On 31 December 2020, Sardar Vaskale had planned to host a family get-together at his home in Dewada village, in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district, to ring in the arrival of a new year. His relatives, who reside in other villages in the state, had arrived a day early to join the New Year’s eve celebrations. The anticipation of the event was cut short on the afternoon of 31 December, when 25-30 men affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindu groups barged into Vaskale’s home, abusing them and accusing him and his family members—who belong to the Bhilala Adivasi community—of organising a religious conversion programme. Vaskale, and most of his family, are Christian, and he categorically denied that any conversion programme had happened at his house. Vaskale told me that in the attack the RSS members pushed Lila Bai, a 25-year-old pregnant woman, whose baby died on the same day.

Despite Rakesh Alawe, Lila Bai’s husband, filing a complaint at the Thikri police station, no FIR was registered. When I spoke to him on 10 February, Vaskale told me that the police have still failed to register an FIR against Alawe’s complaint. While the police have collected witness statements of several people, the conclusion they seem to have drawn seems to ignore the statements of Vaskale or his family. Instead, their conclusions seem to be entirely based on the statement of the accused attackers. A police official I spoke to also parroted allegations of the attackers that Vaskale was converting others to Christianity.

“At around 2.30 pm, we were sitting in my house when they came in,” Vaskale told me. “I had four guests. The mob came in making a lot of noise. The women came outside to see what the commotion was. Then the mob started attacking us all of a sudden and snatched mobile phones from the women and from myself.” He alleged that the sarpanch of Khurampura, the neighbouring village, was also among the attackers. “Mangal, the sarpanch, told me to stay silent, and that everyone is carrying weapons. ‘Bullets will be fired,’ he said,” Vaskale told me. “I said, ‘Okay, sir,’ but he started beating me as well.” Vaskale reiterated that the sarpanch warned him twice that the men were carrying weapons. “We were threatened that if we go to the police station and if proceedings are initiated against them, we will be killed,” he added.

“They were saying, ‘You Bhiladas refuse to learn.’ Addressing the women, they said, ‘Why are you talking in Hindi? You are Bhiladas.” An activist from the region told me that Bhilada is a slur used to denigrate members of the Bhil community. Vaskale further alleged that the attackers sexually harassed the girls. He told me he recognised four or five men, including Khurampura’s sarpanch, who were part of the mob.

Among Vaskale’s relatives who were guests at his home was Lila, who was eight months pregnant. “When Lila Bai came out, even she was beaten up and she fell on her stomach. She felt dizzy,” he said. Vaskale told me that following the attack Lila was taken to his aunt, Thavli Bai’s, house which is about hundred metres away. Another relative, called Lal Singh, called for an ambulance, Vaskale told me. Before Lila could be admitted to the nearest government hospital in Thikri village, she delivered a stillborn baby in the ambulance. The baby was declared brought dead at the hospital.

“We were really scared. We could not say anything at the hospital,” Alawe, Lila’s husband, told me. He said he was not present at Dewada at the time of the incident but had followed the ambulance to the hospital on being alerted about the attack. “She was admitted there for two or three hours. And then she was referred to the Barwani district hospital where she spent the night. She was not offered any treatment.” Alawe told me he tried to file a police complaint against the attackers on the same day. “I went to the police station on the same evening, on the day when the incident took place. But they refused to register an FIR,” he told me.

Rooprekha Yadav, sub-divisional officer of police in Barwani confirmed to me that they had not yet registered a first information report in the case but said a marg had been registered. A marg is a term in Hindi to describe a police report recording information concerning the death of any person. “In Lila Bai’s case, we have registered a marg in relation to the death of the child. We are examining it,” Yadav told me. If a preliminary examination of the death is proven to have any criminal motive, such a marg is usually converted into an FIR. “We have sent the DNA and viscera to the FSL”—forensic science laboratory—“for examination. We have not received the report yet.”

Lila’s family members had buried the deceased baby on the evening of 31 December. On 6 January, following a dharna by the family and activists inside the premises of the Thikri police station demanding an investigation into the death, the police exhumed the body for a post-mortem. “The doctor has not given a definite opinion on the post mortem,” Yadav told me. “The medical examination of the woman at the hospital also did not reveal any injuries, external or internal,” Yadav said. The family informed me that they have not received a copy of the post-mortem report.

Yadav told me that the police have recorded statements of several “independent witnesses” in the village and that the findings show that no violence occurred. The witness statements of Vaskale’s family, in a police report which The Caravan is in possession of, all seem consistent while those that argue that no violence occurred, including those by police officers and those accused of the attack, are inconsistent with each other. The conclusion that Yadav drew from the statements seems entirely based on the RSS members’ account.

“The town inspector had reached the spot within 10 to 15 minutes of being informed,” Yadav told me. “He recorded a video as well. At that time, no one raised any allegations of violence or molestation. It was just a normal conversation that was going on. An application was suddenly filed on the following day.” According to Alawe, he had approached the Thikri police station on the very same evening of the incident to register a complaint, a statement which Yadav did not disagree with. She did not respond to questions about the inconsistencies in her characterisation of events.  

Yadav also began questioning Lila’s account of the incident. “If a child dies as a result of getting beaten up, she would yell or say something in front of the doctor about what happened. We have statements of the doctor and the nurse that she did not say anything even on being asked,” she told me. When I suggested that she may have been too shaken to speak, Yadav replied, “Only she and her husband could be in such a mental state. What were the others doing?”

She then went on to say that when the town inspector had reached Vaskale’s home, Lila was not present there, implying that her absence in the house at that time means that she was not attacked. “She was in another house when this incident happened,” Yadav said. “The eyewitnesses said that there was a tip-off that a religious conversion programme was taking place. So, RSS members reached there to talk to them. It was very crowded. This woman was sitting outside the house with her daughter and watching what was going on.” She added that an ambulance was called after Lila started complaining of pain, unrelated to any violence.

In an investigation report filed before Nimish Agarwal, the superintendent of police for Barwani district, Yadav and her team have recorded 34 witness statements. The statements include that of Lila and her family members, neighbours and of a few men among those accused of the attack. The accounts of Vaskale’s family members are consistent with each other in describing the way in which the violence unfolded, the accusations of religious conversion and the way in which Lila was attacked.

Sunita, a 16-year-old who was visiting Vaskale for the new year’s event said in her statement, “Around 2:30 pm, 25-30 people arrived, they barged into my uncle’s house, they started throwing things and the people in the house were pushed around. They abused us saying, Bhilade, you are accepting money to do religious conversion. They also started threatening to kill us.” Referring to Lila, Sunita said, “When everyone came out, I saw that a pregnant woman had fallen on her stomach. She had fallen amidst the pushing. She was scared. She was taken to a house behind and an ambulance was called for on 108. She was taken to a hospital.”

Vaskale’s mother Gyarsi Bai was tending to the goats in the fields when she heard a commotion from her house. She says in her witness statement that on seeing a huge crowd surrounding the house, she rushed there. “I asked them why have you come here drunk and abusing us. So, they said that they will fire bullets,” recalled Gyarsi in her statement.

According to Lila’s own account recorded by the police; she was at Vaskale’s house when the RSS members arrived there. They all stood up on seeing them.  “I was standing near the door outside when those people shoved themselves in to get inside the house. I fell down right there as I got pushed and I screamed loudly. I don’t know what happened after that. When I regained consciousness, I was at my aunt’s house,” she said, referring to Thavli, to whose house she was taken after she fell.

However, Yadav’s report concludes that Lila was not present at Vaskale’s home at the time of the incident and that the delivery of the stillborn child had no connection to it. “Independent witnesses in the vicinity of the site of the incident said that Lila Bai was at Thavli Bai’s house with her five-year-old daughter,” the conclusion of the report states. “Thavli Bai’s house is at a distance of 500 metres from Lila Bai’s house. Lila Bai did not go to Sardar’s house and no one said anything about any pushing or beating. Lila Bai started having labour-induced pains at Thavli Bai’s house itself and she was taken to a hospital in an ambulance from Thavli Bai’s house.”

The police have relied on statements from a few neighbours to say that Lila was at Thavli’s home when the RSS members had arrived. But the statements raise questions as to how much of the events of that afternoon could have been witnessed by the neighbours from their distant vantage points and how they could have deduced that Lila was not attacked at all. All the neighbours’ statements attest to seeing a huge crowd outside Vaskale’s home. The neighbours, most of whom are farmers, were walking back from the fields, after switching on the water pump motors for the day, when they saw a large number of people surrounding Vaskale’s home. The various accounts indicate that the neighbours did not approach Vaskale’s house and had instead watched from afar. According to those present in the house, the violence occurred indoors. Most witnesses say that they subsequently saw an ambulance arrive and wait for around half an hour before taking Lila to a hospital. In the police report, the neighbours denied knowing anything else about the incident.

It is the account of Lal Singh, Vaskale’s relative, who had called for an ambulance for Lila, which stands out in the report. Referring to Lila, he told the police, “Thavli Bai’s sister’s daughter gave birth to the baby even before the vehicle arrived,” his statement says. “It was a healthy baby. It took half an hour to clean the baby and the 100 number (the ambulance) waited there all that while.” This detail is implausible in light of other accounts, including that of the women who were with Lila when she was in labour, which state that the baby was born on the way to the hospital. The statement of Praveen Solanki, the ambulance driver, notes, “Lila Bai’s baby was not born in the house, Lila Bai gave birth in the ambulance.” He also stated that he was told to wait for around 20 minutes outside the house because the labour was already in progress.

Lal Singh’s account appears to be an attempt to distance himself from Vaskale and his choice to follow Christianity. “We were approached for religious conversion two months ago but we refused. Those of us in the community were also going to make them understand and then this incident happened,” he said in his statement. He also states that he had initially refused to call for an ambulance on being requested by Thavli’s daughter-in-law because he did not wish to get involved in “useless scuffles.” Singh goes so far as to allege that the accusations about the stillbirth being a result of the attack is a story concocted by Lila’s family to escape facing a police enquiry on charges of religious conversion.

Vaskale told me that all the witnesses the police are using to back their story could not have known what happened at his house. “Lal Singh’s house is behind mine, and he could not have seen anything that happened here from there,” Vaskale said. “The other neighbours mentioned in the police report stay at least a kilometre away.”

Vaskale’s complaint names Ravi Khanna, Raj Rathod, Ramesh Rathod, Gaurav Sharma, Mangal Patel and Trilok Patel among the 25-30 men who had allegedly ransacked his house and attacked the family. None of the men named by Vaskale are Adivasi. Yadav’s report records their counter-arguments, which reflect the extent to which anti-conversion vigilantism has been institutionalised. “On 31.12.2020, around 10-11 am, I received information that religious conversion programmes are being organised in Dewada village for a year now,” Khanna, who describes himself as a worker of the Hindu Jagran Manch in his statement, said. The Hindu Jagran Manch is a militant group affiliated with the RSS that mobilises people around religious issues.

“I was also informed that on 31.12.2020, a large number of people were invited for a religious conversion programme. I passed on this information to the workers of Hindu Jagran Manch. All of us workers gathered together with the intention of stopping the programme,” Khanna’s statement reads. On seeing a stage set up outside Vaskale’s house along with posters and banners “related to Christian religion”, they questioned him on whether he was organising a religious conversion event. “At this time, Manu Dhangar dialled 100 and shared this information. And Shri Ram Patidar called the police inspector, Thikri and informed him. Within a short time after the phone calls, the Thikri police inspector reached there along with other police force,” Khanna added. He and other accused denied resorting to any violence at Vaskale’s house. Vaskale told me the entire RSS account was fabricated. “There was no stage at all,” he told me. “There were just seven or eight of us, including guests, and we were all inside the house. No stage was set up. My parents were in the fields.” It is significant to note that the statements of the neighbours, including those who denied seeing any violence, described the scene as an “argument” or a “fight” and not the civil discussion that Khanna insists it was. I had attempted to contact Khanna for comment but was unable to reach him

Yadav’s investigation too has seemed to view Vaskale as a perpetrator of conversion, and not as the victim of a hate-crime. “We have not registered a FIR for the conversion but we are investigating it,” Yadav told me. “We have seized banners, posters, Bibles and a seal which carried the name of Dewada church.” Her statements seem to imply that conversion in and of itself is illegal, which is not true in Madhya Pradesh. On 9 January this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state government promulgated the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance which prohibits conversion to another religion by “undue influence, coercion, marriage or any fraudulent means” and mandates that any person wishing to convert must provide 60 days prior notice to the district magistrate concerned. Adivasi Christian groups have argued that this is an attempt by Hindu nationalists to criminalise the Adivasi Christian community and is antithetical to India’s secular constitution.

“When did they convert in this church?” Yadav asked me. “We have seized all these things. A man and a woman who had arrived from Maharashtra ran away before the police arrived.” Yadav was referring to Aravind Piplode and Nandabai Patil, who were among the guests at Vaskale’s home. Khanna and the other accused alleged that the two visitors were there to organise the conversion programme. However, Vaskale said that both Piplode and Patil were at a market in Thikri during that afternoon.

While Khanna’s statement named the Hindu Jagran Manch, Yadav identified them as RSS members in her conversation with me. She described them as complainants who alerted the police against a possible crime. Referring to Vaskale and family, she said, “They must have thought that they may face an FIR in connection to religious conversion. That’s why they filed such a complaint on the next day. This is the truth that has emerged from the examination of the witness statements.”

Idu Bhai Chauhan, a pastor in Barwani district, said that the attackers might have assumed that there was going to be a conversion programme only because Vaksale had guests that day. “There was no such meeting that day. They were going to cook mutton and enjoy it with their relatives to celebrate the new year,” he told me. “They were also going to hold prayers wishing for a good year ahead. The police said that they are under pressure from above, that they cannot do anything.” Vaskale also alleged that the town inspector had openly stated in conversation to them that he was under pressure from the leaders of the ruling BJP. When I asked Yadav about the allegations of political pressure on the investigation, she denied it.

Alave told me that on the day of the attack, he reached out to Raju Patel, a member of Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti—a Madhya Pradesh-based Adivasi organisation which works to empower indigenous peoples through documentation, development and education. Patel told me that at the Thikri police station, the officials assured him that an investigation would be conducted. “They said that they would conduct an enquiry within two days and register an FIR,” Patel told me. “When this did not happen, we organised a dharna outside the station on 6 January.” The Bhim Army, an Ambedkarite organisation that fights for the human rights of Bahujan groups, also joined the protest. Chauhan said he had participated in the dharna too. “We spent the whole night there. There were 200-250 of us. We prepared an application. They accepted it only the next morning,” Chauhan told me. “Shriram Rathod, Ravi Khanna, Raj Rathod, Ramesh Rathod, Gaurav Sharma, Mangal Patel, Trilok Patel and 26-27 other workers carried out the attack and a pregnant Adivasi woman Lila Bai was kicked in the stomach, killing her eight-month-old unborn child,” the letter submitted by the Bhim Army and JAYS to the police says. Demanding that the accused should be arrested under provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the letter stated that “the RSS organisation should be prohibited from entering Adivasi regions.”

Patel said that RD Prajapati, the additional superintendent of police, assured them that there would be an investigation in three days. This was followed by the exhumation and post-mortem of the body and the registration of a marg, which Patel said was another delaying tactic to avoid filing an FIR. “The aggrieved family must get justice,” Patel told me. “The RSS is spreading rumours that they were organising religious conversion. We are not concerned with that. The fact is that a woman was kicked, and a baby has died. Even if what they say is true, you can’t take the law into your hands.”

“We are Adivasis. We do not have a religion,” Chauhan told me. “How can we identify ourselves as Hindus? Being Adivasi is a matter of faith. One can only change mindsets.” While the Indian government categorises most Adivasis as Hindu, Adivasis groups have frequently called this a mischaracterisation and a threat to their cultural identity. Earlier this month, at a conference organised by the Harvard Business School, Hemant Soren, the chief minister of Jharkhand and one of the senior most Adivasi leaders in the country, had unequivocally stated that “tribal was never a Hindu, nor are they Hindus now.” In response, BJP spokesperson Pratul Shahdeo accused Soren of “playing in the hands of the Vatican.”

Vaskale told me that Adivasi groups in the state are continuing to fight to ensure that Lila gets justice. On 17 February, at least a thousand Adivasi women participated in a protest organised by Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sanghatan—a tribal and Dalit rights organisation which primarily works in the Adivasi regions of the districts of Barwani, Khargone, Khandwa and Burhanpur. JAYS, the Bhim army and other organisations also joined the protest outside the old collector’s office in Barwani. They raised the slogan, “Lila Bai Ko Nyay Do”—Justice for Lila. Nasri Bai, an Adivasi activist with JADS demanded that police officials should be charged for negligence in the investigation. “It is wrong that they have not registered the FIR,” she said. “The procedure is that an FIR has to be registered before proceeding with the investigation. The police are trying to save those goons. We demand that there should be an FIR against the police under section 4 of the Atrocity Act.” Nasri was referring to a section under Prevention of Atrocities Act which prescribes punishment for public servants who wilfully neglect to perform their duties under this law. “Article 19 of the Constitution gives us the right to speak, to form associations, to assemble and to move freely in India,” Nasri told me. “These are our rights. Is it their religion to beat a pregnant woman and to force a miscarriage?”

Nasri met Lila on 17 February. “She is unable to walk for long durations,” Nasri told me. “She keeps feeling dizzy. She is very scared. This is her state now.” She said that the community of Adivasi women will continue to be persistent in demanding police action against the RSS members. “We will keep fighting. This is an atrocity against our community. This is a pain inflicted on all our women,” Nasri said. In a video that was recorded outside the Thikri police station during the 6 January dharna, a visibly exhausted Lila said, “I want justice. We have been coming to the police station for seven days. It has not produced any result. I am not getting justice.”

courtesy The Caravan