Christian Nuns from Kerala forced out of train: not enough to condemn, culprits need to be sued 

It is no longer enough for a chief minister to write to the Centre and demand action or for the Home Minister to condemn--both first of their kind and forced by electoral compulsion

Christian Nuns from Kerala forced out of train: not enough to condemn, culprits need to be sued 

Sanjukta Basu

Ashli Babbitt, the white woman who was shot dead amidst clashes between police and Trump supporters at the Capitol Hill in January 2021, was deeply into conspiracy theories and misinformation about election frauds.

A quick look at her social media accounts reveals that she was a believer of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that claims Donald Trump has been trying to save the world from a cabal of satanic paedophiles…” While she did not post a lot of original content she used to regularly retweet a lot of false claims from Donald Trump himself and his supporters alleging massive voter fraud and asserting that Trump had won the 2020 election.

Filling people’s mind with conspiracy theories and paranoia is one of the most common tactics used by radical right parties. The sole intention is to create a mix of hate, fear, suspicion and anger against the political opponents and their ideologies. Once base human instincts are ignited citizens turn into self-proclaimed vigilantes and protectors of certain misplaced ideals and turn against fellow citizens.

Millions of Indians are reeling under such conspiracy theories and paranoia. It was this fear and suspicion mixed with fake news that had led to hundreds of cases of mob lynchings of Muslim or Dalit men by self-proclaimed cow vigilantes. Fear and suspicion of child lifting spread through WhatsApp led to around 69 mob attacks in one year (January 2017 to July 2018) in which 33 persons were killed and 99 persons were injured. Similarly, in 2020, two sadhus were killed in an attack by a vigilante mob acting on suspicion of child lifting and organ smuggling in a tribal area in Palghar, Maharashtra.

The latest is the case of four women, two of them Nuns and two postulants, who belonged to a Kerala based Congregation and were onboard a train from New Delhi to Rourkela being questioned, harassed, humiliated and deboarded at Uttar Pradesh’s Jhansi station where they were taken to a police station and further interrogated for five hours, all based upon suspicion raised by members of Hindu rights groups of “forced religious conversion.

According to videos on social media and various media reports a group of Bajrang Dal workers, who had boarded the train from Rishikesh, created a ruckus on the train after seeing the postulants with nuns in their religious habits alleging that they were being taken for religious conversion. It can be seen in the video that a group of men surrounded the women in the AC train compartment and asked for their identity documents. Even after the younger women had shown their Aadhar Cards and said they were already Christian by birth, the mob refused to accept their words and (mis)informed the Railway police of the suspected conversion.

A passenger onboard the train had called the police helpline and informed about the Nuns and a written complaint was also received from certain ABVP members, according to Railway Police. The Police took the women in custody in absence of women police officers that too after dark, which is completely against the CrPC rules and established Supreme Court guidelines. It is obvious that the authorities did not apply their mind and succumbed to the mob’s pressure. The women were only let go after intervention from senior police offers who found absolutely no merit in the allegations.

The question arises, what can possibly explain how any ordinary person on the train, a complete stranger to these women, suddenly assume such drastic criminality on their part except paranoia, suspicion and hate for a certain kind of identity. What right did these men have to create such a situation inside a train merely on the basis of their own irrational fear and prejudice?

From Muslim men wearing a skull cap to Muslim women in burqa, Christian Nuns in their religious habits, Muslim teenage boy eating pizza with a Hindu girl, Muslim labourers having lunch at a public space – Hindutva politics has labelled every Indian citizen belonging to religious minorities as potential criminals. They are forced to prove their innocence before a violent vigilante mob which gathers within minutes at every nook and cranny of the nation and starts taking law in their hands.

It is a menace. Indeed, it is terrorism. Where would it stop, and how?

Surprisingly, it is perhaps the first such incident of Hindutva mob violence where the Chief Minister of any state has given a prompt response. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to Home Minister Amit Shah seeking strict action against those who had harassed the nuns. Such incidents tarnish the image of the nation and its ancient tradition of religious tolerance and must elicit utmost condemnation by the Union Government, Vijayan’s letter said.

Another surprising first was the prompt response from the Home Minister who has so far not spoken about any of the anti-Muslim attacks by cow-vigilantes. Speaking at an election rally in Kerala Amit Shah assured that strict action would be taken against those involved in the incident.

Both Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi too did not waste any time in reacting sharply to the incident and directly hit out at BJP and RSS for spreading vicious propaganda pitting one community against another. In the past Congress leaders, like most other parties, had steered clear of sensitive communal issues.

But the time for letters and statements from political leadership is long gone. What is needed is for individual citizens to fiercely protect their personal liberties against such illegal actions from the mob or police and authorities. The four Kerala women should together sue the ABVP men who lodged frivolous complaints without any valid reasons, and the police for not applying proper legal mind before acting upon false and frivolous complaints. Under the law of torts, they are entitled to seek a monetary compensation for the loss of time, opportunity and reputation, and the mental agony caused to them.

There are many public spirited lawyers willing to take up such cases, perhaps even pro-bono, but the affected party would have to come forward to file the case. Unfortunately, in India nobody wants to do that. The response to these harassment and bullying is mostly fear and not anger. Instead of feeling angry that somebody dared to mess with my rights, we start having self-doubt and wonder if we did something to cause the trouble. Moreover, most people, want to avoid the Courts and police. Indians are resilient, they say, but that is because we let the powers that be to walk all over us.

But it is time for each individual to do the hard thing, fight the RSS-BJP’s politics of othering and exclusion by including themselves in the very process of law, authority, police that they use to terrorize the weaker and vulnerable.

I am aware that this is easier said than done, but if we don’t fight today, it would be too late.

( The writer is an Editorial Consultant. Views are personal)

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