Christian tribals in Maharashtra 'forced' by police to give up their religion

The Thane police have denied that the tribals are under pressure to reconvert to their old religion.
( [email protected] ) Jan 07, 2004 03:22 PM EST

Maharashtra, India., Jan. 7 - Christian tribals who fled violence in Tilonda-Jambhulpada, a village in north Thane, have alleged the local police advised them to sign an undertaking that they will renounce their new religion.

The tribals have been told that signing the undertaking is the only way to establish peace in the village that was torn by hostility between non-Christian tribals and neo-Christians on Christmas day.

The Thane police have denied that the tribals are under pressure to reconvert to their old religion. “They are under no compulsion. The dispute is between relatives and no complaint has been filed by either side,” said Superintendent of Police (Thane rural) R E Pawar.

The State Minorities Commission said that nearly 25 residents of the village in Vikramgad taluka, bordering Gujarat, were forced to flee the village after they returned from a prayer meeting in nearby Dahanu. They had to take shelter at a police chowki for four days as a 200-strong crowd prevented them from entering their village, said Lahu Bhoye, one of those who fled into the jungles on December 25.

Bhoye, a labourer, is now in the city to present his case before the commission. Bhoye said that he and his family have been attending prayers conducted by the ‘Friends Missionary Prayer Band’ group for the last two years. Though he has not formally converted to Christianity, Bhoye had recently purchased a Bible and had pictures of Christ in his hut.

Bhoye said the prayers and the alcohol de-addiction sessions conducted by the missionaries have helped him and his wife Baiji kick their drinking habit. “Our lives are better now because we can buy better food and clothes from the money we earlier spent on alcohol,” said Baiji.

Around 75 villagers had attended the Christmas day prayers. Their homes were vandalised the next night. The group wanted Bhoye and his group to stop attending the prayers. S S Dongre of the prayer group said the villagers have been asked to report to the Mamlatdar (a court officer) today to sign the undertaking with the sarpanch (head) of Tilonda village and the police as witnesses. Police Inspector H B Giri of Vikramgad police station said the two groups have been asked to sign an undertaking saying they will maintain peace in the village. “But there is no mention of religion,” he said.

Pawar too denied the allegations. “But if it is true we will file a case and take action,” he said.

Dr. Abraham Mathai, vice chairman of the commission, said he had taken up the matter with the state home minister, R R Patil. “These people have a fundamental right to choose their religion. The police have no business to tell them to change their faith to continue to live peacefully in their village,” he said.