“She never sleeps in the car when we go for long drives. But that day, she told me, she slept soundly for nearly two hours. I was suspicious,” says Rinto Isaac, 29, about his wife Swetha Haridasan. Swetha, an Ayurveda doctor by profession, says she remembers being woken by her sister after their car entered the gates of the Sivasakthi Yogavidya Kendra in Kandanad, 15 km from Kochi, that July 30 day. The 28-year-old adds that she believed all along that they were going to the centre for her sister Neetha. “My family told me Neetha wanted to learn yoga,” says Swetha.
She remembers settling down in a big hall of the two-storey house, and meeting Sujith, one of the staff. Over the next hour though, there was little talk of yoga. Sujith instead talked about religion and inter-faith marriages. “I looked at my sister. She smiled. Everything was planned,” Swetha says.
For the next 20 days, she claims, she was confined and physically assaulted by the staff at the yoga centre in a bid to separate her from Rinto, her Christian boyfriend. The young doctor’s decision to file a police complaint against the centre in September has now encouraged at least four other women to come forward and claim to have been similarly coerced to leave their non-Hindu boyfriends or to alternatively marry Hindu men against their choice.
Following Swetha’s complaint, the local police started a probe and shut down the centre in Kandanad. Its officials, including chief K R Manoj, went on the run and later filed for anticipatory bail to avoid arrest. The case is currently being heard in the Kerala High Court, which has ordered that all centres conducting forced conversions or reconversions be shut down. Only the Kandanad centre, however, has been shut so far. The court also allowed two of the women, including Swetha, to go with their Christian partners.
*****On a hot October afternoon, the two-storey yellow house in Kandanad wears a deserted, haunted look, its view blocked by tall banana plantains. The path leading to its gates has been overrun by dry leaves and weeds. The Sivasakthi yoga centre, run by the Arsha Vidya Samajam, had been functioning from this house for two years. The house is owned by two sisters, one of whom stays nearby. The local police say before Swetha’s case, they had received no complaints regarding it.
The Arsha Vidya Samajam was registered in 2008-09, with the aim of holding classes on spirituality, religion and yoga. Chief K R Manoj used to work as a sub-editor at a local Malayalam daily, and later ran a magazine called Vijnanabharathi, on yoga, temples and religion.
An official of the Samajam, who did not want to be identified, told The Sunday Express it runs on donations, has been active for over a decade and organises classes on yoga, Sanatan Dharma, comparative religion and spirituality. Their latest centre, in Thiruvananthapuram, was inaugurated by S Athira, a woman who re-converted to Hinduism from Islam reportedly with the aid of the Samajam staff.
Denying the charges against the Samajam, the official says, “The complainants have the same script. In this day and age, can you forcibly get someone to marry?… We are not against love marriages. (But) we feel that children today should decide their future without upsetting their parents. We have seen the tears of a lot of parents.”
In an email statement to The Sunday Express, in Malayalam, the Samajam termed the charges against it “Goebbelsian untruths”, calling it an attempt to dismantle the institution. While it admitted that the women who have filed the complaints were inmates, it said that the charges of torture and physical abuse were false.
“People involved in religious conversions have only recently understood the truth, that the Arsha Vidya Samajam has brought back thousands of willing people into Sanatan Dharma through verbal discourse,” it said. The centre cited the “re-conversions” of V K Athira, a resident of Cherupulassery, as well as S Athira, a resident of Palakkunnu, from Islam, through such verbal discourses.
Sreeja Babu, a panchayat ward member in the neighbourhood, was among the first people to enter the Kandanad house after Swetha’s complaint became public. An Independent who won with LDF help, she says that when she went into the centre, “There were around 27 people, mostly women. Mattresses were piled up in a corner. Some women, as if they were tutored, said they faced no problems. Some girls were crying.”
Sreeja adds, “What I want to know is what happened to the girls who left? Did they go back with their parents? Or were they transferred to another centre? There should be a thorough probe into this.” Police only say the girls were “sent back”, including with parents, while the Samajam insists the women did not want to leave.
Belonging to a Hindu Nair family from Payyanur in Kannur district, Swetha first met Rinto, a photographer, when she started working as a doctor in Thrissur in 2013. “He stayed near my friend’s house, where I used to live,” says Swetha, visibly blushing when asked about the first days of their courtship. By 2015, they had started dating, much to the dismay of Swetha’s parents. “My parents would threaten to drink poison when I talked about marrying him. They forced me to resign and called me home,” she says.
In October 2016, sensing that she would elope with Rinto, Swetha’s parents Haridasan, a retired Army captain, and Ranjini fixed her engagement to a Hindu man, and allegedly forcefully registered their marriage at a local panchayat office. With marriage rituals still to take place, Swetha says she eloped with Rinto and exchanged garlands at a temple in Thrissur on November 8, 2016. “We couldn’t register our wedding under the Special Marriages Act as her earlier marriage had to be nullified,” adds Rinto.
For the next eight months, Swetha and Rinto say, they lived together at a rented house in Thrissur without any opposition from her parents. Rinto’s family, though initially lukewarm, had no major objection. “I would often go home to Kannur and stay for 10-15 days. Even Rinto came at times. My parents were nice to him. We thought their issues were resolved,” says Swetha.
On July 5 this year, a family court in Kannur nullified Swetha’s earlier marriage. A few days later, before Swetha and Rinto could get their marriage registered, Swetha’s sister Neetha held a housewarming. “It was in Muvattupuzha near Kochi. After the ceremony, my parents, and my sister and her husband, made a plan to go to Kochi’s Lulu Mall, and then to the yoga centre. Neetha said she wanted to learn yoga. It was a drive of two hours, and I fell asleep,” Swetha says.
Rinto suspects she may have been sedated. Swetha claims other women at the centre told her of feeling similarly drowsy on the way to the centre. Swetha believes her family had hatched the plan for over two months, and had enrolled her for ‘counselling classes’ at the Sivasakthi Yogavidya Kendra for Rs 20,000, in return for its promise to “get her back”.
After taking her to the centre, Swetha says, all her family members left except her mother. Ranjini reportedly stayed for two more days. Swetha claims that every time she was “beaten”, Ranjini would first be taken away to one of the upper floors. On Ranjini’s claim of having been with Swetha all through her 20 days at the centre, Swetha says she was saying it to save the staff.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, Ranjini repeats the claim. “I stayed with my daughter throughout the counselling, and did not notice anything untoward as alleged by my daughter. There is some other agenda behind this allegation.” On Rinto, she earlier told The Indian Express, “We are against the marriage, but not because he is a Christian. He is not educated and doesn’t have a job.” Rinto’s parents refused to talk.
Describing how she was “tortured”, Swetha says, “There were at least 50-60 people (at the centre), many of them women. On the first day, they asked me, ‘Entha thirumanam (What’s your decision)?’. I told them I would go with Rinto. When I tried to call him, they snatched my phone. Then, one woman slapped me. They put on loud music and tied my hands and legs. When I shouted, they stuffed cloth in my mouth.”
She alleges that K R Manoj, who is currently out on anticipatory bail, too beat her up when she told him that she didn’t care if her children with Rinto were brought up as Christian. “When I tried to run, they pulled me and my clothes were torn,” she says.
A day at the centre started at 4.30 am, with yoga classes by an instructor followed by loud Hindu prayers to the accompaniment of chenda (a percussion instrument). Swetha speaks of classes on Hindu religion, with hate speeches on Islam and Christianity. She claims the centre’s officials threatened her that if she did not heed their demands, Rinto would be “finished off”. “Every day, new women would come. There were some who had lived there for five-six months. They automatically became the staff there,” alleges Swetha.
In its statement, the Samajam said, “Not even a single inmate out of nearly 40 people who were there have complained about the centre or K R Manoj. In spite of questioning by police and social workers, they did not complain of being tortured or illegally confined. When police forcibly sent some of the inmates home, they cried and told us they would return?”
In the days she was at the Kandanad centre, Rinto ran around frantically trying to find Swetha. He says he called her home several times but nobody picked up. When he finally confronted her father, the latter told him sternly that she was under Ayurveda treatment, and told him not to call again. A week after Swetha went missing, Rinto filed a habeas corpus petition.
Swetha was let out finally on August 21, after the yoga centre was reportedly convinced she would marry a Hindu. Swetha says she went to Neetha’s house. Twenty-two days later, by when her family had slightly lowered its guard, she escaped to Rinto’s home and subsequently filed a police complaint against the yoga centre. She also appeared before the Kerala High Court, where Rinto had filed the habeas corpus petition. It sent her back with him.
Five days after Swetha’s police complaint, Sruthi Meledath, another woman from Kannur, came before police with similar allegations of torture, wrongful confinement and inducement to marriage. Sruthi accused her parents of forcing her to stay at the yoga centre for nearly two months to break her relationship with Anees Hameed.
Prof Devika J, faculty at the Centre for Development Studies, points out that conversions in Kerala, especially of Dalits to Islam and Christianity, are not new. “After the Malabar Rebellion in 1921, the Arya Samaj and Sanatan Hindu outfits started appearing in Malabar to defend Hinduism from Islam and so on. That’s when we saw classic reconversion appearing in Malabar for the first time.”
According to her, reconversion centres too have existed for long, but “the process has been silent”. “It’s only now that it has become serious… I don’t think the kind of violence that has been reported from the Kandanad yoga centre has a precedence.”
One of the names that frequently comes up during television news debates and public forums on reconversions in Kerala is the ‘Hindu Helpline’, set up by the VHP in 2010 for Hindus needing legal or religious assistance. Headed by Pratheesh Viswanath, a key aide of Praveen Togadia, who is said to have played an important role in the police raid on Kerala House in Delhi in 2015 after beef rumours, Hindu Helpline’s volunteers bring parents of children, who have converted or married outside the faith, in contact with reconversion centres. Viswanath, himself a lawyer, provides legal aid to the yoga centre.
The VHP office in Kochi claims that the organisation has “nothing to do” with the Helpline, and that it is a separate entity. Recently, there were reports of differences between VHP state officials and its national leadership and Viswanath. Earlier this year, the VHP state unit had unanimously boycotted an event of the Hindu Helpline, attended by Viswanath and Togadia.
Some people associated with the Samajam say the nature of the organisation has changed due to its association with Hindu Helpline. One of them, Krishnakumar A V, who worked with the Samajam between 2004 and 2014, has submitted a sworn affidavit in the High Court attesting to physical and mental torture of young women at the yoga centre.
Krishnakumar told The Sunday Express, “When we started out, there were only classes on yoga and spirituality. But yoga took a backseat after the centre began developing links with the Helpline. Religious counselling began. I was not a part of those activities. I just collected funds and pasted notices.”
A Samajam official says Krishnakumar is “lying” as he is angry over being asked to leave after two women accused him of harassment. In a statement on Krishnakumar, the Samajam said: “We are ready to face any investigation by any agency, including the NIA, as we believe in God, the truth and the justice system.”
Krishnakumar calls the case against him fake, and claims Manoj also ensured he lost a job at a private company. That influence pervades to the police force and sections of the government as well, alleges Advocate A Rajasimhan, pleading for Rinto in the High Court. “Where is the high-level investigation promised into the centre? A sub-inspector is investigating. The accused have not been identified. They have not even been questioned yet,” says Rajasimhan. “That’s why I say the State is pseudo-secular.”
Police officials argue that FIRs against yoga centre officials were registered the same day as Swetha’s complaint, and that the premises were searched for evidence. Sreejesh, one of the counsellors, spent a few days in jail, police say. They decline to talk about the yoga centre’s “connections”.
An official, however, concedes that the case may not go too far, saying the charges against the accused are “weak” because there are no eyewitnesses. Shijin, a sub-inspector at the Udayamperoor police station, told The Sunday Express a chargesheet would be submitted soon.
Anees Hameed and Rinto Isaac may have got their wives back, but a sense of fear still pervades. “She (Sruthi) is scared that they may do something to me. Our privacy is gone. We are even scared to go outside together,” says Hameed, who was allowed by the High Court last month to live with his wife.
After she was taken to the yoga centre, Hameed says, Sruthi’s parents went missing. Over the next 55 days he spent looking for her, Hameed first lodged a missing complaint, and then, like Rinto, filed a habeas corpus petition in the high court.
Rinto calls for a law to give protection to couples of inter-faith marriages. Pointing out that he asked the local police for security, he says, “The Constitution supports the right to marriage irrespective of religion… Kerala is entering a set-up where couples of different faiths who want to marry have to get a certificate from people like Manoj.”
Rinto and Swetha say what they like about each other is their respective “supportive natures”. “I have not run around as much as he has. It is only because of him that this issue has come out in the open,” says Swetha. Hameed says all he and Sruthi ever wanted was to “lead a simple life”.
That is unlikely, for now.