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MUMBAI, India – India’s Supreme Court on Monday allowed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – India’s equivalent of the FBI – to procced in the investigation of two Catholic nuns who have been accused of inducing a student’s suicide through “forced conversion.”
One of the nuns was arrested last month, after a seventeen-year-old girl died on January 19, 10 days after having attempted suicide by poisoning.
The girl was a student at Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School in the Thanjavur district of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The girl’s family say the nuns pressured her to convert to Christianity, and claim she made a statement to this effect in a video recorded in the hospital before she died.
Sister Sahaya Mary has been released on bail but has been ordered by the court to “not make any undue influence on the witnesses … not indulge in any other offence in the coming future and not to leave the station either to abroad or other state without permission of this court.”
The religious order in charge of the school have denied the accusation.
“The girl belonged to an economically deprived family wherein the girl’s mother passed away committing a suicide a few years ago due to a misunderstanding with the father. After which the girl had been constantly tortured physically and psychologically by her stepmother,” said Sister I. Firmina Mary, the provincial superior of the Franciscan sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
“Therefore, the girl who was unable to cope up with the situation in her family, joined our institution as an 8th grader and she became a hosteller,” meaning resident at the school.
“She refused to go home even for holidays, fearing the torments. She was nurtured with ardent care and concern in the hostel, and she found comfort and solace in such an atmosphere. The warden, Sister Sahaya Mary has also been showing her love in a special way and thus making her feel at home. This is affirmed by her companions and friends in the hostel,” she told Crux.
“For the past few months, she was tormented with the thought of going back to the home after 12th standard examinations, as she had to face her step-mother. This made the girl become panic-stricken and her anxiety troubled her with inconsolable grief and drove her to the extent of committing suicide. We are terribly shocked by the death of this student. We grieve at this unfortunate happening because the life of our student means a lot for us,” the provincial superior continued.
“Further, it is making us more saddened seeing the intervention of some biased-media and some other miscreants who are intending to slander the reputation of the institution and spoil the credentials of the warden, Sister Sahaya Mary, by bringing to spotlight, an unauthentic claim that the girl was forced to convert to Christianity and that Sister Sahaya Mary was trying to evangelize the girl. We are distressed at the turn of this event which are merely fabricated by miscreants to disgrace our selfless service for the past 178 years and to discourage our mission of uplifting the downtrodden people by educating their wards,” the nun said.
Tamil Nadu police charged on Jan. 16 that the girl had been driven to suicide because she had been physically abused and exploited by school authorities. However, the state police dismissed the accusation of forced conversion, a crime in India.
This caused the girl’s family to demand the case be taken over by the CBI, which assumed control of the investigation on Jan. 31.
The issue of forced conversion is a rallying point for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has also ruled India since 2014. The BJP is linked with the the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.
The state of Tamil Nadu is ruled by the Dravidian Progressive Federation (DMK), which opposes the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. Christians constitute over 6 percent of the population in the state, nearly triple the national average, and the nuns have received support from local politicians.
DMK MLA state legislator Inigo Iruthayaraj greeted Sister Sagaya Mary after she was released from prison on bail on Monday.
In a Facebook post, Irudayaraj expressed support for the nun.
“Justice will prevail. We will continue to work for religious harmony,” he wrote.
The article has been corrected to show that only one of the accused nuns was jailed.