Father Geroge Varakulam, CM share his reflections from India. “This year Christian communities were nt in a mood to celebrate Chrisstmas… the nightmare of attacks and killings of Christians…”

Christmas 2008, in Kondhamal Orissa.

Fr. George Varakulam C.M

‘God Pitched His tent among His people.’ ‘For to us a child is born’ Is. 9/6 at one of the
Relief Camps in Orissa.

This Christmas stands out quite distinct from my forty previous celebrations in Orissa, that is ever since I came. One third of the world celebrates the birth of Christ with joy in peace. We also used to celebrate it.

Christmas is popularly known as ‘Bodo Dino’ meaning ‘big day’ among the Oriya people. This is a day longed for and long awaited. Children exuberantly look forward to it counting the days as December begins. They get new cloths. At home, the family prepares a cookie called ‘Adishapitta’, a deep fry of rice powder kneaded in hot water with jaggiri or sugar if they can afford. ‘Adishapitta’ is poor man’s Christmas cake without which there is no Christmas celebration. The preparation of it is rather solemn and is more enjoyed than eating it.  Adishapitta can be really mouth watering. Salivating children would be crying after their mothers to get one to taste. Nonetheless nobody eats it until a few are offered to baby Jesus at midnight mass. A cherished happiness of mine for the last 27 years  as a priest was to break these Adishapitta offered to Jesus and share it with the congregation after the mass in the midst of carol singing and dancing in sheer joy of the innocent poor. Christmas dinner to be sumptuous should have plenty of rice to eat and a little meat curry and nothing more. The aforesaid all are essentials of a Christmas celebration of the simple poor. The village communities have a community meal, usually on the New Year’s Day. Youth of some tribal communities choose this occasion to honor their elderly by giving a sumptuous meal with a little ‘men -only booze’ out of their contributions. The community cohesion thrives on these simple rituals.

This year the Christian communities were not in a mood to celebrate Christmas for obvious reasons. The nightmare of attacks and killings of Christians last year on Christmas days is afresh in their memories. Many are yet to recover from the shock and pain. Deep wounds inflicted on these faith living communities were yet to be healed. The ripped-apart Kondhamal society was limping gradually to normalcy. Normalcy comes only when people are able to do normal things. But before, tragedy struck again in August 2008, this time most brutally. The already battered Christian community that survived purely on hope of peace returning was completely shattered. Lost to everything, their loved ones, their homes, their properties, Christians are adrift with nothing other than their inner strength given by God alone. The ground-fear follows them like their own shadows. The Sang Parivar still breaths fury and unleashes terror from time to time. “Let ‘Bodo Dino’ come. We will set every score with the Christian…” These are broad- daylight utterances of them still unrelenting after all that harm done to the Christians. There was more reason to fear. Rumor has it that a priest and a nun at least are to be captured alive to be burned alive on Christmas day precisely. Then only the soul of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati who was murdered on ‘Janmashtami’ , the birthday of Bhagavan Sri-Krishna, can rest in peace.  Swami Laxmananda ‘Srodhanjali Samithi’ even planned a Bandh exactly on Christmas day if those behind the murder of this  gentleman suddenly idolized, are not taken to custody for penal action. With all these apprehensions and fear who would think of celebrating Christmas? There is neither church to come together for prayer nor a home for a family get-together for most of the Christians. Some are still mourning their dearly departed. More than 8000 Christians are still in the relief camps. Thousands have fled in fear to other states away from their kith and kin. ‘No Christmas this year, children, we will have a grant celebration next year’- Christians started consoling their children.

However, Orissa Government thought otherwise. Christians should celebrate ‘Bodo Dino’ without fail. The BJP members of the coalition government of Orissa might have raised their eyebrows, I guess. However the chief minister was determined and acted manly. He ordered exquisite fool-proof security for the Christians and cautioned stringent action against any perpetrator of violence. From 20th December onwards, Kondhamal borders were sealed. Every vehicle, articles and persons were checked at entry and exit points. Special task forces were deployed. Kondhamal resembled a large airport in high alert in security measures.

So we had Christmas celebrations. Not many stars were put up as in the previous years. Not many decorations were to be seen. But still the spirit of Christmas was there in a deeper way. Prayers for peace directly came from the heart of babes and grown-ups alike. Masses were celebrated in roofless and burned down churches. I believe, Jesus who came in poverty had a befitting welcome. Christmas was celebrated in relief camps as well. Prayer meetings were conducted ecumenically. Bible reading, preaching, singing and praying brought all the children of God united in prayer forgetting all their denominational differences. The district administration had gone out of its way in preparing the camp venues for Christmas celebration with modest decorations. Children had new cloths and cakes. People at Raikia camps had even ‘Adishapitta’. All had little meat as well for Christmas dinner, thanks to Archbishop Raphael Cheenath SVD. The celebrations went on peacefully with nothing untoward happening.

I write this in profound gratitude for those who worked so hard to offer some solace to a bruised community by celebrating their Christmas. No accolade of appreciation can be adequate for their hard work without any rest from day one of their coming into Kondhamal scenario. These are officers of law and order in Kondhamal. It appears that they were not there when Kondhamal started burning. They are young and energetic, tirelessly working to re-establish the rule of law in Kondhamal which was thwarted by the rule of might. Law of the land is their gospel and its application without fear or favor is their way.

Hats off to their efforts of peace building, positive signs of peace returning to Kondhamal have appeared now. People on the ground have started blaming bad stars and outsiders for the catastrophe. A good many are returning to their broken or burned down homes to put together whatever is left and begin afresh their lives. They have started re-connecting with their neighbors with whom they broke away. At least some conversations are taking place between the torn apart communities.

Perhaps, the district administration deserves our highest praise for conducting a youth festival at Phulbani, the district head quarters of Kondhamal. About four thousand youth gathered for this event of two days, 22nd and 23rd December, 2008. A few cricket and film celebrities also graced the occasion much to the delight of the young. These are village youth possibly five each from every village of Kondhamal. Literally this turned out to be one of the best peace meeting and that too with the greatest reservoir of energy that can easily become volcanic if misguided. Great humanists spoke of peace and a violence-free society for growth and development and the youth listened carefully. Violence and the game of communal violence to serve vested interests and how it destroys human life were well drilled into their concrete heads. The young people were convinced about the need of peace for their own well being as well as of others. They got a role and an identity as peacemakers.

They would work for peace in their respective villages and report to the administration about the possibility of any occurrence of violence by any one having an itch for it.  They would also form groups to promote peace and harmony in their villages. Many NGOs and grass root level social workers are also involved in this program. The program is well designed to be followed up and spread out to the blocks and Panchayats and ultimately to the villages. This would usher in people’s movements not only for peace but also for growth and development if only it is not hijacked to serve political interests.

I met a Hindu young man who had participated in the program. He remarks “Gods do not fight among themselves and why should we fight in their name, father?”  I heard the same repeated in the sardine packed canter bus from two young women as I was returning after Christmas celebration in Kondhamal. Some good things are happening in Kondhamal soil away ‘from the madding crowd’.

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