The Kandhamal Issue

On 23 August 2008, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu religious leader, was shot dead along with four of his associates in his ashram at Jalaspeta, near Tumudibandha in Kandhamal district, Odisha, India.

Details of the carnage and communal disturbances that followed have been outlined with clarity and incisiveness in many official and non-official documents and books. Therefore they do not have to be repeated here. However, details about the persons who were killed, who they were and how they lived their lives are scarce.

The authors have been following the developments of what is known as the Kandhamal riots attentively and with a keen interest on the human rights issues involved against the background of the Indian Constitution and International mandates that guarantee the freedom to practise one’s religion and also the freedom to choose which religion to follow. In a secular country like India with diversity in many aspects of the social fabric and where several religions have taken birth it seems inconsistent to discriminate on the basis of one’s faith.

It was felt that information was incomplete or unavailable about the background of the people who were killed in the Kandhamal riots in 2007 and 2008. Were they political activists, anti-social elements or people who were a source of danger to the communal unity that is woven into the social and cultural fabric of our ancient country, India, that has survived down the centuries?

Little is known about Kandhamal (previously known as Phulbani or the land of flowers), the epicentre of the communal riots that rocked the conscience of many in the country and abroad.

The district’s present nomenclature came into being on 1 January 1994 after the reorganization of districts in Odisha, then spelt as Orissa. The district stretches between 19’34 and 20’36 north latitude and 83’34 and 84’43 east longitude covering an area of 8,021 square kilometres. For administrative reasons it has been divided into two sub-divisions (Phulbani and Balliguda) with 12 tehsils, 12 blocks and 2,587 villages grouped under 153 gram panchayats (GPs, or village councils).

The entire district is in the high altitude zone and most of the terrain comprises hill ranges with narrow valley tracts. The terrain dictates the social economic condition of the people and the development of the district which has a rich tribal cultural heritage and diversity of flora and fauna.

Odisha is one of the poorest states of the country and Kandhamal district is one of the poorest districts of the State, ranked in position 29 among the 30 districts. The ranking is based on the Human Development Index prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The district was known as one of the backward areas of Odisha. According to the 2011 Census, Kandhamal district has a total population of 733,110 persons, comprising 359,945 males and 373,165 females. The Scheduled Tribe (ST) population is 392,820 and the Scheduled Caste (SC) population is 115,544.

According to the 2001 Census, Kandhamal district has a Hindu population of 527,757 (81.41 percent), Christians 117,950 (18.19 per cent) and Muslims 2,253 (0.34 percent)

More than 50 percent of the population belongs to the Scheduled Caste and aboriginal tribals. Kandhamal is endowed with vast minor forest and agricultural produce which incidentally form the basis of its industry. The district has many cottage and agro based industries that process forest and agricultural produce. It also possesses abundant graphite reserves in Tumdibandha block.

The Kandhas (categorised as belonging to the Scheduled Tribes) are the principal tribe of Kandhamal district and constitute 51 per cent of the district’s population. The life of these Kandhas, also referred to as Konds or Khonds, gives an insight into the tribal life of this area.

These Kandhas identify themselves as Kuilaku or Kuinga and the dialect they speak is Kui, which has no script. The word ‘Konda’ means hills and as such these Kandhas live on hill tops, with the Panos living beneath their settlements.

Kandhas have been described as faithful, devoted, resolute, brave, hospitable and laborious. Their dress, food habits and houses are reflections of their tribal background and culture. The Kandhas are primarily animists and do not fall in the category of religion as a social phenomenon in the same way as Hindus, Christians and Muslims. They own about 77 percent of the cultivable land in the district.

Panas (who fall in the Scheduled Castes) constitute 17 percent of the district’s population. Ninety percent of the Panas are Christians.