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Indian Catholic girls ‘traumatized’ by forced detention

Say they were treated like ‘criminals’ and kept as ‘prisoners’ in a Madhya Pradesh government-run home
Indian Christians protest against the harassment of Christians and attacks on their churches and institutions in the national capital New Delhi in 2014

Indian Christians protest against the harassment of Christians and attacks on their churches and institutions in the national capital New Delhi in 2014. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)

Published: August 01, 2023 11:12 AM GMT
Updated: August 02, 2023 03:43 AM GMT

Three tribal Catholic girls, who were released from custody by child rights authorities in a central Indian state after being forcibly taken away on suspicion of conversion, say they are “traumatized and terrified.”

Two of the teenage girls were released on July 31 while one was released earlier on July 28. The three were kept in detention for around 10 days in Madhya Pradesh by a team of the state's Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

“It was a terrifying experience for me,” said a shaken Raksha Baria after she returned to her home in neighboring Rajasthan state in northwest India.

Baria, a resident of Jamburi village in Rajasthan’s Banswara district, along with the other tribal Catholic girls from the same village, was studying in a Catholic Mission School in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district.

They were detained during an inspection of the school hostel on July 21 by a team from the child rights panel. The girls were forcibly taken away on suspicion of conversion to Christianity and were kept in the custody of Jhabua district’s Child Welfare Committee (CWC).

“The inspection team treated us like criminals and did not allow us even to change our clothes,” Baria told UCA News on July 31.

She said the officials asked to accompany them assuring they will be released within half an hour after answering a few questions.

“But when we reached the CWC office they sent us to a government-run care home. We were not allowed to return to our hostel,” Baria recalled.

She said the officials did not give any reasons for their detention.

“We were kept in the care home like prisoners and each one of us was made to sign a blank paper sheet,” she added.

The custody of the girls was handed to CWC officials from Banswara district who brought them home.

The terrified Baria said she will not go back again to study in Madhya Pradesh.

“She is traumatized and it is very painful to see her in such a state,” said her father Prakash Baria.

He said there was no guarantee his daughter and the other two girls will not be harassed again, so it was better they study in their home state.

“We don’t want them to face further humiliation and ill-treatment just for being Christians,” he added.

Sarita Makwana said she too will not go back to study in Jhabua or any other place in Madhya Pradesh “where we were treated like criminals.”

Ravinina Makwana, who was released on July 28, is also back in the village.

The girls denied saying they wanted to be nuns as claimed by Ashok Arora, chairman of Jhabua district CWC.

“We only told the team that we were there [in Catholic Mission School and hostel] for our studies,” Makwana said.

Father Basil Makwana, a diocesan priest from Udaipur diocese in Rajasthan, who is the uncle of Sarita and Ravinina, called the episode “a part of a well-orchestrated strategy by hardline Hindu groups to harass the tiny Christian community.”

He demanded the state government in Madhya Pradesh take action against the child rights panel officials for remanding the teens into CWC custody without any valid reason.

Madhya Pradesh, ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, has amended and sharpened an anti-conversion law in 2021.

Rights activists allege the law is often used to target Christians in remote, tribal-dominated areas like Jhabua district.

Child rights panels have been harassing Church-run schools, hostels and orphanages, through surprise inspections, and false cases of conversion against priests, nuns, staff members, and even bishops.

“These are planned operations to target Christian institutions that serve Dalits [former untouchables] and Adivasis [tribal people],” said Gulzar Singh Markam, a local tribal leader.

He said the aim was to deny quality education and health care to the poor tribal people and Dalits.

“Why don’t the Hindu hardliners raise the conversion issue at Church-run schools in big cities and towns, where the children of politicians and bureaucrats study?” he asked.

Christians make up 0.29 percent of more than 72 million people in Madhya Pradesh, a majority of them Hindus. Dalits make up 15.62 percent while tribals are 21.09 percent of the total population.

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The diocesan authorities should file a complaint with the National Commission for Women.
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