A mob of 150 right-wing extremists forced two nuns and two postulants off the train at Jhansi station around 7:45 p.m. on March 19 as they were traveling from Delhi to Rourkela, Odisha, for the Easter holiday.
The two nuns were suspected by the extremists of abducting the two young women in order to convert them to Christianity. Despite the fact that the two young women had evidence of Christian identity, extremists assaulted all four women at Jhansi station, shouting the Hindu nationalist slogan, Jai Shri Ram.
The incident sparked uproar and was strongly criticized by Christian leaders because it called into question the country's intolerance and violent actions against Christians who are citizens.
“Now even freedom to travel is being monitored by extremists, who keep a watch on public transport,” Sajan K George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), told AsiaNews.
“Why are [members of] the minority Christian community treated as second-class citizens in secular India?” he asked.
Father Alex Onampally, secretary of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Media Commission, said the incident was a “planned attempt to harass and mistreat the nuns.”
According to a statement released by the Church, the two nuns from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart were on a holiday with the two 19-year-old postulants dressed in plain clothes.
“When they returned from Delhi earlier in the afternoon and reached Jhansi around 7.30 pm (of 19 March), some Bajrang Dal activists, who were returning from a pilgrimage, abused and harassed them,” the statement read.
“Their main allegation was that the two postulants had been taken by the Sisters to convert them to Christianity. They did not accept the postulants’ words that they were born Christian.”
“Bajrang Dal activists misinformed the police that the nuns were taking them to convert. Hundreds of… activists created an atmosphere of terror by shouting slogans outside as the nuns entered the police station,” the statement detailed.
“The nuns were released around 11.30 pm after a high-ranking police officer verified the matter. They were then transferred to the Jhansi Bishop’s House and the next day the Provincial Superior arrived from Delhi to facilitate the journey.”
“It is suspected that there was a conspiracy behind the arrival of about 150 people at the station in a short period of time to attack the nuns. The experience of the four nuns in Jhansi is just the latest example of how social conditions in India are becoming intolerant for other religions,” the statement added.
On March 23, many women's groups, including the Indian Women Theologians Movement, Indian Christian Women's Movement, and Gender At Work, called on the Prime Minister and the Home Minister to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the incident.
According to a press release, the groups demanded “decisive and stern action so that such incidents will not be repeated again.”
They demanded harsh penalties “not only for the hate crime committed against these women, who represent a minority community, but also for the harassment of them as women.”
Recalling one such incident that took place four years ago, the women groups lamented that “Clearly nothing was done then to rein in these thugs who were emboldened to repeat their aggressive actions.”
The latest act of violence “is indicative of the growing communal hatred that is spreading with the active support of the current government.”
“Minorities live in fear and insecurity,” the groups said.
They also requested that the Railways Ministry be cautious and ensure safety of women and minorities on trains.
Sister Jessy Kurian, a Supreme Court lawyer, wrote to the Nation Human Rights Commission on March 25 urging the commission to take disciplinary action against the police and those who abused the nuns.
Despite the fact that the women displayed their Aadhar card, which was genuine and legal, “The police alleged that the document was fake and forced the two nuns and two nun trainees to deboard at the Jhansi railway station,” Sister Kurian wrote in the letter.
“It is pertinent to note that there was no woman police at the time of incident. Allegations leveled against the nuns were completely false,” she said.
Sister Kurian added that women have the right to travel in peace and safety, to follow any religion, and to adopt any lifestyle.
She also urged the commission to press the Uttar Pradesh government to pay “a reasonable compensation to the victims of harassment and mental torture.”
Following the widespread condemnation of the incident, Home Minister Amit Shah vowed action against Hindu extremists who assaulted the nuns while speaking at an election rally in Kerala’s Christian-dominated Kanjirappally on March 24.
“Those involved in the harassment incident will be brought before the law. I want to assure the people that the culprits behind this incident will be brought to justice at the earliest,” Shah said.
According to reports from UCA News, the incident took a political turn in Kerala after the opposition party leader Ramesh Chennithala and state’s communist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan demanded intervention from the BJP government in New Delhi.
Vijayan demanded that those who "disrupt and impair the protection of individual rights" guaranteed by the Indian constitution be prosecuted harshly.
In a letter to Shah, Vijayan wrote, “You would agree with me that such incidents tarnish the image of the nation and its ancient tradition of religious tolerance and practice. Such incidents require utmost condemnation” by the federal government.
According to local media, several such incidents targeting Christians have been ignored by BJP leaders in the past. Shah, on the other hand, was forced to pledge action in Kerala because he wants to portray the BJP as a progressive party that will defend Christians' interests as well.