Holy war strikes India

35 Christians killed and 50,000 forced from their homes by Hindu mobs enraged at Swami's murder

As she recalled her awful story, Puspanjali Panda made no attempt to halt the tears flooding down her face.

Holding her daughter close, she told how a baying Hindu mob dragged her husband – a Christian pastor – from his bed, beat him to death with stones and iron rods and then threw him into a river. She found his corpse two days later, washed up on the bank. When she went to the police, they told her to go away.

Mrs Panda and thousands of others like her are victims of the worst communal violence between Hindus and Christians that India has seen for decades. For a country that boasts of its mutual religious tolerance, the long-simmering tension that has erupted in the Kandhamal district of the state of Orissa – a nun being raped, churches being burned, at least 35 people killed and thousands forced from their villages – is both a belated wake-up call and a mounting embarrassment. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, called it a "national disgrace".

But for Mrs Panda, sheltering in a wretched relief camp in the state capital, Bhubaneswar, it is much worse than that. The 38-year-old said she had no idea what would now happen to her and her bewildered-looking child, Mona Lisa. "I do not want to go back. They have destroyed my home," she wailed.

The journey to the heart of the violence follows a bone-shaking road east from Bhubaneswar to the district capital, Phulbani. It was here in late August that thousands of Hindus armed with swords, sticks and primitive guns began taking matters into their own hands after the murder of an elderly religious leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

The swami, a senior member of a right-wing Hindu organisation known as the Vishswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), had reportedly been working to prevent low-caste Hindus converting to Christianity. His followers claimed he had been murdered by local Christians, though police said there was no evidence of that. Either way, in the days that followed, groups of Hindus wrought a terrible revenge on Christian families whom they had lived alongside for decades. In addition to the deaths, 140 churches and prayer halls were attacked and up to 50,000 people forced to flee. In instances the violence appears staggering in its cruelty. Rabindranath Pradhan, now a refugee, had to watch helplessly while a 300-strong mob doused his disabled brother with petrol and set him alight. "He was shouting 'Help me, Help me.' I could not help – there were so many of them," he said.

Local people are now forced to fly saffron-coloured flags outside their homes to identity themselves as Hindus and prevent attack. In the village of Pabinga a Catholic church lies in ruins, the cross pushed from the roof and the interior of the building badly damaged. Christian leaders say that families forced to flee have been told they can only return if they re-convert to Hinduism.

Raphael Cheenath, the Archbishop of Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, traced the violence to the anger of upper-caste Hindus at the number of Dalits or so-called untouchables converting to Christianity. Previously, he said, the lower castes had lived the lives of slaves and now – liberated and better-educated – they represented a challenge. "It incites the upper castes," he said.

While conversion has been an issue, the conflict here is more complex than a religious disagreement. Many activists believe the fight is an economic dispute between two of India's poorest groups, complicated by the issue of caste and ethnicity. For decades there has been conflict over land and resources between the two groups at the bottom of India's complex social system – the indigenous people of the region officially listed as scheduled tribes (ST) and non-indigenous poor known as scheduled castes (SC).

While the ST are Hindu, increasing numbers of SC have converted to Christianity to escape the misery of the caste system, for perceived economic benefit and because of the efforts of missionaries. Many politicians have accused right-wing Hindu groups of agitating tension for political reasons.

Somewhat surprisingly given the number of churches that have been destroyed, the ST of Kandhamal also say their conflict with the SC communities is not a religious dispute. They too say the battle is over land and resources.

Lambahdhar Kanhari, a tribal leader, says he has received death-threats from Christians. At his house near Phulbani a guard with a pump-action shotgun stands outside. Mr Kanhari did not deny that tribal people were responsible for the flurry of attacks but said that while the recent violence had been triggered by the killing of Swami Saraswati, its roots went back decades. "These SC came from outside the area. They are criminal by nature. They have taken our land, our crops, everything," he said. "When the Swami was killed by the Christians some of his followers went after the killers and some of our people have been involved in the fighting."

The authorities say 11 relief camps have been set up to help more than 23,000 people. The Indian government has belatedly dispatched hundreds of police and paramilitaries to Kandhamal to calm the situation. In Phulbani, there is now a 6pm-8am curfew.

On a recent evening, the curfew had just been called as Asis Mishra was chaining shut the gate in front of his home. One of a tiny number of Christians in Phulbani still daring to live in their homes, Mr Mishra had good reason to take special safety precautions.

During the worst of the violence his family had fled their home and lived in a guesthouse, provided with food and money by Hindu families. Mr Mishra explained that he was not a recent convert, his family having been Christians for five generations. He said he hoped the fact he was well known within the community would protect him. He tapped on his chest and said: "We have been here a long time, but there is still some fear... It is always here."

Religious intolerance: The flashpoint state

* Orissa, on the Bay of Bengal, is India's ninth-largest state. It is less densely populated than its coastal neighbours but it is still home to 36 million people.

* Hindus make up 94 per cent of the population; 2 per cent are Christians. Tensions mounted in 1999, when an Australian missionary and his sons were burnt alive by a Hindu mob.

* The state has one-fifth of India's coal reserves and a third of its bauxite, but many people live in chronic poverty.

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