Police detained seven children for a week and two adults for ten days after Hindu extremists attacked a group of Christians travelling to a youth Bible conference by train. Police charged the adults with kidnapping and forcible conversion.
The photo shows a mother trying to comfort her crying daughter at the railway police station in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, before they were separated. The extremists beat parents who tried to regain custody of their children.
On 23 October, Anita Francis (50) and her daughter Sophia Francis (19) went to the railway station in Indore to take the Avantika Express for Mumbai with seven children – four boys aged 5, 13, 17 and 17, and three girls aged 5, 12 and 13. The children are relatives of Anita Francis, living in the same colony (where nearly 80 per cent of residents are Christians), and she had parental permission to take them to the annual Bible study conference for young people from all over India.
They boarded the train and had taken their seats when a mob of extremists from the Hindu nationalist organisation Hindu Jagran Manch entered their compartment and forced them off the train. The organisation is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS (National Volunteers’ Organisation), the Hindu nationalist parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The extremists asked Anita Francis how much money they had received to convert the children to Christianity, according to her nephew Alex Matera (19), who had come to see them off with his father, Anita’s brother Amrit Kumar Matera (52).
Alex told Morning Star News that he tried explaining that all the passengers were baptised Christians going to a Bible study conference as they do every year. He said, “They gathered the children from where they were seated and collected them all at one place, interrogating and intimidating Anita without even giving her the chance to reply. The children were pushed and pulled in the most ruthless manner… We don’t know how these people got to know about the travel plans. They alleged we convert children forcibly.”
The Hindu extremists called the media to witness the alleged “kidnapping” of the children. Amrit said, “There was a mob waiting at the platform with media persons clicking pictures, recording videos and asking all kinds of questions. The presence of the media and the crowd was evidence enough that the Christians were ambushed with a well-planned strategy.”
The extremists verbally abused Anita, beat Amrit, Alex and the three older boys (beating the 13-year-old so severely that his leg became swollen) and dragged the Christians to the Government Railway Police station.
“They tried to force us to hail Hindu gods,” said Amrit, “and when we did not, they beat us. They intimidated the children to repeat the slogans or else face the beating. The 5-year-old boy and girl were made to chant the slogan, ‘Hail lord Ram’ repeatedly. We felt so helpless as they intimidated the little children before our eyes, and we could do nothing to help them.”
Anita had telephoned the children’s parents, who hurried to the railway police station, where the extremists assaulted them too, while police watched. Dennis Michael, father of sons Priyal (17) and Harsh (13) and daughter Anushka (12), already had a broken leg from an accident, and the extremists repeatedly struck his broken leg with their boots.
The police released Sophie and Alex at 11 pm but kept Anita and Amrit in custody, charged them with serious crimes (including kidnapping, forcible conversion and trafficking of minors*) and sent them to Indore’s Musa Khedi Jail.
After some initial contact, parents who arrived at the police station were not allowed to see their children. Anita’s relative Tanna Machado, who came to the railway station after Anita called her, said: “What was inhuman was that the children were not allowed to use the restrooms since the time they were detained until 7 pm at night. They were neither given anything to eat until late night.”
The children were taken away – the girls to a shelter near the station; the boys to a children’s home on the outskirts of the city. Parents were not told where their children had been taken and were not allowed to see or speak with them in the week that followed.
Dennis Michael filed for habeas corpus on behalf of all the parents at the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court (pictured). The petition claimed the attack was politically motivated and stated, “The constitutional rights of the petitioners have been imperiled by illegal detention of their children without any reason.”
At the habeas corpus petition hearing on 30 October, the court asked each child whose custody they would like to return to. All said they would like to return to their parents. The court ordered that they be handed to their parents immediately and asked the home secretary and the officer in charge of Indore Government Railway Police station to file a report.
The Indian Express reported that the families had not returned to their homes out of fear. Dennis Michael, speaking from an undisclosed location, said: “All these days I was moving around dazed looking for my children. Now that we have got their custody, we are too scared to return.”
Adults released on bail
On 3 November, Anita and Amrit were released on bail after their lawyer submitted the high court’s habeas corpus ruling and supporting affidavits from the parents in the sessions court. (The photo shows friends and neighbours waiting for them to be released.)
The charges remain and the accused are trying to cope with the stigma of having been jailed for ten days. Anita is a well-respected retired teacher, while Amrit has taught at St Arnold School, Vijay Nagar, Indore, for 21 years. “I have not gone back to the school,” he said. “It is embarrassing to answer questions about my jail stay.”
On 17 November, Madhya Pradesh High Court ordered an investigation into the case against Anita and Amrit and into the allegations that the children were assaulted by Hindu Jagran Manch activists. The allegations were made by the parents in the writ petition and by the children in open court. The court reprimanded the railway police and asked the SHO to hand over case records.
The court stated, “The conduct of the SHO, Police Station, GRP Indore, in not handing over the custody of the children to their parents when they were brought to the railway station raises various doubts over his way of functioning and discharge of duties as SHO. Once the documents were shown to him by the parents and the children wanted to go with their parents, this court really does not know what prevented the SHO from handing over the children to their parents.”
Previous cases of children detained
The Indore case echoes an incident in May 2017, also in Madhya Pradesh, when the authorities detained 72 children on their way to a Bible camp. Police took the children off a train at Ratlam railway station and sent them to a shelter home following activists’ allegations of forcible conversion.
Rev Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, commented, “Earlier as well, in 2015, there have been cases wherein a child as young as eight months old was detained with the mother on charges of conversion. We also recorded an incident wherein a family of four from Bhopal was arrested near Chhindwara on alleged conversion charges, and children were separated from parents and kept in separate jails which were over 150 kilometers apart.”
He said law enforcement agencies are under pressure from non-state political actors, “and go the extra mile to placate them, while Christians pay the price. This must stop, and the chief minister must intervene to restore confidence among the Christian community.”
Madhya Pradesh is one of eight Indian states that have passed anti-conversion laws. Officially called “Freedom of Religion” laws, they are intended to stop Hindus converting to other religions but extremists use them as an excuse to accuse Christians of “forcible conversion” of Hindus.
(Indian Express/Morning Star News/Scroll)
* The police charged Amrit Kumar Matera and Anita Francis with: kidnapping, punishable by up to seven years in prison and/or a fine; forcible conversion, punishable by up to two years in prison and/or a fine; trafficking of minors, punishable by 14 years to life in prison; crime with common intention; insulting the religion of any class, punishable by up to three years and/or a fine; obscene acts or songs, punishable by prison up to three months and/or a fine; voluntarily causing grievous hurt, punishable by up to seven years in prison; mischief by destroying or moving a landmark fixed by public authority, punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a fine; and sexual harassment. Later, Amrit Kumar Matera was also charged under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act.
Church in Chains has written to the Indian Ambassador requesting a meeting to discuss this incident and other attacks on Christians in India.