MUMBAI, India – An incident when four religious sisters were detained on a train India has become an election issue in the state of Kerala, which goes to the polls to elect their state assembly on April 6.
On March 19, two nuns from the Syro-Malabar Church were traveling with two postulants when they were forced off the train at the railway station in Jhansi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
The nuns belonged to the Sacred Heart Congregation in Delhi and were travelling from Delhi to Rourkela in Odisha on the Kalinga-Utkal Express.
They were held by the railway police for four hours in Jhansi, with the two senior nuns being accused of trying to illegally convert the postulants to Christianity. The two postulants had been baptized Catholic as children.
Church officials say the nuns were harassed by members of a local right-wing Hindu group before the police asked them to leave the train.
The police later decided there was no basis in the complaint let the four women leave at around 11 pm, and they took the next train to their destination in Odisha.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah – in charge of India’s police – on March 24 alleging that four nuns were harassed by Bajrang Dal members and police in Uttar Pradesh.
“It is reported that the two postulants who had recently joined the Sacred Hearts Congregation of the Delhi Province were travelling for the first time to their homes accompanied by two nuns were harassed and intimidated by around 150 Bajrang Dal activists,” the letter read.
Vijayan also said the nuns and the postulants were forcefully removed from the train by the Jhansi Police without the presence of any woman personnel.
He said the nuns had even shown their ID cards to police. However, the police called the cards fake, Vijayan said.
“It was only after the matter was taken up with higher officials and after the intervention of the Lucknow IG of police, the nuns and postulants were released from the police station around 11 pm,” the letter read.
Vijayan is a member of the Communist party, while Shah is a member of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP has never had a strong presence in Kerala, where Hindus make up only 55 percent of the population. However, the party is seeking to making inroads in the state.
Christians make up nearly 20 percent of the state’s population – they are only 2.3 percent of India’s population as whole – and priests and nuns from Kerala often serve outside the state’s boundaries. The safety of Keralan religious personnel travelling on public transport outside of the state has become an election issue.
Shah responded to the incident while campaigning in Kerala for the upcoming elections, saying strict action will be taken against those involved in the incident.
“The people of Kerala will not face any issues … I want to assure the people of Kerala that the culprits behind this incident will be brought to justice at the earliest,” the head of the Home Ministry said.
Meanwhile, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal took a different tack, and denied there was any wrongdoing.
“There was an allegation. Some people made a complaint. It is the duty of the police to find out whether the complaint is correct or wrong. Police made enquiries. Checked all their documents, made enquiries (to ensure) that they are genuine passengers going for the correct purpose and then immediately let them go,” he said during a press conference in Kochi, Kerala.
He also denied Hindu activists harassed the nuns.
“That is absolutely wrong,” Goyal said.
“There was no attack on any nun whatsoever…the Chief Minister of the state (Kerala) is completely lying and making false statements when he says that,” he added.
Archbishop Felix Machado, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), issued a statement condemning the incident.
“The CBCI is deeply saddened and shocked by the attack on four religious sisters belonging to the Congregation of the Sacred Heart Society. Such incidents surely bring dishonour and shame to all of us, the law-abiding citizens of our beloved Mother India,” the archbishop said.
“It is distressing that the four religious sisters were accused of unfounded allegations by some fellow travellers without any recourse to law even though the young women informed them that they were Catholics and bona fide citizens of the Indian Republic,” he continued.
“The CBCI calls upon all respective government authorities, central, state and the Indian Railways to ensure safety of all women in future,” the archbishop said.