Police rapes, acquittals and false accusations highlight Christians’ vulnerability in India

“If you are a woman tribal or from a minority, you are a second class citizen. Getting justice is very difficult,” Arun Pannalal, president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum (CCF), told World Watch Monitor.

The gang rape of the nun took place at a convent-run medical centre in Raipur, the Chhattisgarh capital, on the night of 20 June 2015. The 47-year-old nun was tied to a bed, force-fed drugs and sexually assaulted. She was found the next morning after failing to show up for morning prayers.

The two suspects – 19-year old Dinesh Dhurv and 25-year-old Jitendra Pathak – were acquitted last week, on 3 January; the judge cited a “lack of evidence”.

Fr. Sebastian Poomattam, spokesperson of the Raipur Archdiocese, told World Watch Monitor the judge had described the investigation as “of the lowest grade and totally negligent”, bringing “no evidence though the rape was confirmed” and “even failing to identify the culprits”.

“The youths arrested and tried for the rape were not the real culprits. They are absolutely innocents. It was an attempt to cover up the crime. So the judgment is not surprising at all,” CCF president Arun Pannalal added.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai and president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, bemoaned the “half-hearted attitude of the police” and called the acquittals “a grave injustice not only for our consecrated [nuns], but also for all women who have suffered a similar trauma”.

“This acquittal once again brings to our attention the problem of violence against women. It is a huge setback for all of us working for the rights and dignity of women, in particular victims of violence,” he added.

Two months after the incident – when no suspects had yet been arrested – the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) criticised Chhattisgarh’s police, following protests by Christian groups. The NHRC said the state’s police chief had made “hasty and irresponsible” statements.

Pannalal said the police had persuaded the nuns to burn the victim’s clothes, rather than taking them as evidence, telling them the clothes would remind them of the incident.

Compensation for victims of police rape

In a separate judgement on 6 January, the NHRC ordered that compensation be paid to 16 women who were raped or sexually assaulted by security forces between October 2015 and March 2016 in remote villages in Chhattisgarh.

Eight women who were raped were each awarded Rs 300,000 (US $4,000); six women who were sexually assaulted were each awarded Rs 200,000 ($3,000); and two women who were physically assaulted were each awarded Rs 50,000 ($730).

“It is extremely difficult for women from the marginalised communities to get justice,” Shalini Gera, an associate of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, which documented the assaults on the tribal women, told WWM.

Gera said her organisation had filed complaints with the NHRC on behalf of 34 assaulted women – 17 of whom were raped – after police tried “to whitewash” the crimes. Of these, she said the NHRC has passed judgment in 18 cases so far, as the investigators have not yet met the other victims. At least two of the victims were Christians.

“What worries us is the pattern in all these assaults on tribal women,” she said. “The assaults are not one-offs. They took place in three areas over three months in two districts. It is a structural problem.”

Daya Bai, a well-known secular social activist based in the troubled Baxar district, where most of reported rapes took place, said “justice is a mirage for women from vulnerable sections [of society]”.

“I am myself fighting a case of the murder of a high-school girl that has been passed off as suicide. Nothing has happened in this case so far, as the victim is from a Dalit family,” she said.

Priest, nun acquitted

Meanwhile, on 10 January, a trial court acquitted a Catholic priest, nun and female hostel attendant who had been accused of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl – also in Chhattisgarh in September 2015.

(The nun’s rape had been in June, three months before.)

The Chhattisgarh Citizens’ Joint Action Committee, which was formed to pursue justice for the rape of the nun, said in a statement that it “welcomes this decision”.

“The accuser – a minor 10-year-old girl – could not identify any of the accused, Father Joseph Dhanaswami, Sister Christo Maria and Philomina Kerketta,” the statement read.

Father Poomattam said the accusations had been “fabricated” by Hindu nationalists in retaliation for the strong protests by the Church against police inaction over the nun’s rape.

“Now the truth has come out,” he said.

Yesterday (11 January) Open Doors International, which researches and supports Christians under pressure for their faith globally, published its annual 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it’s most difficult to live as a Christian. This year, India – the world’s largest democracy - rose to No. 15: it shows evidence of one of the greatest increases in animosity towards Christians as a result of religiously motivated nationalism. In 2014, before Modi’s election, it was at No. 28.