RAIPUR, India — Two acquittals in rape cases have exposed the hostility the Church has to live with in the central Indian state of Chattisgarh, which is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The first acquittal came on Jan. 3 in the 2015 gang-rape of a nun in her convent medical center in Raipur, the capital of Chattisgarh state. Then, on Jan. 9, a Catholic priest, a nun and a hostel attendant at a Church school in the Koriya district of the Ambikapur Diocese were acquitted on Jan. 9 in what a judge concluded was a fabricated rape case. And according to Christian leaders, the charges against the Catholics in the school case were “fabricated” as direct retribution for the public complaints by Church leaders that local law enforcement officials were not effectively investigating the earlier rape of the nun.
“This is a terrible case. Our innocent priest and hostel assistant had to spend 16 months in jail,” Bishop Patras Minj of Ambikapur, Chattisgarh, told the Register Jan. 17.
“We are relieved now,” said Bishop Minj about the acquittal of Father Joseph Dhanaswami, Sister Christo Maria and Philomina Kerketta of Jyoti Mission School in Sarbhoka village. The trio had been arrested on Sept. 11, 2015, with the priest accused of raping a 10-year-old girl at the hostel, while the nun and the hostel attendant were accused of abetting the alleged rape.
Though the nun was released on bail after two weeks, the female hostel attendant remained in jail along with the priest until the trial court acquitted all of the accused. The judge pointed out that the alleged victim did not even identify the accused priest during the trial — reinforcing the innocence of the accused.
Bishop Minj said the case was “politically motivated to tarnish the image of the Church. It was vindictive action against our protest in the nun’s shocking gang-rape [in Raipur].”
The Church and Christian groups had carried out vociferous protests after a 48-year-old Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (SMMI) nun was raped in her room on the night of June 19, 2015, in the medical center attached to the convent. Two assailants broke into the center, force-fed drugs to the nun and tied her to her bed before gang-raping her. The nun was found unconscious when she did not turn up for morning prayers.
Following widespread protests against police inaction in investigating the rape of the nun in the state capital, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) called attention to the conduct of the Chattisgarh police with a public notice issued two months after the crime occurred.
The culprits had not been arrested and proper procedures weren’t followed in the investigation, the NHRC’s Aug. 20 notice said. (Christian activists said that the nuns had even been persuaded by police officials to burn crucial evidence, like clothes in the room where the alleged rape occurred, on the grounds that its retention would bring back “bad memories.”) The NHRC also criticized the state police chief for his “hasty and irresponsible” statements, including denying the rape itself.
“The rape charge against the priest [and others] was fabricated to harass us for protesting against the police inaction in the [nun’s] gang-rape,” said Father Sebastian Poomattam, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Raipur.
Father Poomattam pointed out that the police arrested two drug-addicted young Hindu men a month after the September 2015 arrest of the priest, nun and hostel attendant in the alleged rape case involving the 10-year-old girl, charging them with the rape of the nun.
The trial court acquitted the two men, 19-year-old Dinesh Dhurv and 25-year-old Jitendra Pathak, on Jan. 3, citing a “lack of evidence” against them.
“Investigative authority showed gross negligence in such a serious crime, which could be punished with life imprisonment,” Father Poomattam said. The investigators, he quoted from the judgment, “brought no evidence, though gang-rape is confirmed. It even failed to identity the culprits.”
“The youth arrested and tried for the rape were not the real culprits. They are absolutely innocent. It was an attempt to cover up the crime. So the judgment is not surprising at all,” said Arun Pannalal, president of the Chattisgarh Christian Forum, which had protested the police inaction.
Following both of the court verdicts, which the forum said demonstrated the victimization of the Church at the behest of ruling Hindu nationalists, the Christian organization demanded action against police officials and others for botching the investigation of the raped nun and for framing the rape charge against the priest and the other two accused in that case.
‘A Clear Care of Malice’
Several churches and institutions of different denominations were attacked by Hindu fundamentalists following the rape allegation involving the Catholic school.
Regarding these attacks on Christians, the Chattisgarh Christian Forum noted that its fact-finding team found that “it was a clear case with malice, intended only to prevent the fight to catch the perpetrators of attacks on Christian community and institutions. Spread of fear and rumors were the intentions behind the violent attacks.”
The press statement also said “the right-wing political party [BJP] and their larger organizational network were clearly behind this attack, under the slogan of ‘protect’ Hindutva [Hindu nationalism].”
Although the Chattisgarh High Court earlier had twice rejected the bail application of both Father Dhanaswami and the hostel attendant, the forum hailed the acquittal judgment as “encouraging and reinstates some faith in [the] judiciary among the ordinary citizen from small socio-religious groups.”
“Initially, I was shocked. Then I found consolation in the fact that I had the experience of what some helpless people go through in our country,” Father Dhanaswami told the Register Jan. 17 from his home in the Diocese of Thanjore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where he is “trying to forget” 16 months of unwarranted imprisonment.
“Many [fellow prisoners] shared their problems with me. I consoled them, and listening to them was a great consolation for me, too. I passed time also by reading and praying,” said the principal of the Catholic school with nearly 1,000 students.
Though there had been “occasional troubles” from Hindu fundamentalists in the area, he added, “I never thought, ‘I will have to undergo an ordeal like this.’”
Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.