Almost six months after Pandusingh Vasuniya and nine others had been arrested by the railway police in the Madhya Pradesh town of Ratlam, the small-built farmer was still incredulous. “I had my own sons with me but the police still said that we were going to sell our own children,” said Vasuniya, 31, who lives in Jhabua district. “Would any parent do it?”

Vasuniya was recounting the events that unfolded on May 22, when he was escorting 60 children from Adivasi Christian families in his district to a religious retreat in Nagpur in Maharashtra. But when they reached Ratlam, they were detained by the railway police, who registered a case of kidnapping and forced conversion against ten members of the group.

One of the accused is himself a minor boy – just 15 years old – and has been charged under the Juvenile Justice Act. Another claims to be 17, though the police have charged him as an adult.

The next day, on May 23, another group from Alirajpur with 11 children were detained in Indore as they were headed to the same retreat.

These arrests were not unusual. A month later, in June, the police in Satna district detained a Catholic nun escorting four Adivasi women from Jharkhand to Bhopal for a Bible reading camp, again on charges of forcibly converting them to Christianity. All were eventually released without charge. In October, the police detained seven children and arrested two adults travelling with them to Mumbai from Indore for a Bible study camp. As reported in the first part of this series, the children and their parents say they are Christians and there was no question of conversion.

Strict laws

As Christians in Madhya Pradesh point out, anyone in the state who wants to convert to another religion is subjected to a rigorous bureaucratic process. Forced conversions were made illegal in Madhya Pradesh in 1968. That year, the state passed its Freedom of Religion Act, which required those conducting conversion ceremonies in the state to inform the District Magistrate of the names and details of those who have converted within seven days. In 2013, the state passed an amendment that made the law even more stringent – instead of informing local administration a week after a conversion, individuals now have to give notice an entire month before the planned conversion. The police are empowered to investigate any objections that may be raised.

The legal restrictions have made minorities wary of informing the authorities about their religious affiliations. Dalits and Adivasis often begin to follow Christianity without intimating the local authorities, simply to avoid persecution or harassment, even as they continue to maintain their older affiliations on paper.

‘All of us are Christians’

This is the informal way in which Vasuniya’s family, who are Bhil Adivasis, began to pray to Christ around 15 years ago. It happened around the time his sister became severely unwell with a condition that no doctor was able to diagnose or cure. His family, which survives on farming, had run out of money to try more cures when someone suggested they take her to a church and pray over her. His sister recovered and no other member of the family has since fallen ill, Vasuniya claims. The family attributes this to their faith.

Vasuniya has raised his sons, 13 and 11, as Christians since they were born. They were among the 60 children that Vasuniya was escorting from Jhabua to Ratlam, from where they had planned to take a chartered bus to the retreat in Nagpur. Another group from Alirajpur had decided to take a train to Indore with 11 children, from where they planned to proceed to Nagpur. The first group was detained in Ratlam late on the night of May 22, the other in Indore on May 23.

As soon as their pastor Hatesingh Gundiya, a Pentecostal Christian, heard about the Jhabua children being detained in Ratlam, he gathered all their parents to accompany him to the police station to affirm that their children had been travelling to the camp with their consent and that they were all Christians. Gundiya’s own son was in the group and was later charged with kidnapping, despite being a minor.

“They charged him only because he looks older than he is,” Gundiya said. “What could we have done?”

The railway police in Ratlam did not respond to numerous calls on their landline. But in May, an officer had told the Indian Express that the police had arrested the accused because of a “mismatch in statements”.

The newspaper quoted railway police superintendent Krishnaveni Desavatu as saying, “The parents were under the impression that their children were going to attend a camp but the actual purpose of the Nagpur visit was to read the Bible.”

Pastor Hatesingh Gundiya shows his well-read Hindi Bible. Photo: Mridula Chari

At the station

At the police station in Ratlam, the children were separated from the adults with promises of sweets, while the adults were taken into custody, according to one of the accused, who says he is 17 years old.

“They told the children that they would take them to Nagpur and that their brothers [the accused] had already gone ahead,” he said.

The children kept asking to go to Nagpur, added Savita Bhuriya, another of the accused. But the police did not listen to them, nor to their parents when they came with their identity documents and statements saying the children had accompanied the accused with their permission.

The accused were kept in the police station for two days, while the media came and took photos of them freely. One photographer took a photo of the 17-year-old without his permission, then slapped him and called him a child trafficker. Others in the media accused Gundiya of leading an entire operation to steal children.

A man walks down a street on the outskirts of Jhabua. Photo: Mridula Chari

This treatment has made all the accused wary of any further media attention. Last weekend, most of the accused from Jhabua district gathered at Gundiya’s modest house on the outskirts of Jhabua town. They came from villages between 5 kilometres and 20 kilometres from the town. But they declined to be photographed or recorded on video in any way.

In jail, the accused had to contend with the impressions ordinary people have of Christians. “People said we were traitors to the country and kept asking us how much money we had taken to convert the children,” the 17-year-old said. “They asked how much we would give them if they also converted.”

The women too faced constant taunts. “The police said that if you accept the highest [Christian] god, why don’t you also accept the lower [Hindu] ones too?” Bhuriya said.

The police released the children within three or four days, and two of the women accused in 11 days, but the rest got bail only at the end of August. They now have to report to their parole officer 95 kilometres away in Ratlam once every two weeks.

After release

Two months after they were released on bail, members of the group are still feeling the repercussions of this incident. Some of them have lost their jobs. Others work as daily wage labourers because their families were unable to sow their fields while the men were in jail.

Did any of them ever try to apply officially for permission to convert?

Gundiya smiled. Twelve years ago in Kalidevi, a village some kilometres east of Jhabua, a group of Christians were praying quietly in their own homes when a Hindu group barged in and told them that if they wanted to pray to the Christian god, they should apply to the district collector for permission, he said. The group then duly filled out the forms and prepared the affidavits and submitted their request at the office of the Jhabua collector. They are yet to receive a response.

Ashish Saxena, the District Magistrate of Jhabua, was unable to verify this claim. He said that he had not received any applications for conversion in the last year. He asked to file a Right to Information application for any older records.

The members of the group insist that there was no coercion involved in their decision to live as Christians. “If someone was paying me to attend church, then I’d stop going after this happened,” said Alkesh Gadawa, another of the accused, and one of the most articulate of the group. “But I go for my well-being so how can I give it up?”

The first part of this series described how Hindutva groups in Madhya Pradesh targeted children heading to Mumbai for Bible study. It can be read here.