New Delhi, Oct.13 : India, the world's most populous democracy and officially a secular nation, is today haunted by a stark assault on one of its fundamental freedoms.
In Orissa, which has been riven by six weeks of religious clashes, Christian families like the Digals say they are being forced to abandon their faith in exchange for their safety.
A New York Times report says that these forced conversions come amid widening attacks on Christians here and in at least five other states across the country, as India prepares for national elections next spring.
The clash of faiths has cut a wide swath of panic and destruction through the once quiet hamlets fed by paddy fields and jackfruit trees.
In Kandhamal district that has seen the greatest violence, more than 30 people have been killed, 3,000 homes burned and over 130 churches destroyed, including the tin-roofed Baptist prayer hall where the Digals worshiped.
Today it is a heap of rubble on an empty field, where cows blithely graze.
Across this ghastly terrain lie the singed remains of mud-and-thatch homes. Christian-owned businesses have been systematically attacked. Orange flags (orange is the sacred color of Hinduism) flutter triumphantly above the rooftops of houses and storefronts.
India is no stranger to religious violence between Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the population, and India's Hindu-majority of 1.1 billion people. But this most recent spasm is the most intense in years, claims the paper.
The police have blamed Maoist guerrillas for the swami's killing. But Hindu radicals continue to hold Christians responsible.
In recent weeks, they have plastered these villages with gruesome posters of the swami's hacked corpse. "Who killed him?" the posters ask. "What is the solution?"
Behind the clashes are long-simmering tensions between equally impoverished groups: the Panas and Kandhas. Both original inhabitants of the land, the two groups for ages worshiped the same gods. Over the past several decades, the Panas for the most part became Christian, as Roman Catholic and Baptist missionaries arrived here more than 60 years ago, followed more recently by Pentecostals, who have proselytized more aggressively.
Meanwhile, the Kandhas, in part through the teachings of Swami Laxmanananda, embraced Hinduism. The men tied the sacred Hindu white thread around their torsos; their wives daubed their foreheads with bright red vermilion. Temples sprouted.
Hate has been fed by economic tensions as well, as the government has categorized each group differently and given them different privileges.
The Kandhas accused the Panas of cheating to obtain coveted quotas for government jobs. The Christian Panas, in turn, say their neighbors have become resentful as they have educated themselves and prospered.
Their grievances have erupted in sporadic clashes over the past 15 years, but they have exploded with a fury since the killing of Swami Laxmanananda.