When the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh introduced the Freedom of Religion Bill in the state assembly in March 2021, the state home minister boasted that it would be the most stringent anti-conversion law in the country.
As the bill became law, Hindutva organisations stepped up their campaign against Christians in Jhabua, a district on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. In Jhabua, local tribal activists such as Prem Singh Damor, who also has close ties to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, conducted rallies agitating against the Christian community, accusing them of forced conversions.
On December 5, the police arrested Ramesh Vasunia, a pastor from Padalva village. His alleged crime – forcing neighbours in the tribal village to convert to Christianity.
The first information report against him was allegedly based on a written complaint submitted by 70-year-old Moga Vasunia, a Hindu pandit from the same village. But Moga Vasunia denied filing a written complaint to the police, as revealed in a Scroll.in investigation. He claimed he could not read or write. He also denied stepping into the prayer hall where Pastor Ramesh had allegedly carried out the forced conversion.
Yet, seven months later, Ramesh Vasunia is still in jail. He has appealed for bail five times, to no avail.
“My father continues to be in jail on fake charges,” said Pastor Ramesh’s son, 23-year-old Samuel Vausnia. “People here are not letting us live in peace.”
According to Samuel Vasunia, Moga Vasunia and his son, Nagar, have kept up a subtle campaign of intimidation ever since. The pastor and the pandit had disagreed on faith for a while. Moga Vasunia allegedly objected to Pastor Ramesh practising Christianity.
“Why would my father try to convert him, of all people?” asked Samuel Vasunia.
He said he had recently appealed to Moga Vasunia, asking him to drop the complaint as his father had been in jail for months. He alleged the pandit and his son said they would do so if the pastor and his family gave them a written statement saying they would stop practising Christianity.
According to Samuel Vasunia, he said they would put down such a statement if Moga Vasunia and his son gave it in writing that their purported police complaint was wrong. “But he did not agree,” Samual Vasunia said. “He is asking us [to give up Christianity], forcing us, bullying us. He has lied in his statement and he is misusing the situation.”
Moga Vasunia’s son, Nagar, denied the charges. “They asked us to take the complaint back, but my father has been a part of the trial and has also recorded his statement,” he said. Moga Vasunia did not want to comment on the matter.
Damor, who was at the police station when the FIR was registered against Pastor Ramesh, doubled down on his charges against the local Christian community. “The man should be in jail,” Damor said. “You see there will be more cases registered against these Christians in days to come.”
A petition and an arrest
Dubbed the “anti-love jihad” law, the Freedom of Religion Act gave more teeth to existing provisions to prosecute alleged forced conversion. Anyone found guilty of forced conversion through coercion, allurement or fraud could face up to 10 years in jail and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.
Despite its name, the law introduces new controls on religious choices. Anyone who wants to convert, for instance, needs to give the district administration 60 days’ notice.
When introducing the bill in the assembly, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra said that it would be the most stringent anti-conversion law in the country.
In Jhabua, the law played into existing faultlines within the Adivasi community. Damor started conducting rallies agitating against Adivasis who had embraced Christianity, accusing them of forced conversions. These mobilisations heightened existing anxieties that such conversions would wipe out Adivasi culture.
Finally, in September, the district administration appeared to put its weight behind these Hindutva mobilisations. It issued notices, apparently under the new anti-conversion law, asking priests, pastors and lay Christians to furnish certain details so that “legal action can be initiated against persons doing forced conversion”.
Six pastors challenged the notices in the Indore High Court. Pastor Ramesh was one of them. The court stayed the notices on December 4. The next day, the district administration withdrew them, citing “procedural lapses”.
Pastor Ramesh was arrested on December 5, along with his wife and four others from the Christian community in Jhabua. He is the only one who still remains in jail. While the notices are withdrawn, Pastor Ramesh faces a protracted battle in court.
In search of bail
The police complaint apparently filed by Moga Vasunia claims that on December 5, the 70-year-old pandit and four others visited the prayer hall where Pastor Ramesh was holding a service. There, the pastor allegedly sprayed holy water on them. According to the FIR, he also promised the visitors Rs 1,000 each, a motorcycle and medical facilities if they converted to Christianity.
Samuel Vasunia recounted that the local police visited their home the same day and took Pastor Ramesh to the Ranapur police station for questioning. The pastor’s wife, Kumtu Vasunia, and four other women who had been at the prayer hall followed him to the police station. There, an altercation broke out and Kumtu Vasunia reportedly hit one of the complainants, who were also present.
Pastor Ramesh and all five women were then arrested and booked under the Freedom of Religion Act, charged with converting people to Christianity through allurement. After an initial round of investigations, the chargesheet in the case was filed within a month.
Pastor Ramesh’s lawyers are now preparing their sixth bail application. Lower courts denied bail to Pastor Ramesh and the five other accused in December – a sessions court held that there was sufficient evidence against them and they would influence witnesses if they were released.
His lawyers insist the case against him is thin: the chargesheet depends on police and witness statements. At least one witness has already turned hostile.
On January 17, the Indore High Court granted bail to Kumtu Vasunia and the four other women. It was their third bail appeal.
Their legal counsel argued that the five women were innocent and had “been falsely implicated in the present crime” – of religious conversion through fraudulent means. He also argued that since the investigation in the case had been completed and the trial would take a while, the accused should be granted bail.
The court granted the five women bail “without commenting on the merits of the case”, after they had paid Rs 50,000 each as a personal bond. They were also required to have a personal guarantor, who would forfeit the same amount if the women failed to appear for hearings.
The court order also stated that if the five accused were “found to be involved in any other offence during the trial”, their bail would automatically be cancelled and the police would be free to arrest the women in the present case as well.
But Pastor Ramesh’s bail appeal seems to be stuck in limbo in the high court. The legal counsel had applied for bail for Pastor Ramesh as well in January but withdrew the appeal. This was common practice, explained advocate Ashish Gupta, one of the lawyers representing him.
“This is what happens when the judge is unlikely to grant bail,” said advocate Ashish Gupta, who had represented the pastor in the February appeal. “The judge hears the arguments made. If he is not inclined to grant bail then the judge does not comment on the merits of the case. He asks the lawyer to withdraw the application so it has no adverse effect on the trial in the lower court case.”
Two more bail appeals, made in February and June, were also withdrawn. Abhay Kumar Saraswat, one of the lawyers representing Pastor Ramesh, suggested the police may not have followed procedure while booking the accused under the Freedom of Religion Act. It was an argument he made in court in June.
“I argued that under Section 501 and Section 503 of the MP Freedom of Religion Act, the police had to take permission from the district magistrate before they went ahead and registered an FIR or arrested the accused,” he said. The police, he said, had not shared documents containing information about the procedure followed with the accused and their legal counsel.
Saraswat felt that, no matter what arguments they made, the court was just not inclined to grant bail yet. “The judge feels that when the crime is of a serious nature then some time has to pass before the accused is granted bail,” he said.
Now, Samuel Vasunia is gearing up to the Indore High Court for bail again. This time, he says, he will ask for the plea to be disposed of. If the high court still refuses to grant bail, it will leave them free to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.