Rape Victims Charged with 'Forced Conversion' in India

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Minority commission member sent to investigate describes counter-charges as 'eyewash.'

by Vishal Arora

NEW DELHI, June 20 (Compass Direct) -- Hindu extremists have filed a counter-complaint of “forced conversion” against two Christian women who had lodged rape charges against Hindu villagers in Madhya Pradesh state.

The women had filed the charges on May 31 after being gang-raped in Nadia village on May 28. With the encouragement of a local chief and the apparent backing of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, according to Christian sources, the Hindu villagers had gang-raped the two Christian women after the husband of one refused to deny Christ.

The counter-complaint of “forced conversion” against the women and their husbands was supposedly lodged on June 1, but Indira Iyengar, a member of the Madhya Pradesh Minorities Commission, told Compass she suspected it was actually filed later and registered with a backdate entry.

The complaint against a total of five Christians in Nadia village, Khargone district was lodged under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act (the state’s anti-conversion law).

“The administration is taking advantage of the fact that the victims are illiterate. How can they talk about their religious freedom or defend themselves?” Iyengar said.

A Christian source requesting anonymity told Compass that villagers had beaten up Gokharya Barela, the husband of one of the victims, and took him forcibly to Sirvil village, about two kilometers from Nadia, where the Panchayat (village court) gathered and asked him to forsake Christianity.

When he refused to give in to their demands, the village head, Pandya Patel, warned that he should move out of the village and told the villagers and they could feel free to rape Christian women.

That night, according to the source, three men went to Barela’s house, dragged his wife to nearby bushes and raped her. Earlier that evening, two other Hindu villagers went to the house of Garsia Barela, also a Christian, and dragged his wife onto the verandah and raped her, the source said.

On June 5, Iyengar took the rape victims to the state capital, Bhopal, to meet with the governor. She also arranged a press conference to highlight the incident in the local media. Hindu extremists of the Bajrang Dal interrupted the press conference and warned Iyengar not to accuse them of attacking Christians.

Counter-Charges ‘Eyewash’

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh responded by sending a two-member team from the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) to probe increasing attacks on the Christian community in Madhya Pradesh.

One team member, Harcharan Singh Josh, told The Indian Express on Friday (June 16) that it seemed the administration had allowed the forced conversion complaints in order to protect the alleged rapists.

Josh described the administration’s move as “eyewash” and argued, “How could a handful of poor tribal people forcibly convert others when they had little to offer?”

In the same article, the Indian Express said the Khargone district magistrate and the superintendent of police had issued a report exonerating the accused rapists. They stated that the gang-rape complaint came only after villagers confronted the women’s husbands on May 29 and accused them of forced conversions. Before the conversion charges could be investigated, police claimed, the women lodged rape complaints.

A representative of the Christian Legal Association of India in New Delhi acknowledged that the women had delayed reporting the rape case but said this was normal in Indian society, because people tend to blame the victims. In this case the victims were also illiterate tribal women who did not understand their legal rights.

A delegation of Christian leaders will accompany the women on Thursday (June 22) as they appear before the district magistrate to present their version of the events occurring on May 28. (See Compass Direct, “Hindu Villagers Gang-rape Two Christian Women in India,” June 2.)

At press time, police had failed to arrest the alleged rapists, identified by the women as Lulla, Nandla, Kalu, Rewal Singh, and Sakaram – all from the same village.

Village head Patel on June 6 asked the Christians of Nadia village to give up their faith or leave immediately – without any of their belongings. He also warned other villagers that if anyone spoke to the police about himself or about the rapists, they would be expelled from the village – regardless of their religious background. (See Compass Direct, “Local Leader in India Threatens Christians after Rapes,” June 9.)

In 2003, three Christian families in Nadia village were fined a total of 14,000 rupees (US$304) for becoming Christians.

A similar incident took place in Jamanya village in Maharashtra state last year. Radical Hindu villagers had pressured 11 Christian families to give up their faith. When they refused, the villagers attacked the families on May 16, 2005, and sexually assaulted the women.

The families were later ostracized. (See Compass Direct, “Christian Families Attacked in Maharashtra, India,” May 20, 2005; and, “Christians in India Accuse Hindu Villagers of Sexual Assault,” June 21, 2005.)

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct