By Aditi Raja
Almost two weeks before the Union Ministry of Home Affairs refused to renew the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) status of the Kolkata-based Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa, the Vadodara city police had booked a case against the NGO under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act for allegedly “hurting Hindu religious sentiments” and “luring towards Christianity young girls” in the shelter home run by the organisation.
On Friday, a Vadodara court adjourned for the third time the anticipatory bail plea filed by two nuns of the Home for Girls, with the court directing the city police to ‘clarify’ the use of Sections 3 and 4 of the Act, whose application had been stayed by the Gujarat High Court in August.
Section 3 of the Act prohibits conversion “by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage or by getting a person married or by aiding a person to get married” while Section 4 prescribes the penal provisions.
District Government Pleader (DGP) Anil Desai, who appeared for the Vadodara city police in the case, informed Additional Sessions Judge R T Panchal that an intimation from the office of the government pleader in the High Court was awaited.
The Vadodara police FIR, lodged on December 12, is based on a complaint by District Social Defence Officer Mayank Trivedi, who had visited the Home for Girls run by the Missionaries of Charity in Makarpura area of the city along with the Chairman of the district Child Welfare Committee on December 9.
According to the complaint, Trivedi found that the girls inside the Home were being alleged ‘forced’ to read Christian religious texts and participate in prayers of Christian faith, with the intention of “steering them into Christianity”.
A release from the Vadodara city police on December 13 said, “Between February 10, 2021, and December 9, 2021, the institution has been involved in activities to hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus intentionally and with bitterness (towards Hindu religion). The girls inside the Home for Girls are being lured to adopt Christianity by making them wear the cross around their neck and also placing the Bible on the table of the storeroom used by the girls, in order to compel them to read the Bible… It is an attempted crime to force religious conversion upon the girls.”
The Vadodara Police are also investigating a specific case of a Hindu woman from Punjab, who was allegedly married into a Christian family by the organisation after being allegedly forced to convert to Christianity.
Meanwhile, the woman, named in the police FIR as being a ‘victim’ of the forceful conversion, has filed an affidavit stating that she had “not been forcefully converted” and that the police case has “caused damage to her image in the society” as her interfaith marriage was with “her will and consent”.
DGP Desai told this newspaper, “The woman filed her affidavit before the court and has denied the police case but the investigation is ongoing… the police has opposed the anticipatory bail on various grounds, including the forced conversion of the woman as well as serving non-vegetarian food to the girls living in the shelter. The police have also told the court that the organisation has forced the girls to read books of the Christian faith and that books of no other faith were found in the organisation. That the girls living in the shelter are being forced to wear a holy cross pendant — a symbol of Christian faith — in order to lure them towards the religion, is also a ground for opposing the bail plea.”
Vadodara Commissioner of Police Shamsher Singh told The Indian Express, “The woman, who was converted for marriage, has not yet recorded her statement with the police. The police have been trying to establish contact with her. The other investigation is ongoing. We have handed over the case to the Crime Branch.”
Advocate Jahangir Shaikh, counsel for MoC in Vadodara told The Indian Express, “Our first argument before the court has been that the Vadodara Police should not have booked the case under the sections of the amended Act, which have been stayed by the HC in August. Secondly, they have named this Punjabi girl as a victim in the case. The fact is that in her affidavit she has told the court that she has never been converted and continues to follow Sikhism… So, the question of forceful conversion for marriage does not arise. Moreover, the wedding took place in 2012 and it has been brought into this case in 2021, which in itself is dubious as the girl has not voluntarily complained to anyone.”
Besides sections of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, the institution has been booked under IPC Sections 295(A) and 298, which are related to insulting religious belief.
The Gujarat government, in June last year, effected the amended 2003 Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act that adds forcible conversion by marriage, among others, to Section 3, which provides for ‘Prohibition of forcible conversion’. Section 4 of the Act prescribes punishment for forcible conversion with a term of three years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 50,000; in case of a minor being the ‘victim of forceful conversion’, imprisonment of four years and a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh.
On August 20, this year, the division bench of Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice Biren Vaishnav, hearing two petitions opposing the Act, had stayed the operation of certain sections of the Act, including 3 and 4, and observed, “Prima-facie inter-faith marriages between two consenting adults by operation of the provisions of Section 3 of the 2003 Act interferes with the intricacies of marriage including the right to the choice of an individual, thereby infringing on Article 21 of the Constitution Of India.”
DGP Desai said, “The court, during the hearing of the anticipatory bail, had asked us to discuss with the Advocate General the scope of the stay order issued by the Gujarat High Court in regard with Section 3 and 4 of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act. The HC has issued the stay order for the sections specified in the context of forceful conversion through interfaith marriage… The rest of the grounds of forceful conversion laid down in the section have not been stayed and so the police case is on sound ground. We will discuss the applicability of the section in this case with the counsel of the government in the HC and file our reply before the court when we receive the intimation.”
This story first appeared on indianexpress.com