Indian National Congress party activists burn an effigy of Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das at a June 23 protest against the abduction and gang rape of five women who were snatched from a school in Khunti Diocese. (Photo by AFP)
Police in India's Jharkhand state have arrested a Jesuit priest on charges of aiding and abetting the abduction and gang rape of five social activists, but church officials say the charges are fabricated.
Father Alphonse Aind, principal of Jesuit-run Stockmann Memorial Middle School in remote Kochang village in Khunti Diocese, was sent to custody on June 22, a day after the June 19 rape case was reported.
The priest, two Ursuline nuns and two teachers were interrogated on June 21. Police released all but the priest.
The social activists and the two nuns were part of a team holding a street play in the school to create awareness about the trafficking of girls at the invitation of priest, who is also the local parish priest.
Six men on motorcycles took the women to a nearby forest area and raped them on June 19.
Police say they have arrested two suspects and are searching for the others.
Police say the play angered the attackers because it expressed sentiments against Pathalgadi — a movement among indigenous people demarcating their land, with stones claiming freedom rejecting the authority of federal or state governments.
The attackers wanted "to teach a lesson to the social activists," R.K. Mallik, the state's additional director-general of police, told media.
The armed men drove them and two males to the forest in the priest's vehicle. The males were made to sit in the vehicle while the women were taken further into the forest, police said.
Media reports quoting victims said the attack was brutal and vengeful. The rapists assaulted the women for four hours and even forced them to drink their urine. They also recorded the attack on mobile phones to use as blackmail material.
Church officials said the charges against Father Aind are fabricated to tarnish the church and connect it with the Pathalgadi movement, which has created trouble for the state government run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"There are efforts to implicate the church in such a dispute and discredit the good services it has been doing," said Indian bishops' conference secretary-general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas.
The priest has been "falsely implicated in nine serious charges including abetting crimes like rape deliberately to deny him bail."
Church officials suspect the move aims to put the church and its work in villages in a poor light, link church people with a controversial movement and divide the indigenous community in the state ahead of the 2019 general election.
The Pathalgadi movement has been growing among indigenous people in the state and elsewhere in India against government moves to take their land for development.
The Jharkhand government has termed the movement unlawful and BJP leaders have accused church groups supporting such movements.
"The Catholic Church is no way connected to the Pathalgadi movement," Jesuit Father Xavier Soreng, a social activist in the state, told ucanews.com.
Father Soreng said his confrere is "falsely accused." Church people "are neither supporting nor opposing any movement. We are made to suffer for helping the poor stand up on their legs," he said.
He said church teams are working to secure bail for the priest.
Indigenous people constitute some 16 percent of the 32 million people in Jharkhand. The state has about one million Christians, or 4.3 per cent of the population, almost all of them tribal, which is almost double the national percentage.
Of the 532,000 people in Khunti district, 25 percent are estimated to be Christians.