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In India, religious violence leaves long trail of refugee camps

NEW DELHI — Many Christians displaced by deadly religious riots two years ago in the Indian state of Orissa remain in camps today, a delegation of German parliamentarians discovered this week, highlighting the enduring aftermath that often follows s

NEW DELHI — Many Christians displaced by deadly religious riots two years ago in the Indian state of Orissa remain in camps today, a delegation of German parliamentarians discovered this week, highlighting the enduring aftermath that often follows sporadic violence.

“We saw the miserable situation of people without proper homes and livelihood opportunities. Most of them are yet to be compensated adequately,” they said. In a press release cited here, they also noted that “even after two years, police have not registered several complaints and justice is not done to the community. Only a few of the responsible have been convicted for the communal violence.”

Two years, however, is relatively short compared with India’s overall track record in reintegrating the victims of periodic religious rioting. Eight years after deadly riots in Gujarat, displaced Muslims remain in ghettos where religious aid groups have been accused of imposing Taliban-style rules. And Kashmiri Hindus remain in refugee camps outside Kashmir some two decades after being targeted in the Muslim-majority state.

A ‘country of particular concern’
India prides itself as a religiously diverse, secular state – and sometimes reacts defensively to international criticisms about the treatment of religious minorities. Last year, New Delhi denied entry visas to a United States government delegation tasked with monitoring religious freedom abroad.

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“India is the only democracy to have blocked a visit by USCIRF [US Commission on International Religious Freedom], which had been requesting entry since 2001. More than 20 other countries, including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, have allowed the commission to enter,” wrote the Baptist Press.

USCIRF designated India a “country of particular concern” for several years after the 2002 anti-Muslims riots in Gujarat. Last year, the group once again put India on its watch list “because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states.”

When the European Union sent a delegation in February to visit Christians in Orissa, a local Christian group charged state officials with clearing homeless Christians from an area hours before the visit.

“The advocacy group the All India Christian Council (AICC) alleges that the authorities forced almost 100 survivors of anti-Christian violence to leave a market in the town of G. Udaigiri, Kandhamal district, just before the EU team was due at the scene. The homeless Christians had been living in the market since the closure of some of the refugee camps set up when extremist violence spread across Orissa in late-2008.”

Release International, a Christian organization based in England, said in December that up to 20,000 Christians remain displaced since the Orissa riots. According to the group, many remain unable to return to their home villages “for fear of death or forcible conversion to Hinduism.”

As in other parts of India, conversions and reconversions have caused tensions between Christian minorities and the Hindu majority. The Monitor has reported on some Christian conversion tactics that have angered Hindus and even unsettled some of the older Christian faith communities in India.

Muslims, Hindus also displaced
The effects of religious riots can linger for years, particularly the ghettoization of minorities. In 2006, the Monitor reported on the rising segregation of Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat, four years after religious riots killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

“At the entrance of some villages, gaily painted message boards have sprung up since the riots that read: “Welcome to this Hindu village in the Hindu nation of Gujarat.” Rahimanagar, a Muslim ghetto just outside the town of Anand, sprang up right after the riots. The ghetto is now home to many Muslims who are afraid to return their villages,” the Monitor reported.

The Indian magazine Tehelka reported in December that Muslims still living in some of the 81 relief colonies set up after the riots now face strict religious rules imposed by Muslim groups working in the camps.

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“Strict diktats have been issued for people to pray five times a day and that too, at specially designated mosques. Attendance and participation at religious discussions held in three-day camps is compulsory. No television sets are allowed and no music can be played on radios. All residents of relief colonies are forced to follow these rules. Additionally, Muslim men are asked to wear skullcaps and sport beards while women are encouraged to don the hijab and observe purdah. Residents who do not adhere to these norms are either issued warning notices or asked to vacate their houses – often in the middle of the night,” the magazine reported.

Hindus have also faced displacement in India following religious violence. The population of Kashmiri Hindus dwindled from 400,000 in 1989 to just 8,000 in 2006, according to a US congressional resolution in 2006. The resolution puts the blame on “Islamic militants who are promoting an agenda of ethnic cleansing.”

Some 10,000 Kashmiri Hindus still live in one refugee camp outside Jammu where there is only one toilet per 150 people, according to a site report from an advocacy group.