Anti-Christian violence appears to be worsening in the eastern Indian state of Orissa with Hindu extremist groups ransacking churches, schools, health clinics and houses belonging to Christians. The violence has left at least 18 people dead and more than 20,000 homeless. VOA's Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Rudangia, about 300 kilometers west of Bhubaneswar, Orissa's capital.
Broken roof tiles and other debris is strewn across the floor of this demolished Christian primary school. Places like this are the front lines of a conflict that has engulfed hundreds of farming villages in these remote, mist-covered hills.
Ratna Naik and her husband fled the nearby village of Adaskupa during a Hindu attack two weeks ago. They have been staying in a crowded, squalid relief camp set up at a run-down high school in the town of Udaygiri, about 15 kilometers away.
"It was a big crowd, maybe more than 200 or 300," said Ratna Naik. "They are not only our village Hindus also there were included outside Hindus. Their demand is that if you want to stay in the village with us you have to become Hindu. Otherwise, we will kill you."
Her story is similar to thousands of others at this camp. In the Kandhamal district in Orissa, gangs of Hindu militants are carrying out attacks against Christians.
They have ransacked hundreds of churches, schools and health clinics run by Christian groups. They have looted and burned thousands of homes belonging to Christian families. Some here say they have witnessed the killing of family members and neighbors.
Indian authorities say the violence in Orissa has left at least 18 people dead and displaced as many as 20,000. Most of them are crowded into 14 government-run shelters in Kandhamal. Christian groups say the numbers of dead and displaced are much higher.
It is one of the worst episodes of Hindu-Christian violence in Orissa.
But the conflict's roots are less about faith than the more sanguine aspects of daily life in the region, says Hemanth Naik, no relation to Ratna. He runs a grassroots civil rights group, the Forum for Peace, in Kandhamal.
Persistent poverty and ethnic differences exploited by Hindu fundamentalists have played a big role, he says.
The two ethnic groups at the center of the conflict were once part of the same forest-dwelling tribe, known as the "Kui" people, who are traditionally animists - nature worshippers.
India's government divided them into two groups, the Kandhas and the Panas. The division, based largely on professions and poverty levels, was part of a well-meaning affirmative action program to absorb them into the mainstream, Naik says.
The Panas, the poorer of the two, were listed as Scheduled Caste, among the lowest rank in India's caste system. Often shunned by fellow Hindus, many Panas sought out schools and health clinics run by Christians.
Conservative Hindu groups bristled at the idea that Christian groups, largely funded by Western countries, were giving the lower-caste Panas an unfair advantage, Naik says.
"It was an egalitarian society," said Naik. "But in the process [of mainstreaming them] a sense of inequality and discrimination crept into that area. They want to keep these disadvantaged communities down. That is why this problem has come."
Politics also plays a powerful role, says a top minister for the ruling Congress Party, Ajay Maken, who recently visited a YMCA center in Bhubaneswar, Orissa's capital, where hundreds of families have sought shelter from the anti-Christian violence.
"The problem is that some people are trying to give it a communal color," said Ajay Maken. "Perhaps it is the same kind of experiment that was performed in Gujarat is being performed here. It is an election year."
The experiment that Maken refers to is the 2002 riots in Gujarat state in which 2,000 Muslims were massacred by Hindu mobs after a train fire killed 58 Hindus.
Government investigators ruled that the fire was accidental, but the incident galvanized Hindu support for Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, whose "get-tough" stance against Muslims catapulted him to top leadership in India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, the main opposition party.
The recent violence in Orissa, a state dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party, was sparked by the Aug. 23 killing of an 84-year-old Hindu spiritual leader who opposed the spread of Christianity in Orissa. Police say Maoist rebels killed him, but Hindu groups blamed Christians.
One of those Hindu groups is Vishnu Hindu Parishad, which has links to the Bharatiya Janata Party. One of their leaders is Milind Parande, who speaks by phone from outside Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka.
"Conversion is the biggest violence," said Vishnu Hindu Parishad. "It is generating all this reaction. A Hindu is a peaceful person. A Hindu does not believe in violence. But if you do an act and provoke him, then I do not know what will happen."
He says he is not against Christians, but opposes Christian groups that lure Hindus into converting with enticements such as better schools, health clinics, jobs and food. He says Hindus should be left alone.
But the conflict's complicated overlays of ethnicity and politics are little consolation to people like Ratna and her husband, a church pastor. Like thousands of others, they are too scared to return home.
"It will be heartbreaking pain," said Ratna. "No confidence will we have now. Because the brotherly love, [has been] burned. The trust, we do not have."
For now, Indian authorities fear that the anti-Christian violence could spread. During the weekend, Hindu gangs reportedly ransacked 12 Christian churches in Karnataka.