Torture and sexual abuse at Kerala gharwapasi centres

Calicut: Through an extensive sting operation published in 2015, Gulail and Cobrapost team had exposed a chilling scheme being carried out by Sangh Parivar in alliance with various allied groups to destroy the relationships of Hindu girls who married non-Hindu youth. The investigative journalists revealed that Hindu right wing groups used violence, intimidation, blackmail, and even drugs to “rescue” Hindu girls from what they call ‘Love Jihad’, an alleged Muslim plot to entice innocent Hindu girls into converting to Islam and marrying Muslims. The report published by Cobrapost said, “The groups target not only Hindu girls and women who marry outside their religion, as it is commonly believed, but also their Muslim or Christian partners.” According to the report, “there is a systematic effort towards using love jihad to polarise communities along communal lines”.

Athira after her return from Swadharma (above)

Athira speaking to Asianet after embracing Islam

The report, however, did not command much attention back then. Now, the Supreme Court order for NIA investigation into the marriage of 24-year-old BHMS student Hadiya from Kottayam district has brought certain religious conversions in Kerala to the limelight. With court’s passing judgments even without bothering to hear the parties involved, Hadiya case presents a classic example of how an adult woman can be stripped in our country of all her human rights and made to live a life worse than that of a prisoner merely for adopting a faith some people don’t approve of or for that matter marrying someone outside her parents’ religion.

The shocking revelations made by Dr. Swetha Haridasan last week to Malayalam news channel MediaOne of the detention and torture she was subjected to at a controversial Yoga and counseling centre run by Hindutva groups at Udayamperoor near Thripunithura in Ernakulum district of Kerala, it becomes clear that this highly organized crusade against religious conversions is a camouflage used to cover up kidnapping, brutal torture and intimidation used in secretive gharvapasi centres in the state.  

Dr Swetha Haridasan and Rinto Isaac

Counseling centres or concentration camps?

An Ayurvedic doctor, 28 year-old Shwetha Haridasan, married Rinto Isaac from Trissur in 2016. Theirs was a marriage under Special Marriages Act since Shwetha’s Hindu parents did not approve of her marriage with a Christian.

Shwetha now reveals that she was taken to Shiva Shakthi Yoga and Counseling Centre at Udayamperoor by her family, her parents, sister and sister’s husband, on the false pretext that her sister wanted to practice Yoga there. After a group counseling session there, all except Shwetha and her mother, left the place. Shwetha was subsequently taken to a room downstairs at the centre where they started counseling her alone asking her to sever her relationship with the Christian youth. When she objected, a woman slapped her in the face. Soon she was surrounded by a group of fifteen men and women, who tied her hands and legs and bandaged her mouth with clothes. They forcibly cut her fingernails, twisted her arms behind her back and continued physical and mental torture. When she screamed out of pain, Swetha says, they danced to high volume music played in the room to ensure that no sound was heard outside. She later came to know that they had made her mother, who was sitting in the room above, wear earphones with songs playing so that she would not hear her daughter screaming. Different techniques of mental and physical torture, including sexual abuse, were used on the inmates to break their will. The staff at the centre asked her to convert her husband to Hinduism to prevent their children becoming Christian. They threatened her that they would not allow her to go free unless she obeyed them. Gururji Manoj, the head of the centre, showed pictures of her husband at his work place and threatened to harm him. Shwetha also says she watched other girls being beaten in front of her.

The Centre is located in a two-storied building. At the time of Shwetha incarceration there, there were 65 inmates including five men in this centre. Most of them, like Shwetha, ended up there because they chose non-Hindu life-partners. With security cameras installed, all the inmates were closely watched. Even while using bathrooms, they were not allowed to bolt the doors from inside. There were threats not to speak against the Centre to one another. They were told that even their private conversations were being recorded. The inmates were forced to do all household chores including cleaning and cooking.

The Centre guaranteed gullible relatives that expert counselors would change their minds of their children but it was purely a torture and brain-washing centre. Shwetha managed to secure her release by pretending that she had changed.

Athira too at the same centre!

What is even more shocking is the revelation that it is the very same centre where Athira-turned-Aysha-turned-Athira, the 23-yeard-old MSc student from Kasargod, claims to have had her second epiphany and subsequent discovery of ‘Swadharma’, weeks after her conversion to Islam.

Athira’s story was one which was sensationalized as another case of “Love Jihad” by Hindutva media. She had disappeared on 10 July, 2016, leaving behind a 20-page letter addressed to her parents in which she informed them of her conversion to Islam and her intention to study the religion further. Later, she turned herself in at Hosdurg police station. At Hosdurg Judicial First Class Magistrate Court, Athira testified that her conversion was voluntary and that no one had kidnapped her or forced her to change. She also made it clear that she does not have any problem with her parents as long as they don’t object to her newly adopted faith. She reasserted the same to the media.The court ruled that since Athira was a mature girl with every right to lead a life on her own terms. The court sent her to a women’s hostel to stay until she leaves for Manjeri to study Islam.

However, while considering the habeas corpus petition filed by her father, Kerala High Court let her go with her parents on the condition that they allow her to live as a Muslim. But, contrary to what to what they agreed to in the court, her parents took her to a controversial counseling centre called Arsha Vidya Samajam claiming to offer mental therapy and study in comparative religion. Actions of her parents invited criticism.

Nobody heard anything from Athira ever since until September 21 when she appeared before a press conference with her father and mother on both sides. To everyone’s surprise and quite contrary to her testimony in the court and to media, she said in the press meet that she had been misguided into believing Islam by her friends and that she was returning to her ‘Swadharma’ which is Hinduism. Describing every detail of her conversion to Islam, she made it clear that she was no longer convinced Islam was a true religion as her friends had her believe. She admitted that she regretted the grievances she caused to her parents and whished such a sad thing would never happen to any parent. She urged all who were renouncing Hinduism to reconsider their decision and study their own Dharma first. But even then she was keen to maintain, contrary to the Sangh Parivar propaganda, that her conversion to Islam was not forcible and that nobody tried to take her to join the Islamic State.

Though the press meet was celebrated by Sangh Parivar and went viral on social media, many cast doubt whether it was actually her own idea or did she do it under pressure. Later incidents proved the doubt is not to be dismissed easily.

Dr.Shwetha revealed to MediaOne TV channel that she had met Athira during her time in the centre. They both came there the same day and were together there for 22 days. Being watched closely from all sides, they were unable to talk during the day time. They shared their grievances while on the bed under the cover of blankets. When Athira was brought in, she was asked to remove her Islamic headscarf. When she refused, they forcibly removed it. Shwetha claims that Athira, on one of such occasions, had said to her that she voluntarily converted to Islam and that she would hold on to her faith at any cost. During the morning classes at the centre, Quran and Bible were misquoted in an attempt to present Christianity and Islam in bad light. Athira remained there for another month after Swetha left. A Malayalam online news portal said that they have evidence that Athira is still at the centre. 

Kerala High Court against the camp

Kerala High Court, noticing the cruelties committed on the inmates in the centre, harshly criticized the centre and referring to Gururji Manoj, the first accused in the case, asked, “whether we need a Ram Rahim Singh in Kerala?”. The court also ordered the petitioner to file a plea seeking to implead the trust in the case.

KR Manoj aka Guruji

After the MediaOne report, police has taken the statement of the inmates and started investigation. Police have said they will also investigate earlier complaints against the centre. Panchayath authorities have also taken action against the centre by issuing an order to shut it down immediately after the news came out. The authorities say that there are mysteries surrounding the centre and there are multiple complaints against it. Moreover, accommodating 65 people in such a small building violates housing laws.

A case has been filed against six including Manoj Guruji and the brother-in-law of  Dr Swetha. One Shrijesh, an employee of the yoga centre, has been arrested and the rest are believed to have gone into hiding.

There is strong indication that RSS is running many such secret centres in the state. Dozens of innocents, both men and women who are still stuck in such camps, are being devastated by the hooligans and the so-called counselors without the knowledge of the police or authorities.

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