When Swetha Haridasan, a 28-year-old Hindu woman, filed an affidavit before the Kerala High Court on September 12 describing the physical and mental torture she had undergone at the Sivasakti Yogavidya Kendram in Ernakulam district, she exposed the workings of a ghar wapsi or reconversion centre in the state. The Ayurveda practitioner from Kannur district was confined at the centre for 22 days over July and August as part of attempts to force her to leave her Christian husband.
Her statement prompted the court to ask whether the Yogavidya Kendram was Kerala’s Dera Sacha Sauda – a reference to the Haryana-based sect led by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was convicted of rape in August and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The court asked the police to submit a progress report of its investigation within two weeks. The police have filed a case against five people, including the director of the centre.
Over two weeks after Swetha Haridasan’s testimony, another woman from Kannur district, 24-year-old Sruthi Meledath, testified before another bench of the High Court that she too had been assaulted and confined at the Yogavidya Kendram for 58 days between June and August. She said this was done in order to force her to leave Anees Hameed, a 25-year-old Muslim man from Kannur district, whom she was planning to marry. Her statement was recorded following a habeas corpus petition filed by Hameed.
The Yogavidya Kendram was founded by KR Manoj, also the director of the centre, who has been absconding since the police inquiry began.
‘Guruji threatened me’
The testimony of both women has raised eyebrows in Kerala, which, Hindutva outfits claim, is the nerve centre of “love jihad” – a term some people use to describe a conspiracy theory that Muslim men marry women from other religions solely to convert them to Islam.
The statements of both women were similar, which is not surprising considering that they both were confined at the centre.
“I was forced to do work as house maid including cleaning and preparing dishes for 65 inmates,” read Swetha Haridasan’s affidavit. “Guruji [Manoj] threatened that they would kill Isaac [her husband] if I went back to him.”
The statement added: “Inmates were forced to sleep on the floor of dormitories. Bathrooms didn’t have latches. Most of the inmates were ill but they didn’t get treatment.”
Meledath told the court: “People at the centre asked me to leave Hameed. When I resisted, they slapped my face, kicked my lower abdomen and stuffed cloth in my mouth to prevent me from screaming. Besides, I was subjected to forced pregnancy tests.”
Swetha Haridasan married Rinto Isaac last November at the Sree Vigneswara Temple in Thrissur district against the wishes of her parents. They started living in Isaac’s house in Thekkumkara, in the same district. Neither of them changed their religion.
Nine months later, in July, when she visited her sister’s house in Muvattupuzha in Ernakulam district, her parents forced her to accompany them to the Sivasakti Yogavidya Kendram in an attempt to coerce her to leave her husband. She entered the centre on July 31 and was released from confinement on August 21 after she agreed to marry a Hindu man. Later, she escaped from the custody of her parents and rejoined her husband on September 11.
Police under scrutiny
Both women complained that the police were reluctant to act against the Yogavidya Kendram.
Swetha Haridasan said that the police in Udayamperoor in Ernakulam district deliberately delayed registering a First Information Report when she, along with Isaac, went to register a complaint on September 15. “We went there at noon,” she said. “The police kept us waiting for more than three hours. They decided to register the FIR after my advocate intervened.”
The police has also come under scrutiny in Meledath’s case. The High Court had expressed concern at the way the police dealt with her complaint. It rapped the police for excluding details of the assault in the First Information Report it filed. It expressed its displeasure and recorded Meledath’s statement directly. The court also warned the director general of prosecution’s office to not take the issue lightly.
‘Not a religious issue’
Shwetha Haridasan and Isaac said they could not understand why people could not leave them alone. “We had decided not to bring religion into our lives before our marriage,” said Isaac. “This is not a religious issue for us. It is an issue of our life.”
He added: “The apathy of society towards inter-religious marriages makes me sad. I am wondering why people in Kerala fail to understand the mindset of people who wish to marry the people they love. I wish we had a religion-free world.”
Meledath said she lived with Hameed for a month, and had never even thought of changing her religion.
‘False allegations,’ says Kendram
In a Facebook post on September 21, Sivasakthi Yogavidya Kendram’s founder KR Manoj announced that he was involved in reconversion activities.
He wrote: “Arsha Vidya Samajam has been working closely with other Hindu outfits in Kerala to stop anti-national religious conversions. The institution keeps good equation with RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], Hindu Aikya Vedi, Amruthanandamayi Mission, Chinmaya Mission, Kolathur Advaithashramam…We have taken the duty of bringing back Hindus who reconvert to other religions.”
Sivasakthi Yogavidya Kendram officials could not be contacted for their response. However, Sruthi, a co-ordinator with the centre, told a Malayalam television channel on September 25 that the allegations against the centre were baseless. “No one raised a complaint against the Yogavidya Kendram all these years,” she said. “We used to admit students accompanied by their parents. All these allegations are rubbish.”
She also questioned why Swetha Haridasan filed a police complaint more than a month after she left the centre. “I believe vested interests, who were agitated by Athira’s reconversion to Hinduism, were behind this,” she told the channel.
Athira is a 23-year-old woman who was in the news recently. She had left her home in Kasargod, Kerala, to study Islam on July 10. After her parents went to the police and filed a petition before the High Court, saying they feared that their daughter would be abducted, she appeared before court on July 31 and said that she had embraced Islam of her own free will. She said she was willing to go back to live with her parents if they allowed her to practice her new religion. Though her parents agreed to the condition, they took her to Sivasakti Yogavidya Centre. On September 21, Athira told a few journalists that she was returning to Hinduism.
Religious conversions in Kerala came under the spotlight in May when the High Court confined Akhila Ashokan – a 24-year-old student from Kottayam district who converted to Islam and changed her name to Hadiya in July 2016 – to her parents’ home, and annulled her marriage. In August, the Supreme Court asked the anti-terror National Investigation Agency to inquire into the possibility of a terror conspiracy in her conversion.
‘Abolish ghar wapsi centre’
Advocate Thara of the Kerala Women’s Commission said that action would be initiated against the ghar wapsi centre if it received a complaint.
“I felt ashamed to hear about the torture camps to convert women into Hinduism,” she said. “The commission has not received a complaint in this regard so far. We will take action immediately if there are any.”
She added: “It is high time the government brought rules to abolish such ghar wapsi torture centres from the state.”