Six Villagers Arrested for Tonsuring Christians in Orissa, India

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Tension continues, victims remain in temporary accommodations in Bhubaneswar.

by Vishal Arora

DELHI, May 19 (Compass) -- Six people were arrested on May 3 in connection with a February 10 incident regarding residents of a village in Orissa state, India, shaving the heads of a local pastor and eight Christian women in an effort to publicly mark them as Hindu converts.

The nine were dragged from their homes and forcibly “tonsured” or shaved on the crown of their heads, a mark that has religious significance in India and caused great humiliation for the Christians.

A total of 35 villagers were named in the First Information Report lodged at the Tirtol police station after the incident. Some of the perpetrators were close relatives of the victims.

An arrest was finally made after social activist Priabir Kumar Das from the state capital, Bhubaneswar, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on behalf of the victims. In response to the PIL, the Orissa High Court sought a report from the district administration.

Despite the arrests, the atmosphere in the Dalit hamlet of Bauri Sahi in Kilipal village remains tense. Pastor Subas Samal had previously been accused of “forced conversion” in a case involving two girls, who converted to Christianity some time ago and then left home when their families pressured them to reconvert to Hinduism.

“Forced conversion” is banned under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act. However, Pastor Samal said in his statements to a local magistrate that the charges were fabricated. The girls presented an affidavit saying they had accepted the Christian faith and left home of their own free will.

Despite these claims, an arrest warrant has now been issued against Pastor Samal, just a few days after the six people responsible for tonsuring him were arrested.

Seven of the female victims and their families are still in temporary accommodations provided by the Church on Mount Zion in Bhubaneswar. “The victims are eager, but unable, to go back to their homes in Kilipal village, as the tension between Christians and Hindus has not subsided yet,” Rev. Sonathan Mohanty of the Church on Mount Zion told Compass. “All of them are strong in their faith and growing.”

“This incident came to light only because the victims came to Bhubaneswar,” he added. “Such incidents are common in the rural areas in Orissa, but they are not reported. We are praying for a shelter home in the city, so persecuted Christians from such areas can take refuge and also report the matter.”

The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), a secular human rights body, released a fact-finding report on the incident in April. The report confirmed that, “the fundamental rights of the Christians in the village to choose and practice their own faith, as enshrined in the Constitution, has been blatantly violated … All this has to be seen in the backdrop of the prejudices, mistrust and misgivings that people harbor against other religions, in order to make any meaningful intervention and diffuse the existing tension.”

The report also said the tonsuring was part of an ongoing campaign of religious hatred by Hindutva organizations. “The virulent campaign of communal hatred, religious intolerance and xenophobia unleashed by the so-called Hindutva forces in the state in recent times have reinforced and lent sustenance to the perpetrators of the vendetta against the hapless minorities.”

“The role of the police is questionable,” the report claimed. “Their statements to the team reveal an inherent bias against the minorities; further, they are also full of inconsistencies. The local police station was well aware of the simmering tension, but did precious little to pre-empt the untoward incidents, or diffuse the tension.”

One of the tonsured women, Ms. Sanjukta Kandi, described the experience to investigators from the PUCL. “They came and forcibly dragged us to the center of the village … We protested but we were forcibly dragged,” she said. “I was in a sari only and had to cling to it when dragged … you can imagine what it was like”.

“After the tonsuring the whole day we stayed inside,” she said. “We couldn’t even collect water. How could we, when we were humiliated like this in public? How could we walk in the village with our tonsured head?”

Explaining why they had to leave the village, she said, “We could sense that the villagers were planning to do more dangerous things. They might just set fire to our house at night and we would all die.”

“One of us, Lata Samal, was spared from tonsuring because she was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. She too came with us to Bhubaneswar and now she has delivered a baby girl,” Ms. Kandi added.

Mr. Pratap Chinchani, president of the Orissa chapter of the Christian Legal Association, said he planned to take further action against the perpetrators. “I have lodged a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission and the State Level Committee on Communal Harmony regarding the incident,” he told Compass. “I will also file a petition in the high court after the summer vacation.”

Action Aid, a secular organization, has also approached the victims to offer legal assistance.

However, Rev. Mohanty favors a peaceful resolution to the tension, claiming that prosecution of the villagers will only add to the tension between Hindu and Christian communities.

The All India Christian Council issued a press statement on February 20, alleging that, “Physical violence against Christians continues across the nation -- averaging over 200 recorded cases every year since 1998.”

Christians can only hope the situation will change as the newly-elected Congress Party replaces the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), elected in 1998. The BJP appeared to allow Hindus to act with impunity against Christians.