It is just a matter of Rs one thousand. If Julian Pradhan and his two brothers pay this money as a fine to their neighbours, things will return to the way they were. But eight years after they lost their homes in Kandhamal riots, the three brothers are refusing to pay, braving a social boycott in their village.
Julian remembers the good, old times. He was born, 62 years ago, in Bodigunda village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district. As a child, he and his brothers, Jasinta and Pavitra, had played in the forest behind their village.
“My father spent his entire life in creating that forest,” Julian says.
The Pradhans are Kandhas, the largest tribal community in Odisha. Most Kandhas are Hindus, but some of them converted to Christianity under the influence of missionaries. Julian says someone among his forefathers became a Christian towards the end of the 19th Century. But it hardly made any difference in the village where people continued to live as a close community; every one was free to use the resources of the forest Julian’s father had created. In 1995, says Julian, he dug up a well with the help of a few missionaries near the land he owns and that he tills with his brothers to grow paddy. That well also benefited all the families in the neighbourhood.
There are 40 Christian families in Bodigunda, but in the Brainguda Panchayat ward, there are only three Christian families — those of the three Pradhan brothers. There was another big Christian household, but its members converted to Hinduism. “One of the boys fell in love with a Hindu girl, so they all converted,” says Julian.
And then the 2008 riots happened, triggered by the killing of Kandhamal’s popular Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. The Kandha Hindus suspected the missionaries to be behind his murder and began to target Christian families all over Kandhamal.
One day, Julian stepped out of his home and saw a group of villagers standing outside. He knew most of them. They carried axes and other sharp-edged weapons. “They told us to leave immediately or else they would hunt us down like pigs,” recalls Julian. The three brothers and their families fled immediately. They went to the hills and stayed in the forest.
After a few days, when they returned to their street, their houses had been burnt down, and the rioters hadn’t disappeared. Their street was patrolled by armed men who asked the Pradhans never to return. They left again, this time taking one hill after another to reach a relief camp set up by the state government.
At the camp, based on their testimony, five people from their village were arrested by police for rioting and had to serve a jail sentence. The Pradhans were forced to spend three years in the camp, after which they returned to their homes.
But the village had changed. Julian says that after their return, no one would speak to them. In their absence, the well Julian had dug had been damaged. They were barred from using the other well or picking up firewood from the same forest their father had created.
A few months ago, the villagers held a meeting and said that the Pradhans could again become a part of the community if they paid a fine of Rs one thousand. “We thought about it, but then decided against it. We have not committed any wrong, so why should we pay a fine?” asks Julian.
It has been five years since the Pradhans returned. But their neighbours now treat them as pariahs.
“They hardly talk to us or call us for community feasts,” says Julian.
The Pradhans would like to have their life back. “I miss the community life,” says Julian. “But I will not pay the fine. That is what my conscience tells me.”