India: False Charges Plague Christian Workers

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Pastor and his sister cleared of rape, abortion accusations; such ordeals all too common.

NEW DELHI, September 25 (Compass Direct News) -- In a case typical of false accusations that Hindu extremists file against Christian workers, a pastor and his sister have been cleared of charges of rape and forced abortion in Chhattisgarh state.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India announced that pastor Simon Tandi, a convert from Hinduism, and his sister Sanjeela Begum were acquitted by a court in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district on September 12. Tandi was facing charges of raping and forcing a girl to terminate the resultant pregnancy after she filed a complaint – prompted by a Hindu extremist group – against him in June 2005.

His sister, Begum, was accused of abetting the crime. Tandi had spent six months in jail, and his sister four months, before they were released on bail prior to the acquittal.

The court reportedly found discrepancies in the statement of the complainant and a lack of evidence against the accused.

Hurt Feelings

Christian rights activists say facing false police complaints is common for Christian workers in several parts of the country.

Akhilesh Edgar, chairman of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told Compass that in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states, both ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filing false complaints against Christian workers is common.

Extremists normally file complaints related to “hurting religious sentiments” and “forcible conversions,” under Sections 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Sections 3 and 4 of the Freedom of Religion Acts (anti-conversion laws) of the two states, he said.

Section 295(a) of the IPC concerns deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting religion or religious beliefs. A non-bailable offence, it is punishable with up to three years of prison and may also include a fine.

Sections 3 and 4 of the anti-conversion laws are related to the use of “force,” “fraudulent means” or “allurement” to convert someone from one religion to another, with punishment of up to one year of prison and/or a fine up to 5,000 rupees (US$125). In case the person converted is a minor, woman, Dalit or tribal, the jail term can extend up to two years and the fine up to 10,000 rupees (US$250).

“Christians at times are also accused of other crimes, such as rape and murder,” Edgar added, referring to the acquittal of 16 Christians last year in Madhya Pradesh state’s Jhabua district.

The accused, associated with the Church of North India, were accused of killing a Hindu extremist in the violence that erupted after the body of an elementary school girl who was raped and killed was found inside a Catholic school in Jhabua in 2004.

The Alirajpur sessions court acquitted the Christians on May 31, 2006, citing lack of evidence and asserting that prosecutors had fabricated and manipulated testimonies to prove their allegation.

Fourteen of the 16 accused had been languishing in the Jhabua jail for more than two years.

Hindu extremist groups had also accused a priest from the school of killing and raping the girl whose body was found on the school premises. Police later arrested a non-Christian who confessed to committing the crime.

Police Connivance

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) told Compass that most reported incidents of violence against Christians also involve false police complaints.

“Extremists find it very easy to lodge false complaints,” the CLA representative said, “given the vagueness of the provisions under the anti-conversion laws as well as sections of the IPC, which are framed in such a way that the onus to prove one’s innocence is on the accused.”

The various anti-conversion laws define “allurement” as an “offer of any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification either in cash or kind; and/or grant of any material benefit either monetary or otherwise.” Christians say this ambiguous definition can be misused to interpret even an act of helping the poor – commanded by Jesus Christ – as a “temptation” to convert him/her.

The definition of “force” includes “divine displeasure” – for which any preaching on the consequences of sin or the reality of heaven and hell can result in prosecution, say Christians. They also complain that the term “fraudulent means” is defined as a “misrepresentation of any other fraudulent contrivance,” by which prayers for healing can easily be termed as a “misrepresentation” to convert.

The CLA representative also said it was easier for Hindu extremists to resort to false complaints in states ruled by the BJP, as police report only to the ruling state government, which is solely responsible for lawfulness.

Numerous investigation reports on incidents of religion-related violence have indicated connivance of the police. (See Compass Direct News, “BJP Pressured Indian State to Harrass Christians, Panel Finds,” March 21, 2006; and “Rape Victims Charged with ‘Forced Conversion’ in India,” June 20, 2006.)

Ulterior Motives

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said that besides the goal of harassing and threatening Christian workers, Hindu extremists file false complaints to protect themselves against police action for anti-Christian attacks.

“It is an unfortunate trend that Christians are first beaten up, and then taken forcibly to the police station, where a false complaint is lodged against them,” he said.

The BJP repeatedly questions the activities of Christian workers, creating an environment of suspicion against Christians, he said. The various governments ruled by the party are “recycling old slogans and narratives that were stale and worn-out the first time they were used,” he said.

The U.S. Department of State’s 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom notes that, in the past year, Hindu nationalist organizations frequently charged Christian missionaries with luring low-caste Hindus by offering free education and health care and equating such actions with forced conversions.

Christians responded that low-caste Hindus convert of their own free will, the report says, and that efforts by Hindu groups to “re-convert” these new Christians to Hinduism were themselves accompanied by offers of remuneration – thus making them fraudulent.

In the BJP-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh, according to the report, 11 Christians were arrested for “forcible conversion.” None were convicted.

The report, released on September 14, cites numerous incidents of such arrests, including an attack on eight Christians belonging to the Indian Missionary Society on September 21, 2006 in Gujarat state. Later, the attackers filed a complaint charging the Christians with forcible conversions and carrying weapons.

The U.S. report also notes that allegations of forced conversion and defamation of Hinduism led to harassment of the Emmanuel Ministries International (EMI), based in Kota district of Rajasthan state.

In February 2006, the BJP government in Rajasthan revoked the licenses of EMI-owned charities such as a Bible institute, orphanage, school, hospital, and church. In March that year, the Department of Social Welfare of the state froze the organization’s bank accounts.

In June 2006, however, the state high court instructed the state government to show cause regarding the closing of the EMI property and instructed the accounts to be unfrozen.

Authorities also held EMI President Samuel Thomas in judicial custody from March 17 to May 2, 2006, for “hurting the religious sentiments” of Hindus. Thomas was later charged with sedition in May 2006 for the use of a map on an EMI-affiliated website that did not include Jammu and Kashmir as part of the country.

The Supreme Court, however, granted Thomas bail.

The GCIC’s George said he has been deeply saddened to see police entertain accusations of forced conversion against the minority Christian community without any initial evidence.

“What a let-down for a country that celebrated the 60th anniversary of its independence,” he said.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct