Christian Activist Accused of Converting Hindu Sex Workers

Monday, January 19, 2004

Brothel keepers, Hindu fundamentalists protest effort to rescue child prostitutes.
by Vishal Arora

DELHI, January 19 (Compass) -- Anson Thomas, a Christian activist who has rescued scores of minors working as prostitutes in Mumbai, India, was recently accused of “unlawfully converting” Hindu commercial sex workers. Owners of Jamuna Mansion, one of the largest brothels in Mumbai, made the accusations.

Thomas has so far rescued 84 girls of minor age -- 18 or younger -- by organizing raids on the brothels.

Brothel owners claim Thomas has misused his status as a social activist to forcibly convert Hindu sex workers. On December 30, police sent a notice to Thomas warning him to refrain from giving Hindu prostitutes Bibles and delivering sermons.

When a report of the Jamuna Mansion allegations was released in the leading national daily Times of India, activists from the Mumbai unit of the Hindu political party Shiv Sena gathered outside the local police station to protest Thomas’ activities.

“Mr. Thomas is indulging in unlawful acts which could lead to religious and social trouble,” said Nawal Najaj, a deputy commissioner of police in Mumbai.

“The issue of conversion is very emotive and could be misused by any person to trigger off a law-and-order situation. We just want him to be safe and so we have cautioned him,” Najaj added.

Thomas, however, denies the allegations, saying this is simply a ploy by brothel owners to keep him away from their businesses. “I suspect a strong connection exists between local politicians and brothel-keepers,” Thomas told Compass. “These politicians are misusing their influence to protect the sex trade.

“They get their share of money from the brothel. And the police also get a share for not taking any action against the illegal trade.”

The sex trade in India is booming despite the provisions of the Immoral Trafficking and Prevention Act of 1986. Experts say the total number of prostitutes in India is close to eight million. Of these, 15 percent or 1.2 million are children and adolescents.

Mumbai is just one of many Indian cities where minor girls are bought for as little as 50,000 rupees ($1,100). The girls are then used as sex slaves by the brothel owners. Balkrishna Acharya of the Rescue Foundation, an organization also involved in rescuing minors from prostitution, said that brothel owners make a return of over 2,300,000 rupees ($50,550) for each girl within five or six years of purchase.

“There are 85 rooms in (Jamuna Mansion) and the monthly share called ‘hafta’ that goes to the police is over 125,000 rupees ($2,747),” Thomas said. “By falsely giving a religious angle to my work, they are trying to stop me from organizing raids to rescue minor girls and those who are forced into the trade.”

Abraham Mathai, vice-chairperson of the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission, confirmed that police seem to benefit from the operation of the brothels. “Instead of appreciating Mr. Thomas' efforts, the local police seem to be taking orders from the brothel-keepers. The idea is to restrain Mr. Thomas so that everything continues as it is,” said Mathai.

Acharya says police could close the brothels at any time. “If the police want, they can bring about a closure of all such activities. There is sufficient provision in the Immoral Trafficking Act to close the places where minors are being exploited for sex. However, I cannot think of one place which has been closed by the police.”

Commenting on the accusations of “conversion”, Thomas told Compass, “As a Christian, I give them Bibles and help them rehabilitate. So as Hindus, why don’t they give them their religious scripture?

“If they were concerned about them, they would not allow the minor girls to be raped in the brothel regularly,” he added.

Thomas said that the Mumbai Age, a supplement of the national daily Asian Age, has blown the story out of proportion. “They published a fabricated report claiming that I got money from abroad for converting sex workers. I am going to send a legal notice of defamation to the newspaper,” he told Compass.

“I have also written to Mr. Shushil Kumar Shinde, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Mr. Lal Krishna Advani, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Sonia Gandhi, the Opposition leader and Congress President, seeking their intervention in this case.”

Asked about his Christian activities, Thomas replied, “I don’t deny that I give Bibles to those who ask for a copy, and I do give them hope by reading God’s promises from the Bible. This is a fundamental right secured in the Constitution of India.

“But I do not force anyone to convert,” he said.