From Kandhamal to Khotan

October 22, 2008 at 4:27 am Leave a comment

Let’s take two neighboring nations – India and China. While India is (supposed to be) a secular democratic country, China is officially an atheist communist nation. The Indian Constitution states religious freedom as a basic right of its citizens. China on the other hand recognizes only 5 religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Taoism and Buddhism. It also regulates these religions very firmly. Its China’s answer to religious extremism – ban most religions and regulate the few that are allowed.

Now let’s look at two places within these nations in particular- Kandhamal in the eastern Indian state of Orissa and Khotan in the autonomous region of northwestern China called Xinjiang. There are two major ethnic tribes in Kandhamal – Panas and Kandhas. Xinjiang, similarly, is home to two major ethnic tribes Uighurs and the Han Chinese. The biggest difference between the Panas and Kandhas is their religion – Panas are mostly Christians while Kandhas are mostly Hindus. Uighurs and Han Chinese also differ along religious borders. Uighurs are Sunni Muslims and the Han Chinese are either Buddhists or Taoists.

The Constitution of India allows for freedom to follow any religion. This also means that people are allowed to convert from one religion to another- voluntarily. The Hindu Kandhas, however, claim that Panas were lured into converting to Christianity by missionaries and evangelists. So members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal (Hindu extremist outfit) have taken it upon themselves to re-convert the Pana Christians back to Hindus – no exceptions allowed. This forced conversion is also accompanied by acts of violence such as vandalism, annihilation of property, rape of nuns, murder, burning humans (including children) alive to name a few. These violent acts followed the unsolved killing of a Hindu priest/leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, who for 40 years had rallied the area’s people to choose Hinduism over Christianity. Despite lack of evidence, Bajrand Dal claims Christains in Kandhamal are behind the killing.

A lot has been written about the state of Burning Orrisa lately. The Wikipedia entry on Orissa Violence is a good place to begin to know more about it. One could simple google ‘Orissa Violence’ and land upon information galore – none of which is uplifting or positive in anyways.

Moving on now to Khotan in Xinjiang, China. The Muslims in Khotan have a long list of government enforced rules that they need to follow in order to practice their religion. Some of these rules are:
– The imam’s sermon at Friday Prayer must run no longer than a half-hour.
– Prayer in public areas outside the mosque is forbidden.
– Residents of Khotan are not allowed to worship at mosques outside of town.
– Government workers and nonreligious people may not be “forced” to attend services at the mosque — a different way of saying that government workers and Communist Party members are prohibited from worship.
– Student and government workers are ‘required’ to eat during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
– Muslims can observe hajj – once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca (also one of the 5 essential pillars of Islam) – only via government run arrangements. The government has confiscated the passports of the Muslim Uighurs to make sure they do not travel in any other way.
– The Chinese communist government has ‘advertised’ some of these rules on sign boards placed ‘strategically’ across Khotan to ‘raise awareness’ of the issue. In simpler words, they have publicly mass threatened the Muslim community.

While Khotan has remained relatively peaceful for the early part of the 00s, series of attacks in August 2008 left 22 security personnel and 1 civilian dead. The killings have been blamed on religious tension. The religious tension seems to have sprouted from a lack of freedom to follow the Koran’s way of worship. The Chinese government calls it ‘illegal religion’. Top government officials have issued ‘warnings’ of a crackdown if there is a rise in instability allegedly due to illegal religions.

So from Kandhamal to Khotan (secular democracy to atheist communism) we see that religious differences give rise to violence no matter what form the government takes. Is the government just helpless when it comes to religious extremism? Should the blame lie squarely on the institution of religion then? I would say not yet.

Looking beyond news headlines, one can see that the Panas who converted to Christianity came from lower castes and many were untouchables. Their motive for conversion was escape from discrimination and education (not to deny that some might have felt more connected to the Christian god than their traditional Hindu gods). Once they received education (in English) from the Christian schools, they were ready to jump onto the Indian economic band wagon. In a nutshell, the Christian Panas got educated and moved up in life. The Hindu Kandhas were left behind to blame the Panas for cheating to obtain quotas on government jobs. The next ‘illogical’ thing to do was to start a violent movement. Enter VHP and Bajrang Dal (even BJP – the current opposition party in the Parliament).

At this point, I would like to make it clear that I am not taking sides here. I realize I am a Christian and this might sound absurd, but I have big issues with the Christian community in India. I believe that Christians in the Indian Subcontinent and particularly in India have a ‘minority’ mentality. About 2% of the Indian population is Christian. So yes the numbers say we are a minority. But that does not mean we have been discriminated everywhere at all times in history and that we need special government assistance to ‘live’. We spend way too much time lamenting our discrimination (which for the most part is self-perceived) huddled with each other enforcing our perception of the Christian community and hence segregating ourselves from rest of India. When someone launches a violent agitation against us then yes we should band together and uphold the law by bringing in the right authorities to deal with the problem – just as some Christians in Kandhmal asked for the police to step in. There are many other things I’d like to say but I would like to end my rant and change paragraphs now. 🙂

Now back to Kandhamal and Khotan. The government, be it democratic or communist, needs to find a way to curb rising inequalities and discrimination rather than regulate ‘religion’ or (in case of India) do nothing. I have never been to Khotan (or China for that matter), so I can’t speculate much on it. But from a NY Times article here is a Han commenting on a Uighur – “The Uighurs are lazy. It’s because of their religion. They spend so much time praying. What are they praying for?” Maybe there is segregation at the communal level between Uighurs and the Han Chinese which led to religious divide in the first place.

The Chinese government needs to tackle issues of discrimination and not ‘regulate’ religion. The Indian government, on the other hand, needs to start doing ‘something’. While a bunch of thugs barricade the district and launch pre-meditated ambush attacks on helpless innocent people, the Central government is busy forming committees to look into the matter. The committees in turn ask for reports on ‘incidents of violence’ from the police, the Church, the district office and the state government. Don’t these politicians read a single newspaper? Besides a Google search would give them enough reports. Here is one done by the Asian Center for Human Rights. It comes from a neutral party and should serve the purpose. Unfortunately the report needs to be updated a lot to reveal gory statistics and gorier details.

Click links for some decent news coverage of Orissa and Xinjiang.
Hindu Threat to Christians – Convert or Flee
Violence in India is fueled by religious and economic divide

Wary of Islam, China tightens a vise of rules


Entry filed under: On Global Conflict. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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