CALCUTTA, INDIA // India's communist rebels have warned Hindus against carrying out revenge attacks on Christians, admitting for the second time that they were behind the assassination of a popular Hindu leader over a week ago. Hindu activists were convinced that local Christians had killed Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four other Hindu leaders on Aug 23, sparking anti-Christian riots that have seen at least 44 people killed, hundreds of houses and churches destroyed and thousands of people driven from their homes in Kandhamal, eastern Orissa state.
Some 3,000 Christians have also reportedly been forced to convert to Hinduism at "gunpoint". Maoist rebels, who had earlier claimed responsibility for the killing of Saraswati and the other leaders, warned of severe repercussions if the rioters did not halt their actions. The Communist Party of India [Maoists], which has a strong base in some districts in Orissa, warned of "more punishments" if activists of the VHP [Viswa Hindu Parishad- World Hindu Council] and its allies continued to attack the country's religious minorities.
"It is a fact Saraswati was a rabid anti-Christian ideologue and persecutor of innocent Christians and was responsible for the burning down of over 400 churches and Christian-run schools in Kandhamal. So we punished the anti-people fanatical leader," a statement from the group said Sunday night. "Now his [Saraswati's] men are engaged in violence and persecution of the poor Christians the same way. We are pledged to halt such endless persecution of the religious minorities.
"If their men do not stop their attacks on Christians immediately, we shall take severe action to halt this riot against defenceless poor people, and persecutions of poor Christians in other ways." The statement, sent to a selected group of journalists, also said VHP leaders were stirring up sectarian tension by telling Hindus their leaders had been killed by Christians. A senior police officer in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa state, said local authorities had heard the Maoists were possibly planning to intervene.
"If they decide to intervene in their style they will bring hundreds of comrades from all neighbouring states to pounce in these riot-hit regions where Hindu activists are active. "With their sophisticated firearms they will wreak havoc, taking the situation to a more uncontrollable shape. The government is determined not to allow any meddling by Maoists," said the officer who did not want to be identified.
Orissa authorities have called on the federal government to immediately send at least 5,000 paramilitary forces to help fend off the Maoists and quell the riots. Satish Gajbhiye, Kandhamal's police chief, said it was a fact the Maoists were against the activities of such Hindu organisations as VHP and RSS [Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Force - the ideological fountainhead of various Hindu groups, including India's national Hindu party of BJP] and have killed leaders of both Hindu groups in the past.
"They fear if Hindu influence increases in this region of Orissa, Maoist-resistance groups will come up - what they don't want. This is why they are against the Hindu groups," said Mr Gajbhiye. A Maoist underground leader in the neighbouring state of West Bengal said the VHP and its allies had been attacking Christians for years in Orissa and other states, which was why, for ideological reasons, the guerrillas were siding with Christians.
The leader, identified only by his nom de guerre, Swapan said: "We have many visiting comrades from Orissa among us, and we know how against their wishes the Christians are being converted forcibly by these Hindu leaders. We have targeted the Hindu leaders and their fascist activities simply because they are taking away the fundamental rights of a class of poor people. "Some Hindu leaders are thinking we are anti-Hindu, which is not true at all. More than 80 per cent of our comrades, including myself, are Hindus. We don't care for religion. We have pledged to attack the Hindu activists in Orissa simply because they are violating human rights in Christian villages," he said.
Another former Maoist guerrilla in Malkangiri, a Maoist-dominated district in Orissa, accused police and authorities in the BJP-ruled state of supporting Hindus. "In the field, there are two parties. On one side there are Hindu groups who are being protected by the police and government because the state's ruling party is supported by [Hindu] party of BJP. And, on the other side there are the hapless poor Christians who have got the Maoists guerrillas for their protection.
"Obviously the first party is stronger and so the Maoists will fight tooth and nail to protect the Christian rights," said Soorya, 32, a Hindu, who left the rebel group some years ago for health reasons. Orissa, one of India's poorest states, has had outbreaks of religious violence in the past decade amid accusations by the Hindu majority that Catholic groups bribe or force marginalised groups to change their faith. Graham Staines, an Australian missionary, and his two young sons were killed when a mob set fire to the vehicle in which they were sleeping outside a church in Manoharpur, a tribal village in Keonjhar district, in Jan 1999. Hindus account for 83 per cent of India's more than 1.1 billion population, while Christians make up 2.4 per cent.
Addressing the riots for the first time since they broke out, Manmohan Singh, the India prime minister, reassured Christians that those responsible for rioting would be brought to justice. The federal government has taken a "very serious note of the happenings in Orissa", and Mr Singh has "personally spoken to the chief minister to ensure communal harmony and bring to book the culprits behind the violent incidents", his office said yesterday in an emailed statement. The federal government will also provide assistance to the families of those who died in the riots, according to the statement. The government said it will also help repair houses that were damaged.
* The National