Raids on Jharkhand NGOs a Part of Ongoing Harassment of Christian Missionaries, Say Activists

Activists claim the BJP government in the state wants to divide Adivasis on religious lines and is targeting NGOs because of their opposition to the acquisition of Adivasi land by corporates.

New Delhi: Civil society groups in Jharkhand have criticised the recent state-backed crackdown on Christian missionaries in which the police initiated a probe on several non-governmental organisations run by them for alleged misuse of foreign funds which they legitimately acquired under a Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) license. The groups have termed the police action a part of the ongoing harassment of Christian missionaries by the Raghubar Das-led BJP government in the state.

The Jharkhand Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is reported to have on August 10 conducted raids on 88 Christian missionary-backed NGOs across the state alleging that these NGOs could have misused their foreign funds for “religious conversions and anti-state activities.”

Speaking to The Wire, additional director-general of police (CID), Ajay Kumar Singh, said, “The instructions [to carry out these raids] were given by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and it had supplied information in regard to all these NGOs. All state governments are empowered to enquire into financial aspects of these NGOs.”

On being asked whether the police could find any evidence against the NGOs, Singh said, “It involves a lot of documents. Right now we are in the process of selecting the [possibly incriminating] documents. It will take some time to come to some conclusion.”

Civil society questions police action 

The statement by the senior police came amidst a sustained criticism of the state police by the civil society groups. Many of these groups have questioned the state police action on legal ground as only the MHA can probe into FCRA violations and the state police is not empowered to initiate impromptu action.

They have also alleged that the sudden police action was a part of ongoing harassment of Christian missionaries – allegedly because of a political whip issued by the Das-led BJP government.

Although the police have now justified its crackdown on Christian institutions as arising out of an MHA directive, the timing of these raids has raised further questions.

The raids have come on the heels of arrests of two nuns for allegedly selling infants at a shelter home and widespread agitations led by Adivasis (comprising a significant 26.3% population in Jharkhand) against the state government.

Last month, two staff members, Anita Indwar and Sister Conselia, at the Ranchi-based Nirmal Hriday, a pan-Indian shelter home founded by Mother Teresa, were arrested for selling three babies who were born there. The ADG (CID) told The Wire that it was still investigating the case after it received a complaint about the baby sale but did not comment further on it.

However, since then, the BJP/RSS machinery has used this incident to run a political campaign against the Missionaries of Charity, of which Nirmal Hriday is a part. The police, prompted by chief minister Das’s directive, raided the Missionaries of Charity and its five associate organisations to probe into its funding last month. It told the media that these institutions had received over Rs 927 crore in the last 11 years in foreign donations but refrained from saying how these donations were illegal or were misused.

Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das. Credit: PTI

Only in the last two days has the state police begun claiming that it was tipped off by the MHA to enquire into the alleged suspicious misuse of FCRA funding at several of the organisations run directly or indirectly by the Christian missionaries.

The raids have raised concern about selective targeting. The BJP government in the state has recently come under fire for the rising number of lynching cases – in which 13 people have been killed of which ten were from the minority community. Its activists recently were also involved in the assault on octogenarian social activist Swami Agnivesh.

Catholic body had charged ‘some powers’ of using ‘baby sale’ case to give shelter home a bad name

Even when the baby sale row had come into the limelight last month, the secretary-general of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) Theodore Mascarenhas had stated that the shelter home was being targeted by “some powers”. Stating that he felt that these powers “want such institutions to have a bad name,” he had also insisted that Sister Concelia’s confessional statement was recorded under “duress” as part of the conspiracy.

However, Santosh Kiro, an independent journalist based in Ranchi and author of the book on a prominent anti-colonial Adivasi leader, The Life and Times of Jaipal Singh Munda, told The Wire that these shelter homes run by Christian missionaries often find themselves in peculiar situations and respond to them on humanitarian grounds. “These homes provide shelter to the poor who have nowhere to go. Often, many unmarried Adivasi women, who migrate to different parts of India for menial work and perhaps are sexually exploited, turn to these homes for shelter. In multiple such cases, they come to these homes when they are pregnant and have passed the time for a safe abortion. These homes help them deliver their babies safely.”

“However, since single mothers are stigmatised in society, many of them refuse to claim their babies or report these deliveries to the state’s child welfare centres, as is legally required. As a result, these homes are forced to raise these children,” Kiro added.

The author also stated that “the incident of selling a baby that garnered eyeballs could be an isolated case but most of these homes provide shelter to these infants. Since these homes are not big enough to house all such babies, they occasionally give away these babies to couples who voluntarily come to adopt but only after checking the background of these people. Mostly those wanting these infants are people from nearby towns and villages. No exchange of money is involved in such cases.”

Although these homes could be doing this on humanitarian grounds, many of them may not be licensed adoption centres, the journalist said, adding that only one case of baby sale could be confirmed but in the other three cases, it looks like the infants were given away upon request of childless couples who wanted to raise them.

Not being a legal adoption centre could land these homes in trouble. However, the journalist said that these homes operate in remote villages and towns where adoption is not a social norm and some exceptional cases where the infants were given away should be seen through a humanitarian prism instead of a strictly legal one. “The reality, therefore, is a complicated one and not as has been projected by the state government,” said Kiro.

A larger political campaign?

Fearing that an all-out attack against Christian institutions is an attempt to paralyse them financially and socially, institutions representing the Christians believe that the police was using one incident (baby sale row) to defame the entire community and justify the raids, which followed in less than a month. They also see this as a plot by the state government to drive a wedge between Christian Adivasis and Sarna Adivasis.

The general secretary of Isai Mahasangh, Prabhakar Tirkey, told The Wire, “It is very clear that the state government is devising new ways to harass the popular Christian institutions, which have been providing affordable education and healthcare to the poor for many decades. As a result, it has gained widespread goodwill in Jharkhand.”

Soon after the arrests of the Nirmal Hriday’s two members, the Isai Mahasangh petitioned the governor to stop the government from using the incident to run a “malicious campaign” against Nirmal Hriday, which is reputed across the world, and other Christian missionary-run institutions.

Prabhakar said that after the police registered four cases on the alleged sale of infants at Nirmal Hriday, it instructed the Child Welfare Centre (CWC) to take away the child from their adoptive parents. “In one case, the child kept crying until the CWC was forced to hand the child over to his parents. The (adoptive) parents have been demanding that they should be handed over their children but their appeals have not been heard. Tell me, is it even humane to separate the child from her parents? Should any government take such a harsh step?”

‘Sangh wants to divide Adivasis on basis of religious affiliation’

Prabhakar added, “The Sangh parivar wants to divide the Adivasi community on the basis of religious affiliation and such malicious campaigns are a part of that campaign. There are efforts all over Jharkhand to pitch the Christian Adivasis against the Sarna Adivasis.”

“In many places, the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad members have accompanied the police in the raids. They have been falsely propagating that Christian institutions have encroached upon the land which belonged to the Adivasis. This campaign by the Sangh parivar is particularly strong in districts like Gumla and Dumka. As a matter of fact, these institutions have seen to it that they possess all the legal papers of ownership to build their institutions. That is one rule that all of them have followed meticulously,” he said, adding that the larger intention of the state government appears to be the cancellation of the FCRA licences of these organisations.

‘NGOs being targeted for leading resistance against acquisition of Adivasi land by corporates’

Prabhakar’s contention has found acceptance among many in Jharkhand as many of these NGOs are leading the Adivasi resistance movements against state government’s move to amend land laws like the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Parganas Act. There is a strong sentiment on the ground that the amendments are being brought in to allow corporate groups to acquire land that had been traditionally owned by the Adivasis as a matter of right. Similarly, the state government has tried to alter state domicile eligibility in a way that would make easier for non-Adivasis from outside the state to become Jharkhand’s residents.

The resentment against the state government over these resulted in the recent widespread Pathalgadi movement in and around districts surrounding Ranchi. Pathalgadi, a traditional practice among Munda Adivasis, became a political instrument to resist the government’s moves where constitutional provisions that grant Adivasis special rights are inscribed on a stone that is then installed on graves of those who died.

As much as the crackdown on Christian missionaries is believed to be a communal ploy by the BJP-led state government to polarise the electorate, many also believe that it could be a way to curb dissent and silence those who are critical of state government’s policies.

Villagers rounded up by the police. Credit: Special arrangement

Only recently, many who were associated with the Catholic Church and were supporting the Pathalgadi movement were slapped with sedition by the state police for merely posting critical comments against the government on Facebook.

Even those – the Sarna Adivasis – which are being allegedly pitted against the Christians agreed that the crackdown on missionaries is a political ploy by the Sangh parivar.

Ajay Tirkey, the president of the Kendriya Sarna Samiti, which is the representative body of non-Christian Adivasis in Jharkhand, also thought that the sudden raids on Christian institutions only indicate that the government was worried about the growing resentment against its “anti-people policies”.

“The raids are nothing but a conspiracy by the government to divide and rule people. This is all being done for political gains. It is clearly an attempt to pit the Christians Adivasis and Sarna Adivasis against each other. Both these groups stood unitedly against the government in the Pathalgadi movement or the agitations against the amendments in the CNT/SPT Act,” the Sarna leader said.

‘No substance in allegation of forcible conversions’

On being asked about the allegation of conversions, he said, “The allegations of forcible conversions are false. Yes, a few Adivasis are voluntarily converting not only to Christianity but also Hinduism. I want to ask the government that why hasn’t it arrested those who are forcing people to convert. After all, BJP is at the helm of both the Central and state governments.”

“The truth is that there are hardly any complaints where they can prove that a particular religion is being forced on people. All these state-backed attack and propaganda against Christians are being done by the BJP to gain politically,” he said.

Ajay added that such a “concerted attack on Christian missionaries” is a clear ploy to polarise and divert attention from the actual issues. “For instance, look at the BJP’s campaign that Christian Adivasis should not get reservation benefits. Isn’t it violating the constitution which clearly says that reservation should not be allowed on the basis of religion but only in terms of caste. While the government supports such demands indirectly, it is silent when we ask real questions like where are the special funds for Adivasis that come from the Centre and state exchequer being spent. What about the land rights of Adivasis? Why are scholarships for Adivasis being restrained?”

(With inputs from Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar)