MUMBAI – Police in India have detained a man who claimed responsibility for multiple explosions at a Jehovah’s Witnesses prayer meeting that killed three people and left at least 50 injured, but have not yet confirmed that he was actually the author of the attack.
The man, named Dominic Martin, claimed “full responsibility” in a six-minute Facebook video which was online for about four hours before it was removed. Reportedly employed as an English teacher, Martin described himself in the video as a former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had become disenchanted with what he called their “anti-national” teachings.
In contemporary India, the charge of being “anti-national” is often lodged against critics of Hindu nationalist movements and leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A statement from India’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Church suggested the bombings may have been “a deliberate and planned attempt to destroy the secular nature of Kerala,” referring to the southern Indian state in which the attack occurred.
A spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses said Martin is not a registered member of the group, and was unaware if he was in attendance at the prayer meeting where the blasts took place.
A police spokesman confirmed that there were at least two major explosions, apparently the result of improvised explosive devices, that rocked the Zamra International Convention and Exhibition Centre on Sunday in Kalamassery, a town in Kerala.
At the time of the blasts, a prayer meeting of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was going on in the center attended by thousands of people. Two women have been confirmed dead, and one 12-year-old girl is said to be in critical condition with burns covering 95 percent of her body.
Officials said later Sunday that 10 people had been admitted to the burns unit of the Kalamassery Medical College and of them two, suffering from over 50 percent burns, had been shifted to another hospital.
State police chief Shaik Darvesh Saheb said a special investigation team, consisting of at least 20 individuals, will be constituted to probe the incident.
According to witnesses, the blasts occurred soon after attendees had started a prayer with their eyes closed. Sunday was the last day of the three-day meeting, which started on October 27. According to officials, more than 2,000 people were attending the prayer meeting.
Images of the incident on TV channels showed fire rescue and police personnel in large numbers evacuating people from the site. Among the crowd at the venue were a number of senior citizens, including women who had actively participated in the morning prayers.
Recounting her shocking experience, one elderly woman said, “When I opened my eyes after hearing the first blast, all I saw was a fireball in front of me. Nothing…nothing more…just a fireball. Everybody ran scattered here and there. It was a sprawling hall, and a large number of people were inside.”
A man in his 70s, his voice trembling, described the shock of witnessing a blast amidst the densely populated prayer convention.
“I was standing at the side of the hall, praying with my eyes closed. Suddenly, a shocking blast was heard from nearby. I saw only fire around and ran to the door along with others,” he said.
In all his years of attending the convention the attendee had never witnessed anything like this before, he said.
Another woman, her hands placed on her forehead, struggled to find the strength to recall the events during the prayers. “There were several elderly people and children among the participants,” she said, her voice quivering with emotion.
Best known for their door-to-door evangelism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim roughly 8.5 million followers worldwide and around 60,000 in India, where Christians generally represent around 2.3 percent of the general population, for an estimated total of 28 million people.
Christians in India have long complained of harassment and persecution, including occasional outbreaks of violence, a problem some claim has worsened with the rise of aggressive Hindu nationalism as a dominant political force in the country.