The beating up and arrest of a Pastor, his wife, a woman Church member and her 4 year old son in Satna, Madhya Pradesh marks the two-year anniversary of the Narendra Modi led NDA II government in India.
Pastor V A Antony (50) who is the leader of the Brethren Church in village Aber, nearly 30 kilometres from Satna city, has been ministering in the area now for eighteen years.
On 22 May 2016, Pastor Antony, his wife Prabha Antony (48), a woman Church member called Praveen Choudhary and her four-year-old son Paarth left in Pastor Antony’s car for their home after concluding the regular Sunday worship service in the village. Four plain clothes Policemen in a vehicle blocked their way and asked Pastor Antony to step out of his car. He was then slapped in the face twice. The policemen threatened him and told him not to be seen in the village again. He was also warned against conducting worship services.
“They stopped me after we had traveled about 5 kilometres, slapped me and then asked me to leave for Satna”, said Pastor Antony while narrating his ordeal to Barnabas Fund.
“Two out of the four seated in their vehicle had met me outside the Church after service the same morning along with three Hindu extremists, and had asked me ‘not to conduct Church service in the village, as there are no Christians here’. The Hindu extremists accused me of carrying out forcible conversions in that area,” added Antony.
“The men had begun to shout and abuse me in the vilest language but the policemen with them intervened and they left the premises soon,” Pastor Antony narrated.
“The plain clothes policemen, who had slapped and threatened me and asked me to leave for Satna, kept chasing my car all the way in their SUV. Soon another car joined them, which was full of activists of Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (a right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary, volunteer organisation). The three men who abused me outside the Church were also among them,” said Pastor Antony.
The Christians were stopped again a few kilometres from Satna. “I was once again stopped and forced out of my car and along with my wife, our Church member and her son. We were taken to Kotar police station”, said Antony.
“We reached the police station to find a group of affluent senior political and religious leaders from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal already waiting for us”, said Antony.
In no time a First Information Report (FIR) was registered against the Christians, by Prashant Gupta, a local resident of Kotar, Satna and two of his friends Hemraj Verma and Rambhan Adivasi. Charges were framed against V.A. Antony, Prabha Antony and Praveen Choudhary under Indian Penal Code section 295A, which states, Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefsand under Sections 3/4 of The Religious Institutions Prevention of Misuse Act 1988.
“Astonishingly the FIR was registered against the three and they were produced before the Court and sent to judicial custody on a Sunday! The influence and political clout of the extremists is evident in this case”, said Chandra Kant Shourie, a senior Christian leader who runs a school in Nagod, near Satna.
“One of the Hindu extremists who was accusing me outside the Church that morning, handed over to the police a poster of ‘Ganesha’ (Hindu god), torn into pieces, and accused me of tearing the same”, said a still traumatized Antony.
Antony was also accused of “luring the three Hindu men on the pretext of giving them money and jobs to convert to Christianity and subsequently giving them a ‘bath’ in the river near Udhav Dham on 21st April 2016. They further alleged that instead of the National Flag the Christians were flying the flag of Christian religion”.
Antony told Barnabas Fund that he had not known these three men previously, or even seen them before, and “all these allegations levied on me are false”.
The child, Paarth, was handed over to his father around six in the evening and Antony, his wife Prabha and Praveen Choudhary were sent to jail at seven on the same evening.
After their bail plea was rejected in at the lower court, the pastor along with the two women was released on bail on 24 May 2016 from the Sessions court.
Pastor Antony and Prabha have a 21-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter.
Pastor Antony recollects that in 2004, a Sunday service was disrupted by a mob of Hindu extremists and he along with some church members was severely beaten. But no court case was filed against him.
“I was threatened by some extremists in Aber around 3 months ago to not to conduct church in Aber. I never thought that they would go to such an extent with false allegations and putting us in jail,” said Antony.
When Barnabas Fund asked Antony if this incident has gripped his heart with fear, he said, “Surprisingly we were very courageous. We had no fear or tension, nether when I was beaten or taken to the police station nor when we were put in the jail. The peace of God was always ruling our hearts and we felt that God was in control of the situation”.
“I was concerned for my Church worshippers and their safety. I didn’t want anyone to be harmed,” said Pastor Antony.
“It is clear that this is a deliberate and malicious vendetta perpetrated against Mr. Antony and his colleagues, in order to suppress and intimidate and prevent him from practicing his Christian beliefs, which he holds to be true. It is noteworthy to mention here that he is an Indian citizen under the Constitution of India. It is a point of deep concern that the police and the administration are held hostage by a certain group of powerful people, who are able to instigate mobs to violence and anarchy, and use that threat against the police and the administration to prevent them from carrying out their duties in the interest of justice and good governance and protection to all citizens of India”, said Chandra Kant Shourie.