FOR THE 60 children from the impoverished tribal district of Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, the five-day summer camp in Nagpur was over even before it had begun. For those who accompanied them, the ordeal is far from over. Dogged by charges of attempts to proselytise, four of them, including a minor, are still lodged in prison.
The group, on its way to Nagpur, had set off on a local train from Meghnagar in western Madhya Pradesh on May 21. They were to reach Ratlam, some 90 km away, on the same day, from where they were to take a bus to the Maharashtra town.
Ratlam is as far as they got, as the police, with right-wing activists in tow, rounded up the children and those accompanying them at the town’s railway station.
In the hours of confusion that followed, aggravated by pressure from the activists, police concluded that the 60 were being “kidnapped for religious conversion,” and detained six people in the group, including two women and the minor, on suspicion of facilitating the kidnapping.
While the children were then shuttled between shelter homes over the next two days before being reunited with their parents, those detained were charged under sections 363 (kidnapping) and 34 (criminal act committed by several people) of the IPC, sections 3 and 4 of the MP Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, and the non-bailable Section 84 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015.
In the three weeks that have followed, the two women have secured bail, while the three men and the minor, are still in jail in Ratlam, 294 km from capital Bhopal.
Parents have been left wondering why those they had entrusted their children with are continuing to be punished.
Police have refused to drop the charges even after the father of Nilesh Damor, 14, on whose complaint they lodged the FIR on the grounds that “he was not aware of where he was being taken,” claimed that his son may have been coerced into giving such a statement. Much like the other parents, Damor’s father, Nana, says he clearly told police that he knew where his son and daughter Jyoti were going.
When The Sunday Express travelled to several villages near Jhabua and spoke to the families of over 20 of the children, it found that not only had the parents given their consent for the jaunt, but some of those arrested were in fact accompanying their own relatives. All of them are members of churches belonging to various Protestant denominations.
Lalu Bhabor was with his sons and young sister-in-law, Kamla, 15, when police picked him up. While the children — Abhishek, 6, and Shyam, 5 — and Kamla have returned home, he continues to remain in jail. His wife, Shyama, insists that all those with her husband on the day were Christians. “How can we convert those who already follow our faith? My children were to attend the event that included playing and reading. We are all believers. We all keep and read the Bible and believe in Jesus Christ,” says Shyama, adding that the children keep asking for their father. Shyama though has visited him just once since he was jailed as Ratlam is over 100 km from the family’s home at Amli Falia village in Jhabua, and she can’t afford the trip. “I have no idea how long he’ll be in jail,” she adds.
Pastor Hatesingh Gundia is still in Ratlam, hoping to secure the release of his minor son, who was with his younger sister, Sharon, 12, when he was arrested. “How can a child be accused of religious conversion? He was produced before a juvenile court because they claimed he was one of those taking the children. He was crying when my husband met him. If we had taken Hindu children, would we have been accused of anything?” asks his mother Dali. She adds that when police visited them at their home in Jhabua, the family pointed to the fact that Gundia was himself a pastor, to emphasise that they were indeed Christian, and had permitted the children to go on the excursion. “One policeman instead accused us of selling our children,’’ she alleges.
Sharmila Damor, 24, who was travelling with two of her nieces, is among the two women to get bail. She says some of the passengers’ attention was drawn to the Om tattoo on her right hand, which she got when she was in Class 3. “They thought I was being taken against my wishes but when I asserted that I was among the caretakers, I was made an accused,” alleges Sharmila, adding that she was accused of being part of a kidney smuggling racket and of exploiting children. She says the trouble began when a passenger began shooting a video. “Àfter one man made a video, they all began making videos. No one was ready to listen to us. I told the police not to add the anti-conversion charges but they did not listen. I was finally out of jail on May 30,’’ she says.
“A man sporting a tilak, some media people and police officers kept questioning us. I told them we were going on a picnic and that our parents knew about it,” says Shalomi, 12, who was on the train with her sister Beula, 10. Their father, Pastor Dhoomsingh Bariya, 37, of the local parish in Jhabua, says he rushed to Ratlam at 1 am on May 22. “I told the police that they were my daughters. The charges of kidnapping and forced conversion are plain lies. Did any parent lodge a missing complaint? No one did, because all the parents knew where their children were headed,” Bariya says.
Like Bariya, Kamlesh Bamniya of Umariya village says he too was surprised when he learnt that his three children were with police. “I called late into the night to know how their journey was progressing and was shocked to learn that police had detained them. We told them we are Christian but they did not budge,’’ says Kamlesh, whose family owns over 25 bigha of land and a jeep he drives as a taxi. He adds that his three children — Ajay, 11, Payal, 9, and Shiva, 8 — have attended similar camps in Ujjain and Indore.
Pastor Bariya says he had handed over consent letters for his children, but police and right-wing activists dispute the claim, saying that when they intervened at Ratlam, the caretakers were neither carrying a list nor had consent letters from the parents.
Investigating officer, Inspector Abhishek Gautam of the Ratlam police station, says not all parents knew where their children were being taken. “Some parents may have been aware of the camp but there were some who were not,” he says, adding that the accused were booked under the stringent provisions, to ensure that they were not released on bail. Pointing to the fact that the district court had rejected the bail pleas of four of the accused, Gautam says that this is proof enough that the charges had not been falsely levelled.
Police also insist that none of the families provided proof that they had converted to Christianity. If they still write tribal names, how can they be Christians, said one official.
Ratlam-based RSS leader Dr Ratnadeep Nigam says the action was a result of “increased awareness on the conversion being carried out by missionaries” as the BJP was in power both at the Centre and in several states. “They would earlier get away with it, not anymore,’’ he says.