Rajdaha, September 19, 2019: A Catholic priest who spent ten days in judicial custody for “conversion” alleges a plot to get him killed in the jail.
“They tried to kill me inch by inch,” Father Benoy John, who was released on bail on September 16, told the Malayala Manorama newspaper.
The 42-year-old priest was arrested on September 6 along with catechist Munna Hansada from a Catholic mission in Rajadaha village under Godda district of Jharkhand state.
Father John, who was fitted with a pacemaker two years ago, said the junior officials of the jail gave him medicines for fever when he complained of severe heart pain.
“I pleaded them with tears to take me to a hospital, which is just two minutes away, but they refused,” recalled the priest, a native of Kerala serving the diocese of Bhagalpur, for the past four years. He also said the jail’s pharmaceutical compounder treated him.
“Their intention was to kill me slowly without taking me to the hospital,” the priest said and added that he was saved by the timely intervention of the jail superintendent.
Father John, who joined the Rajadaha mission only 18 months ago, is yet to master the local language of Santali.
The diocese bought 22 acres of land in 2010 and started the Rajdaha mission.
The trouble for the mission started mid July when Father John was alone as the parish priest and his assistant were away.
Some people came and broke the mission’s boundary wall shouting they would not give the land to the mission or allow any construction on it.
“Soon after they went and complained against me at Deodard police station in the Godda district. The police called me to the station. Since I did not know the language, I took Munna Hansda and Charlie, two parishioners. The police let us off after we showed them all document related to the purchase of the land,” the priest explained.
However, on September 3 a local newspaper carried a report alleging that Father John indulged in religious conversion.
“As I came out of the church offering morning Mass on September 6, a group of policemen came and told me that the Godda superintendent of police wanted to talk to me. Munna and I went with them and they took me to Deodard police station. We had to sit there from 8 am to 12 noon next day,” the priest narrated their ordeal.
Then the police took them to the office of the superintendent.
“At the gate they handcuffed us and covered our heads with black clothes. The police also called media persons and told them they had arrested two on religious conversion. They also removed the black clothes to let press photographers to take our pictures.”
Father John says the two were later taken to the district hospital, but did not show them to a doctor.
“I told the magistrate that they had not done medical check up on us. I also told the judge that I was a heart patient and survived with the help of a pacemaker. But the magistrate remanded us to jail saying it had better facilities.”
The priest said he felt severe heart pain on the seventh day in the jail and the authorities injected him some pain killer.
“My condition became really serious by Sunday [September 15] and they took me to the hospital after the jail chief intervened,” the priest continued.
The two got the bail on September 16 evening and Father John was admitted to St Luke Health Centre at Lalmatia, Jharkhand, where he is currently recuperating.
Bishop Kurian Valiakandathil of Bhagalpur says Father John would be sent to Kochi in Kerala for better treatment as soon as he is able to travel. The priest is from Thodupuzha in Idukki district.
The bishop thanked people for their prayers to get the two released on bail.
Dean Kuriakose, who represents Idukki in parliament, traveled to Jharkhand to meet Father John and offer him all assistance.
Father Alphonse Francis, a former vicar general of Bhagalpur, told the cruxnow.com that the allegations against the two are “baseless and fabricated.”
“The current dispensation in Jharkhand is very hostile to Christian missionaries, and our services are selectively targeted and harassed,” the priest alleged.
Jharkhand is currently ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.
Francis explained that the diocese had operated a parish and a retreat center in Rajdaha for three years. The retreat center, he added, is also used to host community meetings for “all castes and creeds” as well as women’s groups, children’s groups, and self-help groups.
He contended that the two arrests were “basically a land issue.”
“This land was offered to us, as under the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT), tribal land cannot be transferred or sold to non-tribals,” Father Francis was quoted as saying. “I would like to know what provoked this arrest, never has there been any communal tensions previously.”
Seven states in India have forced conversion laws on their books, which ban spiritual conversions through inducement or coercion.
An anti-conversion law was passed in Jharkhand in 2017 to ban people from spiritually converting others “by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.” The crime is punishable by up to three years in prison.