From The Telegraph> Opinion 16 June 2009
Kandhamal in Orissa was torn by violence first in December 2007, and again in August 2008. Christians in the state were persecuted on grounds alleging that certain members of the community were responsible for the assassination of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Addresses by religious leaders in the wake of communal disharmony are not uncommon. In times of chaos, such leaders are seen as instruments that would ensure the return of peace and calm to troubled areas. In India, where a majority of the population is greatly awed by religious practices and faith, it is not difficult to imagine the sway that the words of religious leaders could have on their followers’ minds.
In October 2008, two months after fresh instances of violence were reported in the area, bishops of the regional churches in Orissa issued an address to their congregation. The letter, undoubtedly meant to reach each local church and read out from the pulpit as a message coming from their religious leaders, was signed by six of the bishops of different churches in Orissa. Expressing solidarity with all those who had suffered because of the violence in the region, the letter offered prayers and spiritual comfort to all victims who had “humbled” the writers by their “willingness to go through all kinds of humiliations, trials and even persecutions for the sake of [their] belief”.
The letter also praised the restraint that the community had shown in face of the injustices done to them, and condemned the killing of the VHP leader that had triggered the mayhem. It kept in tune with the ‘national’ message that the political leaders of the country expect to be delivered by religious heads to their respective communities. The prime minister’s address to the chief ministers of the states in 2006 called for the establishment of “intimate contact” with community and spiritual leaders who, according to the prime minister, were in a better position to sensitize their followers about the importance of communal harmony in the country. What the prime minister also called for was an “integrated vision” that he explained in terms of the “sacred values” inherent to all faiths, transcending individual differences. Peaceful co-existence, he implied, was one such “sacred value”. Such rhetoric is, indeed, also used by religious leaders when called upon to address the consequences of communal disharmony. Going back to the bishops’ letter to the believers in Orissa, invoking the “Indian traditions of communal harmony and national integrity” form an important part of the strategy to quell fear among the affected.
At times, this rhetoric takes on the form of a generous invocation of the Indian pantheon to state the point that all are indeed One, as Swami Jayendra Saraswati, the Sankaracharaya of Kanchi, did during his visit to the ghettoized camp-sites after the Gujarat carnage, calling upon Ram and Laxman, Bali and Sugreev to make his point about Hindu-Muslim unity. However, in all these public appeals to the universal fraternity of humankind, the sense of integrity of the community being addressed is never blurred. The appeal to public emotions is on the grounds that the community itself is a coherent entity, and that its collective show of moral strength and unity in times of crisis can make an important public statement in such an expression of solidarity with fellow-citizens.
The same address by the bishops also emphasized the fact that the Hindu community was threatened by the growing empowerment of Christians in the region, which they thought was largely owing to the efforts of the Church. Therefore, in pockets where religion practised collectively gets imbued with political strife, the urgency to maintain the semblance of a coherent community subdues the sentiment of a holistic integration with the nation. This urgency is often kept alive by the use of a rhetoric that marks the community out from the others.