The police in Uttar Pradesh briefly detained four nuns from Kerala from a train in Jhansi district on allegations of forceful religious conversions, PTI reported on Wednesday. The incident has sparked a political controversy, with the Opposition accusing the Hindutva group Bajrang Dal of harassing the nuns on a false pretext.

The incident took place on March 19, when two nuns and two postulants belonging to the Sacred Heart convent under the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church, were travelling on the Utkal Express from Delhi to Rourkela in Odisha. The postulants were dressed in civilian clothes while the nuns were in their religious habits.

The postulants had joined the Sacred Hearts Congregation of the Delhi Province recently. Since they were travelling to their home in Odisha for the first time, the two nuns were accompanying them on the journey, according to The News Minute.

However, some Bajrang Dal members boarded the train from Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, and started to create a ruckus. They alleged that the nuns were taking away the youth to forcefully convert them to Christianity.

A purported video of the incident, which was widely circulated on social media, shows some men interrogating the postulants and forcing them to show their Aadhaar cards and other identity proof. “We work...for the Hindu samaj, we are from the Hindu sanstha,” one of the men can be heard saying in a video.

When one of the postulants told them that she was born a Christian and had not been forced into converting, the men accused the girl of lying. “Does this say you were born a Christian,” a man can be heard asking, as he waves the girl’s Aadhaar card in front of her. “This does not say you are a Christian.” The Aadhaar Act does not record the caste, religion or race of individuals to ensure that these demographics are not used to discriminate among citizens.

The situation escalated after the nuns were forced to get off the train at the Jhansi railway station, and were taken into custody. The four of them were reportedly questioned for five hours based on the claims of the Hindutva group.

But after lengthy hours of questioning, the police let them go, saying they could not find anything to prove that the nuns were trying to forcefully convert the two young girls. “During questioning, nothing as such came to light, and the four passengers were allowed to depart by the next train,” Jhansi Circle Officer Naeem Ansari told PTI. “No case has been registered in this regard.”

The Syro-Malabar Church in a statement said that the group was allowed to continue their journey on March 21 on another train with a police escort as they feared retaliation from the members of the Hindutva group. The nuns also had to change out of their religious clothing and put on civilian clothes to avoid attention.

The Church said that it suspected this was a premeditated attack, considering that around 150 Bajrang Dal activists had assembled at the railway station at short notice.

Meanwhile, North Central Railway spokesperson Ajeet Kumar Singh said the entire matter was supervised by the Government Railway Police, which reports to the state government. “The complaint was received by the GRP, the decision to remove the passengers was also theirs,” he told The Indian Express.

Amit Shah promises action

Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Wednesday promised strict action against those responsible for the harassment of the four nuns.

“I want to assure the people of Kerala that the culprits behind this incident will be brought to justice at the earliest,” the BJP leader said while addressing an election rally in Kanjirappally district of the state. The state will vote on April 6.

Shah was made aware of the incident by BJP leader KJ Aphons in a memorandum, highlighting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in many meeting with the Christian community promised “equality for all, as enshrined in the Constitution”. “Such incidents perpetrated by fringe elements and groups create a sense of insecurity in our minority community,” Alphons said, according to PTI.

After the incident, BJP’s Kerala unit Secretary George Kurian also wrote to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath.

Kerala chief minister writes to Amit Shah

Amid the backlash, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to Shah, seeking stern action against “all groups and individuals who disrupt and impair the freedom of individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution”, ANI reported.

“You would agree with me that such incidents tarnish the image of the nation and its ancient tradition of religious tolerance and practice,” Vijayan said. “Such incidents require utmost condemnation by the Union government.”

Vijayan, while speaking to the media, said Uttar Pradesh “is notorious for such matters”, reported PTI. “All such illegal activities are taking place under the ruling BJP government there,” he said. “It should also be taken seriously that all this is happening on an uncontrolled scale.”

Politicians and church groups condemn incident

The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council condemned the harassment of the nuns. A statement issued by the bishops on Tuesday said the group of religious persons was taken into custody “without any reason”, The Hindu reported.

The group appealed to the Kerala government to take note of the incident. It said that the nuns were taken into custody without the presence of women police personnel and that they were “allowed to be abused” by a group of people.

Separately, the Joint Christian Council also expressed concern about the incident. It accused the government and the police of inaction when Christian missionaries come under attack of Hindutva organisations, the newspaper reported.

Leader of the Opposition and Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling for strict action against the Bajrang Dal members. He also urged Modi to take steps to protect minority communities in India. Further, he asked Adityanath to initiate an inquiry into the incident.

“Police tried to trap them using the Uttar Pradesh laws,” he added, according to The News Minute. “Though they showed identity cards, they were dragged to a police station without the presence of women police officers. Police allowed the crowd to insult the nuns in their presence. They were detained until lawyers from New Delhi contacted them. Nuns were attacked with permission from the state government.”

Congress Working Committee Oommen Chandy also condemned the incident, and demanded action against the culprits. He said attacks on minorities would “fuel fascist tendencies in the country”.