Project Koraput: Conversation with Debendra Singh

by Jen Saffron March 20, 2012

Debendra Singh is an Indian Christian minister in Jeypore, Orissa State, India. He works as a grassroots leader, empowering the poor in one of the poorest states in India and pastoring three congregations, including a faith community comprised entirely of refugees – the Koraput Survivors – who survived sectarian violence in their village in 2008.  This interview took place in Jeypore on March 19, 2012.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

JS:  The last Indian census claims that approximately 3% – 5% of Indians are Christian.  Although the caste system was outlawed, it is still required to list one’s caste with your state government and since the Orissa anti-conversion laws, it’s also illegal to convert to Christianity.  You, yourself, are Dalit caste – an “untouchable”and an Indian Christian since birth.  Although a Dalit, K. R. Narayanan, was elected India’s 10th President in 1997 and in reality there are 160 million Indians, like the Koraput Survivors, living as “untouchables” under harsh, legal discrimination and social marginalization. Indian Christians also suffer discrimination laws and sectarian violence.  This is an ingrained, corrupt system, based on inequality.  What is your hope for social change and how can you operate within this kind of reality, given your post?

DS:  We need freedom of religion, and to get that we need Christian lawyers to stand against unjust laws.  Not all of the states have anti-conversion laws. In Orissa, where RSS (Hindu fundamentalist sect) is growing, some want to finish the Christian religion by threatening people to convert back to Hinduism. This is totally related to the caste system and social control, not really even religion.  Laws exist that bar Christian children from educational rights, state benefits, and so on.  The hope is that we have the will to legally fight for the discrimination laws to change by getting our own lawyers.  For example, because of a Christian lawyer, we were able to purchase this piece of land from a Hindu man to relocate the Koraput Survivors.  The lawyer knows the law, and people in the community will keep their mouths shut because this transaction has been done in legal fashion, with the lawyer by my side, and the lawyer has something at stake, too in not being corrupt because I would blow the whistle.God has given us the wisdom to think, and to fight for justice –I cannot keep quiet.

JS:  This reminds me a lot of the kind of work of the US Civil Rights movement. Although racism still exists, it seemed impossible that the Jim Crow system would ever end. Since there are backlashes to every movement, what’s to say that the Koraput Survivors rebuild and then violence returns?

DS: Wherever, people will do violence if they want to, and we have to stand.  In 2008, 3,000 people came to Jeypore to attack Christians, but we stood strong, facing the RSS from about 25 yards off. We did not flee to the jungle, rather we stood strong together, about the same number of Christians as RSS – we lined the road, some with sticks.  If we would have run away, we would have been chased and killed.  We were saved by a big rain- people scattered, then gunfire between the RSS and the police.  Later we couldn’t leave our houses for nine days, but the police supported us.   In Talagumandi, they had no hope to stand together as they were ambushed, just a few hundred Christians in a remote village with no one to support them. Now they will live peacefully, moving to land outside Jeypore, and I am there to stand for them.

JS: So, the Koraput Survivors will move to land adjacent to Nandaguda village, and you will combine not only villages but churches.  Right now, communities worldwide are combining, especially in the developing world where refugees from movements and civil unrest integrate into established populations.  There are many populations in Orissa,with a complex collective history.  In addition to Hindu fundamentalist violence, armed Maoist revolutionaries are living deep in the forest, and Indian tribals exploited in favor of corporate land projects.  In fact, while we’ve been here, two Italian tourists were taken hostage by the Maoist revolutionaries, not far from Jeypore. So, combining a downtrodden group of Christian refugees with an established community creates a real test.  You’re one guy, taking a stand for this group of a few hundred landless people living on the complete margins of a corrupt society.  What are your fears and challenges?

DS:   I started by talking with the Nandaguda people – about 200 people came to the church to talk – I want all the questions to have answers, and they mostly wanted to know, “Are these good people?”  They are living peacefully in the village and shared their trust in me to take the position to mediate with the people in the Koraput camp, negotiating peace between these two communities. First of all, my fear is that if our Koraput survivors, while they chose to stay together as a strong group, may not cooperate with Nandaguda villagers. Then, our Nandaguda people might blame me – why have you brought these kind of people to this village, people with problems?  Nobody can say that everyone is perfect, but if someone has bad behavior, they will blame me.  So, I hope we can encourage good integration through grassroots work. For example, supporting economic growth by encouraging microloans for small businesses will help the survivors prosper.  Also, working out a government pension for the elderly – right now they get the equivalent of $4 a month. Socially I believe the survivors will see people they would like to emulate, like educated people, and they will want to get their own education.  From the infrastructure side, we will get a paved road when the numbers in Nandaguda rise, and two bore wells.   And, now it’s only primary school, but when more people come, they will build a high school.  They will have to raise the standards. We have been working in Nandaguda since 2001, so this will take time – it’s a big dream.

Photo by Lynn Johnson, 2012

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.