In the sugarcane belt, where the sickle is used for a livelihood, men with beer bottles and iron daggers came from across the state’s border and disrupted a Bible prayer meet on Sunday, leaving eight persons seriously injured. While three are being treated for head injuries at a medical facility in Belgaum, five others suffered fractures.
At the border village of Kowad, in Kolhapur in eastern Maharashtra, a police van is parked on the Dundge road, identifying the home of Bhimsen and Swati Chavan, a Hindu couple who call themselves “believers” and “healers”, and whose rented house was the target of the unidentified men who attacked the “worshippers” gathered there.
“The intention was to disturb the Sunday prayer. This phenomenon is communal and is increasingly coming towards us from Belgaum side. There are several radical groups operating in the pockets in between, and they seem to have used this prayer meet as a target to increase their importance,” says Kolhapur SP Abhinav Deshmukh.
“The couple are not claiming to be Christians, and they have been organising these prayer sessions for a decade. Frankly, in our intelligence reports too, there is no opposition to them or any ill feelings from the villagers,” he says.
The last such attack in this region was in 2016, when a house in Karve village in Kolhapur was raided by unidentified men who alleged that the people were converting Dalits to Christianity.
While the police probe and eyewitness accounts seem to hint at a planned, targeted attack, the Chavans say they were unaware. At least one villager says they were warned, but refused to “shut their prayer hall”. Deshmukh says CCTV footage has been able to establish the identity of a few suspects and the teams have now fanned out to get them. “We have identified the group,” he says.
At the Chavans’ home, the extended family has come to give them support. “We were facing the wall, with our eyes closed, echoing the words of the Bible, when we heard a commotion at the back, from the door. In a matter of minutes, men with their faces covered, armed with iron rods and daggers, were attacking the gathered worshippers,” recalls Swati, 33.
The police recorded the attack at 11.45 am, with at least 16 attackers on eight motorcycles. Swati says the attackers first targeted the chairs outside. “They then broke beer bottles on the door so that nobody could escape. I noticed many were wearing jackets, like the ones used by bikers who travel long distances,” she says.
The villagers later found that the attackers had taken the bamboos lying around the house, and laid them on the road outside to ensure that no vehicles followed them. Outside, the villagers, both men and women, walk with sickles as they cut the sugarcane crop, which has seen a good season. The village is dominated by Marathas, with stickers of Shivaji on bikes and walls of shops, and has an equal number of Muslims living in the periphery.
The lone Christian family in the village has a crib and Christmas lights. A villager says the bikers initially came to their lane, but couldn’t proceed further because of a Hindu procession of a local deity. The Chavans, who earlier lived in Pune, shifted to Kowad after they got married 18 years ago. While Swati says she got attracted to the Bible after she lost her parents, for Bhimsen it was the “power of healing” — he says his father healed miraculously from a kidney ailment. “The Constitution allows us to choose our faith. They allege that we are into conversion. We call it bhakti,” says Bhimsen.
While the Chavans have retained their birth names in the FIR, the villagers refer to Bhimsen as Joseph. The couple deny that they have ever converted anyone, and say the prayer meet attracts mostly the poor, who suffer from HIV or any other ailment.
“We do not heal them. We encourage them to reach a mental state where they will consume medicines again. They call us healers and our Sunday prayer meet gets villagers from Kovad, Teurwadi, Chinchari. The word spreads. I don’t know why we would be a target for anyone,” says Bhimsen.
On Sunday, the attackers failed against the “village intelligence” of Bhimsen’s mother, Yallawa, who grabbed the first weapon she could find — a box of chilli powder. Four teams of Kolhapur police, along with the local CID unit, have now made the road grids their first evidence, as they probe the routes the bikers could have taken. While the Dundge road leads to four exits, with two ending in NH-4 and the other two linking to Belgaum, the police are looking for any evidence that could help nab the suspects. According to the FIR, the attackers went “east”.
Swati, meanwhile, is worried about the Sunday prayer gathering. “This whole week, we are praying that we can have the Sunday prayer running again,” she says.