Updated: March 26, 2021 07:41 AM GMT
A video circulating in social media shows two nuns and two students facing standing on the platform of a railway station in India, facing questions from police officers. (screengrab)
India’s home minister Amit Shah has promised action against Hindu radicals who harassed two Catholic nuns accused of conversion during a rail journey in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
Shah assured action against the criminals while addressing an election rally on March 24 in the Christian-dominated Kanjirappally constituency in southern Kerala state.
Shaha's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded a Catholic to contest in Kanjirappally in next month’s provincial polls.
“Those involved in the harassment incident will be brought before the law. I want to assure the people that the culprits behind this incident will be brought to justice at the earliest,” Shah, former BJP president and trusted lieutenant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Two Catholic nuns and two postulants who were travelling from New Delhi to Odisha state were forced to deboard their train mid-way at Jhansi rail station in Uttar Pradesh on March 19 after a group of Hindus accused them of taking the postulants for conversion.
They were taken to the police station despite the nuns producing documents to prove that the postulants were Christians.
Following the intervention of top officials of police and the Church the nuns and postulants let off to continue the travel.
The nuns of the indigenous Sacred Heart Congregation were forced to change out of their religious habits and wear civilian clothes to protect themselves and two postulants with them from possible attacks by right-wing Hindu activists.
The federal minister’s assurance came after widespread criticism of the attack, which Catholic leaders say have increased in recent months particularly in states where BJP governments are in power.
The incident took a political turn in Kerala, the home state of one of the harassed nuns, after the state’s communist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and opposition party leader Ramesh Chennithala demanded action from the BJP-led government in New Delhi.
Local media reports show BJP leaders have ignored several such attacks on Christians in the past, but Shah was forced to promise action in Kerala as he wants to present BJP as a secular party that will protect the interest of Christians too.
With the election round the corner, other political parties in Kerala also took up the issue to present BJP as a sectarian party that does not support constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and expression.
Vijayan’s letter to Shah, released on social media, sought strict action against those “who disrupt and impair the freedom of individual rights” guaranteed in the constitution.
“You would agree with me that such incidents tarnish the image of the nation and its ancient tradition of religious tolerance and practice. Such incidents require utmost condemnation” by the federal government, Vijayan’s letter said.
Chennithala’s letter to Modi on March 23 described the incident as “a blatant violation of the fundamental right to life enshrined in the constitution.”
These types of incidents can only be abated by bringing the perpetrators and unscrupulous officials to the book … so that such incidents are not repeated”, Chennithala wrote.
The socially powerful Syro-Malabar Church based in Kerala too condemned the attack on the nuns.
The incident is “the latest example of how the social conditions in India are becoming intolerant of other religions,” said Father Alex Onampally, secretary of the Church’s media commission.
“Tens of thousands of nuns from Kerala are engaged in selfless service in the northern states. These increasing incidents are a real worry,” he said.
The All India Catholic Union has also called upon the Prime Minister and the Home Minister to take action against the vigilante group and the police involved in the harassment of nuns.
Christians, who from some 18 percent of Kerala’s 33 million people, are decisive in some of the 140 constituencies in the state.
Unlike at the national level, where Christians from just 2.3 percent of the 1.3 billion people and politically negligible, BJP looks to Christian votes in some crucial seats in Kerala.