The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) team, led by its chairman Priyank Kanoongo, conducted a surprise inspection on November 8 at a girls’ hostel at Kheri village in Raisen district, located around 50 kms northeast of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh citing allegations of religious conversion. After the inspection the Commission has reportedly demanded a report within 10 days.
The home is run by Catholic nuns, and the NCPCR has alleged that “religious conversions are suspected” there. The Chairman Priyank Kanoongo, shared a video, on his social media handles, of the team of men inspecting the girl’s rooms, and made notes that some copies of the Bible and a religious text were found there.
ईसाई मिशनरियों के छात्रावास का औचक निरिक्षण, चला रहे थे धर्मान्तरण का धंधा
— प्रियंक कानूनगो Priyank Kanoongo (@KanoongoPriyank) November 9, 2021
There are five Christian girls and 14 Hindu girls in residence. While the Christian children hail from North Eastern states, the others are from the interior villages of MP. They live there and study in a government school nearby. The nuns who run the hostel provide support, lodging and food to the girls. According to sources, some of the students get a nominal Rs 6,000 per year.
Taken aback by the sudden inspection when there have been no complaints from the girls or their families, the nuns have now appealed the district collector of Raisen district to conduct an impartial probe into the allegations levied by the NCPCR.
The NCPCR team made an “unexpected visit, showed an identification card and came in,” recalled Sister Alice Jacob superior general of the congregation named Sisters of Jesus, of the diocese of Sagar, who manage the girls’ home. Sister Alice Jacob told SabrangIndia, “The girl children who live here come from remote areas where they do not have easy access to schools. They all study at a government school nearby. We celebrate all festivals, and the Hindu children go home to their villages to celebrate big festivals like Diwali and Rakhi at home. The North Eastern children go home only once a year as they need to be accompanied by an adult for the long trip home.”
The girls were away attending school, when the all-male team entered their hostel, searched the dormitory, and their belongings. The NCPCR team led by Kanoongo, then sat and counted the Bibles etc. they found, which the nun said belonged to the Christian students. “No one is forced to read the Bible here,” said Sr Alice. However, Kanoongo has alleged the hostel is promoting religious conversion and is illegal as it is not registered. He added over the phone that he has the mandate to carry out such sudden inspections anytime.
“We never told the students to read the bible or pray. I do not know why the inspection was carried out. I do not know why. The orders for the inspection came from the top I was told. Right people came for the inspection. They asked the sister to open the door, and when asked who they were, they showed the ID card and came in,” said Sr Alice.
According to a report in Matters India, the following day another team inspected the hostel and they were told by the students that “they were staying in the hostel on their free will as they did not have facilities to attend school.” The officials reportedly also asked the students if they were being forced to learn Christianity or involved in Christian prayers.
On November 9, the Commission wrote to the District Collector and ordered that the students be sent to their homes. The Commission has alleged “serious lapses” in their care at the hostel. According to the sisters, they are being subjected to sheer harassment even though all they are doing is helping the poor children to get education. “All the children are here with the consent of their parents,” she Sr Alice, adding, “Not a single person has been converted.” The NCPCR has asked for consent letters now from both parents of each child with photos of the parents. The nuns say they will collect all the information they need and send.
Sr Alice said the hostel was set up in 2014 as many parents of the girls who wanted to study would be helped if their children stayed near school as they are from interior villages, and access to school is a problem especially when it rains. Sister Jacob also told matter India that the hostel had “applied for registration online as per government guidelines in 2020, but still the government has not completed the process. The government has issued us an id and password. It is for the government to complete the process and we are not at fault.”
The students reportedly told the team of officials that they were well taken care of, with proper food and facilities for studies, reported Matters India. The Christian children reportedly confirmed that “they had brought the copies of the Bible from their homes and they read it as part of their routine life.” Meanwhile, the nuns have asked the District Collector to inspect the hostel, refuting the Commission’s finding.
The Sisters of Jesus was set up in 1980 by the then Bishop Clemens Thottungal of Sagar to work among the poor in rural areas of the Syro-Malabar diocese.
Priyank Kanoongo told SabrangIndia over the phone that the hostel was illegal as it was not registered and confirmed that he had asked that the students be sent back home. He refused to answer further questions unless they were emailed. However, in the videos he has shared online he has alleged that he suspects religious conversions in the home. The Commission objected to the hostel functioning without a valid registration.
SabrangIndia also asked the following questions in an email to Priyank Kanoongo, Chairman, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR):
1: Why did you conduct a sudden inspection at the hostel at Intkheri village in Raisen district? What made you pick this venue?
2: Did you have any prior information on activities there before you inspected it? What was the source of this information (please name the organisation)?
3: Who comprised the inspection team that went to the rooms where girl students reportedly stayed? Were there any women officials in the team, as the inspection was of a girls’ hostel?
4: What did the inspection team find in the rooms, and among the personal possessions of the girl students?
5: You have alleged religious conversions, how many students have been converted there?
6: What other explanations have been sought from the nuns who run the place?
7: If a report has been sought after the inspection, and an investigation is yet to be done, how has religious conversion been alleged?
A reply was awaited till the time of publishing and will be added as and when it comes.
The Commission’s mandate
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) was set up as a statutory body in March 2007 under the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights (CPCR) Act, 2005. As per the Act, section 13(1)(i) allows the Commission and its members to “Inspect or cause to be inspected any juveniles custodial home, or any other place of residence or institution meant for children, under the control of the Central Government or any State Government or any other authority, including any institution run by a social organisation; where children are detained or lodged for the purpose of treatment, reformation or protection and take up with these authorities for remedial action, if found necessary.”
Thus, admittedly, the Commission has the power to inspect “any institution run by a social organisation” where children are lodged.
The primary mandate of the Commission is to protect children’s rights under the Constitution as well as other Acts like Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 and the Right To Education Act (RTE), 2009, as mentioned on their website.
As per the management of the hostel, they house these children belonging to remote areas to facilitate their education at government run schools. This also means that while the NCPCR ought to safeguard the right to education of these girls, they are disrupting the functioning of this social organisation based on allegations of “religious conversion”. A Commission that is vested with the duty to protect children, ought not to disrupt social activities of such organizations that are housing children irrespective of the religion they follow despite themselves being a Jesuit association.
The manner in which these “raids” were conducted, by an all-male team, in a hostel run by females and one that houses young girls, also does not speak highly of the Commission and its members and the mandate that is purports to uphold.