sporadic acts of persecution in Orissa, dating back to 1967 when Hindu militants burned down a number of Catholic churches and a Catholic school. But the level of persecution in this state grew much worse in 1999 when a missionary named Graham Staines and his two sons were burned to death by Hindu militants. The Staines family had been serving in Orissa for 35 years, working with orphans who had leprosy. The death of Staines emboldened the Hindu militants to go on a rampage. They burned 150 homes belonging to Christians later that year.

In October of 1999 a terrible cyclone hit Orissa, killing 60,000 people and leaving many more injured or homeless. Christian missionaries provided aid and the situation in Orissa calmed down for awhile. Then the Communists provoked another wave of persecution in 2007 when they killed a radical Hindu leader in support of their Christian allies. Christian leaders denounced the actions of the Communists and denied responsibility for the killing. Hindu radicals blamed them anyway, and soon there was more violence. Christian leaders were attacked and the homes of many Christians were burned. Several months later there was another wave of persecution. This time 11 Christian pastors were killed and thousands of Christians were forced to flee for their lives into the jungle regions of Orissa. Those who failed to escape were either killed or forced to “re-convert” back to Hinduism. In 2008 the situation calmed down and many Christians slowly returned to their home villages, but some left Orissa never intending to return. Then word got out that the Hindu radicals were planning a new round of attacks for Christmas Day 2008. Prayer meetings were organized and God caused the Hindu militants to call off those planned attacks.

Let’s Pray!

Pray that God would protect His children in Orissa.
Pray that God would give the Christian leaders of Orissa the wisdom to make the right decisions. In some parts of the state, Christians rely on the Communist guerillas to protect them from Hindu attacks. This unholy alliance must end. There have already been some reports of new believers being enticed into joining Communist guerilla groups.
Much of the violence in Orissa can be traced back to that state’s poor economy. Christian community development workers who are already serving in this state need to open their projects to those who aren’t believers. More Christian community development workers are also needed, to start job creating projects outside the reservations of the scheduled tribes. Pray that this would happen.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

The vast majority of the people in India will bend over backwards to have peace within their communities. Even in today’s world with news articles available regarding seemingly every remote part of the planet, we see little about strife and conflict in many states in India. That isn’t so for two of India’s eastern states, Orissa and Bihar. Many of the conflicts that we will describe in this prayer guide spill over into neighboring states as well. The militant Hindu RSS is very active there, and so are the Naxilites, a violent Communist organization. As usually happens, the weaker members of society suffer the most.

As you pray for Orissa this month, remember that we are not just praying against conflict, which is rooted in selfish ambition. Yes, we want to pray for God to protect people from destructive conflicts. But the conflicts are the symptoms, and the disease is sin. Only Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit can get at the root of this disease. So when we pray about Orissa’s many conflicts, we must pray for Christ to do spiritual cleaning and healing.