At a lawyer’s office in Indore last week, as a five-year-old lapsed into recalling the time she spent inside a police station and at a children’s home affiliated with the government, her neighbour, an older child, threw a protective ring around her. Nothing bad happened to us, he said, trying to comfort her. We actually reached Mumbai.

That’s where the children were headed on October 23, as they boarded Avantika Express, a train that connects Madhya Pradesh’s largest city to Mumbai.

They were seven of them – aged between 5 and 17 – all from a lower middle class locality called Christian Colony in Scheme No 78 of the city. Some of their families were part of a small community of “independent Christians” – non-denominational Christians who rest their faith in the Bible and are not affiliated with any church. To make use of the Diwali vacation in schools, their parents had decided to send them to attend a Bible reading class in Mumbai. Anita Francis, 50, a deeply religious retired school teacher, was their guide.

Around 4 pm on October 23, the group boarded the train. Francis’ brother and nephew had come to the railway station to see them off. They had just settled into their seats when a large crowd of activists from the Hindu Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, surrounded them.

“They asked us why we were going to Mumbai and how much we had been paid to convert these children,” said Francis. “They did not believe me when I said that we are all Christians.”

The children started to cry, as the activists hustled them out of the train to the railway police office, where media persons, tipped off beforehand that there would be a scene, were waiting. In the skirmish, one of the older boys was struck on the legs. The police did not prevent the crowd from hurting them, he said.

Taken off the train

Sameera Sunna was at home when she got a call from a neighbour at around 4.30 pm saying that the police had picked up her five-year-old daughter from the train. “The moment I got the call, I went immediately to the station,” Sunna recalled. So did Sophie Chohan, mother of another young boy in the group, and Dennis Michael, the father of three of the children travelling to Mumbai.

“When we got to the station, they locked us inside a room,” Chohan recalled. “We did not know where our children were and all we could do was to look out of the window for them.”

From outside, members of the Hindu Jagran Manch harangued them, Chohan recalled, asking them how they could let their children be converted. Finally, around 7 pm, the parents caught a glimpse of their children while they were being taken to the toilet.

By the time the parents were let out at 11 pm, the children had already been taken away by the police to locations they refused to disclose.

As non-denominational Christians without access to a community network, the parents were at a loss. They did not know what to do next. They went to a government shelter home near the railway station, only to be barred at the gate by the caretakers. They later found out that that was indeed where the girls had been interned. The boys had been taken to an orphanage on the outskirts of Indore.

At the orphanage, they were treated well, but the clothes, the timings, and most of all, the uncertainty filled them with fear, recalled one of the boys. The caretakers said “they would let us speak to our parents”, but days went by without this promise being kept.

Frantic search

The next morning, the larger Christian community in the city heard of the incident through the newspapers. Some community leaders set out to search for the parents. It took them a day to make contact.

KP Gangore, a human rights lawyer in Indore who has an interest in cases involving Dalit and Adivasi rights, was already defending Christian families in another case involving the alleged kidnapping and conversion of minors from Jhabua and Alirajpur in western Madhya Pradesh in May. He agreed to take on this case as well.

“The petitioners had tried to file a complaint at the police station, but were ignored,” Gangore said. He filed a habeas corpus petition at the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court on their behalf. The petition requires authorities to bring people they have detained before the court.

In a dramatic hearing on October 30, a week after they had been taken into custody, the children appeared in the high court. The judges asked each child individually whose custody they would like to return to. All said they wanted to return to their parents. The high court ordered their release, in the midst of tears from the children and joyful applause from the parents.

The front page of an Indore newspaper the day after the children returned to their parents.

Was it conversion?

But Anita Francis and her brother Amrit Kumar Mathera, 53, who had been arrested, ended up spending ten days in prison. The first information report charged them with kidnapping and illegal conversion. They were released on bail on November 3, after Gangore presented the high court’s habeas corpus ruling and supporting affidavits from the parents in the sessions court.

Investigating officer from the Government Railway Police KL Warkade said that police is yet to file a chargesheet. He declined to answer further queries.

Mathera and Francis – and several of the parents of the children and the children themselves – all told that there was no question of either kidnapping or illegal conversion.

The children, the parents claim, have been raised as Christians from birth and have been baptised at a Roman Catholic church. The older ones have also gone through the ritual of Confirmation, where adolescents affirm their belief in the basic tenets of Christianity.

However, members of the Hindu Jagran Manch claimed at least three of the seven children belong to Hindu families and are not Christian. Two of them have a Hindu father, who is separated from his Christian wife. The children live with their mother. Another child’s paternal aunt and grandmother are Hindus, even though both the parents are Christian by belief.

In fact, it was the aunt, claimed Sanjay Bhatia, the president of the Hindu Jagran Manch, who tipped off the organisation about the group’s plans to travel to Mumbai to attend a Bible study group.

At the railway station, the activists grilled the children and their custodians about their names. Many of them have two sets of names – official ones that sound Hindu and pet names that sound Christian. This discrepancy was held up by the activists as proof that the children were not actually Christians, but Hindus.

Friends and neighbours wait for Anita Francis and Amrit Kumar Mathera to be released from Indore district jail on Friday night.

Legal roadblocks

Much of this confusion stems from the fact that Madhya Pradesh has a strict law to deter religious conversions. The Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 1968 requires priests of any religion to submit information about any conversion they oversee to the district collector within seven days. This is ostensibly to protect people from being duped, forced or allured to convert. The maximum punishment for inducing people to convert is two years, if those converted belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or are women or children.

In 2013, the state government passed an amendment that made the law even more stringent: it requires individuals to take the permission of the district administration a month before the planned conversion.

These legal restrictions have made religious minorities wary of proselytising or practicing their religion openly. Instead of declaring to the government that they intend to change their religion, thereby running the risk of disapproval or red tape, many frequently retain their official names while practicing their new religion under the radar.

This rankles with groups such as the Hindu Jagran Manch.

“I do not believe that anyone can change the culture they were born into,” said Vinod Mishra, a leader of the Hindu Jagran Manch, who was at the forefront of the raids at the railway station. “I am a Brahmin. If I worship Krishna, do I become a Yadav? If I worship Ram, do I become a Kshatriya? So just because they worship Christ, how do they become Christian?”

In that case, what is the problem if people whom they consider legally Hindu worship another god?

“We do not mind if they worship anyone,” said Sanjay Bhatia, president of the Hindu Jagran Manch. “But they are trying to break the country and make it follow the teachings of Rome. This we cannot accept.”

Bhatia also brought up a more technical point. He said that if the parents of these children have not legally converted to Christianity, there is no question of their children being raised as Christians either.

Colin Gonsalves, founder of the Human Rights Law Network, dismissed this argument.

“I am a Christian and my wife is a Hindu and we raise our daughter as a Hindu,” Gonsalves said. “Does that mean you are going to arrest me?”

Gonsalves said that children are born without religion and parents can raise them in whatever tradition they choose to. Individuals take a decision about their religion only when they turn 18.

In 1977, the Supreme Court upheld the 1968 law, saying that while Indians had a freedom to practice any religion, the freedom to convert others was not a fundamental right. Gonsalves said this judgment erred in examining only the letter of the law and not how it is used in a communalised atmosphere, where members of the dominant religion within a state bureaucracy often use it to prevent conversions out of that religion.

“The Supreme Court remains quite oblivious to ground reality,” he said.

Fear lingers

With their children back, the parents were reluctant to talk to journalists, fearing further trouble that they don’t have the resources to handle. As independent Christians, they had so far managed to avoid any confrontation with Hindutva groups that are aligned with the BJP, which has been in power in the state for nearly 15 years. At their behest, state authorities have frequently targetted Dalits and Adivasis who convert to Christianity or Islam, even as Hindutva organisations undertaking “ghar wapsis” or conversions back into Hinduism, have been left untouched. Now, Christian organisations in Indore have asked the families to stay in touch with the larger community.

But their biggest worries centre around their children.

“I am scared to leave her at all now,” said Sunna of her five-year-old. “I feel I should not let her out of my sight.”

The child still has nightmares, she said, and speaks in her sleep of “didis” who hit her. So does another child, now 15.

“We just want to put this behind us,” one of the mothers said.

In the second part of the series, looks at a similar case in May, when 71 children were detained at Ratlam and Indore while travelling to Nagpur, again on charges of religious conversion.