HYDERABAD, India (Morning Star News) – A 16-year-old Christian and three others in eastern India have been in jail for more than a month on a baseless rape charge, sources said.
Tarai Beda village leaders in Kondagaon District, Chhattisgarh state who worship tribal and Hindu deities had Piso Ram arrested days after a 16-year-old girl accompanied him to his house in early August, relatives said.
One relative told Morning Star News that village council leaders who have long persecuted Christians pressured police to file the charges after the girl’s father discovered she had gone to Piso’s house. Tula Ram, Piso’s 22-year-old cousin and adoptive brother since Ram’s parents adopted Piso after the boy’s parents died eight years ago, told Morning Star News that police still call him regularly threatening to arrest more Christians.
“The station-in-charge calls me every next day to warn about the threats from the village council leaders,” Ram said. “They want to publicly humiliate and expel us from the village.”
The girl’s mother earlier this year told Piso that she and her husband would give their daughter to him in marriage, Ram said. The girl’s mother encouraged them to see each other, Ram said, adding that Piso agreed with him when he told the boy he was too young to be thinking about marriage.
“Months passed by, but through some relatives in the village, he found out that the girl had developed affection for him,” Ram said. “The very next day, [girl’s name withheld] came with Piso to my house. We are a family of nine and follow Christianity, but she and her parents worship the tribal and Hindu gods. I asked her, ‘Why did you come here? Do your parents know that you are here?’ She said, ‘I came to live here with Piso.’”
Within five minutes, the girl’s sister, who knew about her interest in Piso, brought her parents to Piso’s house, and they took the girl away, said Ram’s wife, Subri Ram.
“She had sent him a message that she loves him and wants to stay with him and came home [with him],” she said.
Three days later, on Aug. 11, the girl’s father and four other tribal men attacked Tula Ram’s cousin, identified only as Parsu, deep in the forest, he said.
“He was brutally attacked by her father,” Tula Ram said. “He accused Parsu of lifting his daughter from his house to convert her and marry her in Christian faith, in extremely abusive language.”
The next day, Aug. 12, the girl’s parents filed a complaint against seven male members of the church, alleging that their daughter was gang raped, the pastor of the church told Morning Star News.
“It was shocking,” said the pastor, whose name is withheld. “Police arrested seven male members, including Piso, 16, and Baadhu, 18. The arrests were made solely based on the oral statement given by [the girl] and her parents.”
Piso is in the juvenile ward of the Jagdalpur central jail.
Three of the Christians were released, and the First Information Report (FIR) against the other four Christians was not filed until a week after their arrest – a strong indication that the charges were fabricated, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)-India said. Besides Piso, charged with kidnapping and rape were Christians identified only as Lakshman, 30, Parsu, 25, and Baadhu.
They were booked under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for kidnapping (Section 363); kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel her marriage (Section 366); rape (376); obscene acts in any public place (294); voluntarily causing hurt (323); criminal intimidation (506); wrongful confinement (342); acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention (34); and section 4 of the POCSO ACT, penetrative sexual assault, punishable by imprisonment that may extend to life.
“We tried to file a counter complaint against her father citing the brutal attack on Parsu the previous day, but police refused to receive the complaint,” the pastor said. “The station-in-charge told us that [the girl’s] father had contacted the village council leaders, and that under their directions they had recorded a statement alleging gang rape so that there can be a strong case against Christians.”
The Tarai Beda village council head, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member identified only as Rudra, has sent a message to the Christians via police officers asserting, “You did not leave the village when we asked you to leave – now we will publicly humiliate and expel you from here,” according to Tula Ram and the pastor.
The girl and her parents were unavailable for comment. Relatives said the girl’s father is keeping her at home and away from all public contact.
Police Sub-Inspector Pitambar Khattar of Makdi Block police station told Morning Star News that the girl’s mother had told Piso that they wanted to give him in marriage to her daughter, but that the two teenagers did not have a romantic relationship.
“The girl gave the statement that she was locked in a room with four men and that they tried to take advantage of her, and her father was repeating the same,” Khattar said. “But as per medical reports and doctor’s statement, we see the possibility of intercourse, and it could have been a forced intercourse, but not gang rape. We suspect Piso must have forced her.”
The ADF-India attorney based in Chhattisgarh told Morning Star News that there was no possibility of intercourse between the two teenagers.
“The police were under the village council’s pressure to frame Christians under section 376 [gang rape],” the attorney said. “When the girl came to Piso’s house, his brothers and their wives and his adoptive father and mother also were present. She was there with Piso’s family for not more than five minutes, according to eyewitnesses, and her parents took her away immediately.”
To prosecute the gang rape charge as area leaders have sought, supportive medical evidence was necessary, so police fabricated medical documents as they are under pressure from the village council, the attorney said.
“Let them submit the evidence to the court, we can challenge its genuineness in the court of law only,” the lawyer said.
ADF, which undertakes legal advocacy for religious freedom, notes in its campaign celebrating the 70th anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights that it is sadly ironic that Christians are persecuted in a country with a long tradition and legal framework of freedom of religion.
Article 18 of the U.N. declaration asserts that believers have the freedom to practice their faith “in teaching, practice, worship and observance,” ADF notes in its campaign to obtain signatures supporting the Geneva Statement on Human Rights at www.ImHumanRight.org.
History of Persecution
For years, the pastor said, the village council has refused to issue caste certificates to Christian youths, preventing them from obtaining low-caste benefits, including admission to educational institutions.
Christians in Tarai Beda village suffered attacks orchestrated by the village council during Christmas and Easter celebrations, sources said. As commonly happens in India, police registered an FIR against the victim of one of the attacks, an area pastor, according to the local pastor who works with him.
“The pastor and I now minister in the neighboring villages and have invited a guest pastor to lead the Sunday worship in Tarai Beda,” he said.
Leaders of the Hindu extremist BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 2016 called for a meeting with more than 500 tribal people and Hindus from Tarai Beda and neighboring villages to devise plans to expel Christians from villages in the district, he said.
“In 2016, a batch of armed RSS activists prevented us from using the route to the ground where the meeting was held – they asked us to use a different route to enter the village,” the pastor said. “But a Christian police officer who was posted in Kondagaon back then warned the RSS leaders that they cannot hold meetings promoting enmity between faiths. The police officer saved our lives that day by intervening timely.”
Christian leaders raised the issue before the district collector, he said. The ADF-India attorney said the RSS and Bajrang Dal members who make up the village council in Tarai Beda have been irked that pastors from villages can raise issues against them before the district collector and police.
“Now, the trend has changed in Chhattisgarh,” the lawyer said. “Earlier, when they refused to supply water and essentials to Christians or disrupted the prayer services, the matter was raised before higher officials. The Hindu extremists now launch personal attacks by setting up their own tribal relatives against Christians.”
The attorney said such retaliation is precisely what has happened in Tarai Beda.
“They picked a very serious and sensitive issue involving a minor female and framed a case,” the lawyer said. “It is not easy to avail bail in POCSO cases.”
Last year, more than 30 Christian families in Chhattisgarh state were driven from their homes and villages because of their faith, living as displaced people in neighboring villages, according to the lawyer.
“This kind of violence and displacement can be seen mainly in Kanker, Kondagaon, Bastar and Sukma districts,” the attorney said. “The victims are currently in grave need of relief and protection, and rehabilitation from the state authorities. We filed a writ petition in the high court seeking protection and rehabilitation of displaced Christians.”
ADF-India has recorded 18 incidents of persecution so far in 2018 from Chhattisgarh state.
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of countries where Christians experience the most persecution.