On 19th June some armed men wearing masks abducted at gunpoint the members of a street play team at Kochang village in Khunti district (South Chotanagpur), some 40 kilometres from Jharkhand’s state capital Ranchi. They were taken to the forest. While the male members were kept back by armed guards, four girls and a married woman were taken deep into the forest and raped by three men. Thereafter, the victims were forced to drink urine. While letting them go, they were warned not to divulge what happened.
The street play team under the directorship of one Sanjay Kumar Sharma was engaged by another NGO of Ursuline sisters, ‘Asha Kiran’ for performing a street play on human trafficking and out-migration of tribal girls. Sharma’s NGO, ‘Yuva Jagriti Sanskritik Kala Sangam’, based in Khunti receives funds for highlighting Central Government’s ‘Swacch Bharat Abhiyan.’ According to reports, choosing the venue at Kochang for the street play was due to the insistence of Sharma who said that the Mukhia (Headman) of Kochang was happy to invite the troupe. ‘Asha Kiran’ authorities found it convenient to have the performance staged at the Stockman Memorial Middle school. The secretary of the school, Fr. Alphonse Aind, was approached for permission and he consented to the request.
At around 2.30 p.m. on June 19 the performance started, but within ten minutes, a group of five miscreants from the forest arrived on two motorbikes. Threatening those present at gunpoint, they took the street play team of boys and five women deep into the nearby forest. It is reported that Fr. Aind had intervened and objected to the action of the miscreants. The miscreants said they were doing it on the order of the high command.
On reaching the jungle, the boys in the artistes’ team were asked to wait while three men took the women to a distant place and performed atrocities on them. After about 3 hours, the miscreants brought back the victims to the abducted place. On their return the victims did not report anything to the church authorities or to the ‘Asha Kiran’ organisers.
As the news of the atrocity began to leak out by bits and pieces, the victims requested the sisters not to report to the police as they feared danger for their families. Meanwhile, Sharma lodged an FIR on June 21 alleging Fr. Aind’s role of conspiracy in the gang rape incident and his involvement in the Pathalgadi movement.
Thereafter, Fr. Aind was questioned by the police and released on bond on June 22 evening, but was arrested on June 23. The observations put out by the Ranchi Jesuit Provincialate are noteworthy: “It appears that it has been orchestrated by vested interests who would like the church to be maligned before elections 2019.
1. Father, in our opinion, is the most innocent of persons. He has been dragged into all this unjustly.
2. Out of so many sections and allegations, conspiracy theory is the most serious one.
3. If free and fair investigation is done, he will be proven innocent. Hence, we are demanding that the case be handed over to CBI.”
On June 25, a civil society delegation met the chief Secretary of Jharkhand and presented him with a memorandum highlighting certain conspiracy angle in implicating the church personnel. The memorandum goes to say that, “The allegations leveled against Fr Alphonse Aind, that (1) he protected only the Sisters and not the victims, (2) he has links with the perpetrators of crime, (3) he sent the victims to the criminals, (4) he invited the street play troop, (4) he did not report the matter to the police, and so on, are baseless.
“We, the civil society, want the whole nation to know the real truth. We would like that the matter be thoroughly examined, leading to its logical conclusion. Those responsible for the crime should be brought to the book and severely punished as per the law of the country. We do not approve of what has happed to the 5 women who were gang-raped on 19th June 2018. We demand that justice is done to them at the earliest. We would like that a free and fair investigation be done in relation to the above subject. (Memorandum to Chief Secretary, Jharkhand)
“However, given the experiences and observations during the last week following the arrest of Fr. Alphonse Aind, we have no faith in the current investigating agency, which seems to be biased and motivated. Hence, we, the civil society, demand the following:
1. Hand over the enquiry of the above case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
2. Give severe punishment to the culprits of the said crime.
3. Take stern action against those in the police or administration who are cooking up the stories, and
4. Take severe action against the newspapers which have published false and concocted stories about the Father and Sisters to sensationalize the issue and divert the attention from the main culprits of the heinous crime.”
Pathalgadi is a practice adopted by many tribal villages in Jharkhand to assert the constitutionally granted powers and privileges of the Gram Sabha with its grassroots sovereign authority. The supporters claim that entry to the village by any outsider, even by government officials, has to be approved by the Gram Sabha. The Gram Sabha has rights over natural resources of the village like land, water, forest and other resources. A huge stone plaque gets erected (Pathalgadi) at the entrance of the village with inscription about the Gram Sabha’s power and people’s rights.
The police version is that the Pathalgadi promoters did not want the street play team to be messing around. However, this version is contested by the Church sources because the team was in support of Pathalgadi movement, and, hence, no conflict of interest.
Now, the question is, whose interest was under challenge by the action of the rights group which was going about with an awareness building programme? Since there are different conflicting versions about the true identity of the criminals and motive of the crime, truth needs to be ferreted out through an honest and unbiased investigation.
It is no secret that the rightwing ruling party has been at loggerheads with the Church’s involvement among the tribals. The rising Hindutvawadi phenomenon accuses the Church of misleading the tribals with protectionism and with organising them to resist the taking away of tribal land by the state and by private agencies.
The rights group, ‘Asha Kiran’ with its awareness programmes has been playing a pivotal role in conscientising the poor and marginalised on their human and fundamental rights. It also campaigns for promoting Gram Sabha functioning at grassroots. Many rights activists see the arrest of Church personnel at this juncture as a shot in the air warning the Church authorities to keep their hands off.
Jharkhand has a Tribal Christian population of 14.4% while the Hindu tribals account for 39.7%, according to reports. This Christian presence is an eyesore to the Hindutvawadis whose government is in power in Jharkhand. But, the contradiction is that most of such opposing elements have their wards benefiting from the quality education of the posh educational institutions run by the Church in Jharkhand. The most recent reported move is that the government is planning to deny constitutionally guaranteed scheduled tribe benefits to tribal Christians.
(Published on 02nd July 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 27)