RSS-CPM rivalry in Kerala gets new ammunition: Yoga centre found to be a front for forcible 'Ghar Wapsi' conversions

Left parties in Kerala had expressed apprehension when Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to promote yoga in all facets of life soon after assuming power in 2014. Their fears seem to have come true, after a yoga centre in Ernakulam district was allegedly found to be involved in the controversial 'Ghar Wapsi' programme.

The police has registered a case against Sivasakthi Yogavidya Kendram in Kandanadu under various sections of the Indian Penal Code following a complaint registered by a 28-year-old Hindu woman who married a Christian man. The woman claimed that she was detained at the centre for 22 days and was subjected to physical and mental torture demanding she return to her original faith.

The police have booked Manoj, the director of the yoga centre, and four others under various charges, including wrongful confinement, kidnapping and outraging the modesty of a woman. Sreejesh, a close associate of Manoj, has also been arrested while four others are absconding, according to the police.

 RSS-CPM rivalry in Kerala gets new ammunition: Yoga centre found to be a front for forcible Ghar Wapsi conversions

Representational image. AFP

According to its Facebook page, the centre was established as a wing of Vijnana Bharathi, an important arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), with the mission of bestowing health and harmony to the mind, body and soul. However, Swetha Haridas, who escaped from the centre on 21 August, said that it was actually an anti-conversion clinic for Hindus involved in interfaith marriages or those who had converted to Christianity or Islam.

While considering a habeas corpus petition filed by her husband Rinto Isac, the Kerala High Court remarked whether it was a Dera Sacha Sauda in the southern state.

In an affidavit filed in the court, Swetha, an ayurvedic doctor from the northern district of Kannur, said she saw 65 people, including 59 women, trapped at the centre. She alleged that the inmates were subjected to physical assault and even sexual abuse.

Swetha, who married Rinto, a photographer from Thrissur district in November 2016, said she was tricked into the "yoga centre" by her parents under the guise of a three-day session. They took her to the centre when she went to Muvattupuzha on 28 July for her sister's house warming ceremony.

In addition to yoga, she said she was also subjected to counselling that focused on the complications of inter-religious marriages and the problems such couples would face. When she did not change her mind even after three days of counselling, the officials changed their tone and started threatening her to either abandon her husband or get him converted to Hinduism if she insisted on living with him.

When Swetha tried to run away from the place, she was locked inside a room in the centre and was physically and mentally harassed. She said she was also beaten up by the staff members when she refused to abide by their order. Swetha was allowed to go only after she promised to get her husband converted to Hinduism.

She said there were 59 women like her at the centre, who had either converted to other religions or had married outside the community. Her affidavit said the inmates were barred from interacting with each other and were tortured until they agreed to change their mind.

The programme at the centre consisted of open and private sessions, according to Swetha. While the open sessions focus on yoga, prayers and classes on different religious teachings, the instructors demonise Bible and Quran in the private sessions and force the converts to return to their original faith, Swetha said.

Athira, a 23-year-old girl, who returned to Hinduism after having embraced Islam of her own free will, was present at the centre, a few days ahead of her scheduled "ghar wapsi". Athira, who hails from Kasargod, denied Swetha's allegations. "None of the inmates were physically or mentally harassed at the Sivasakthi yoga centre, nor was anyone brainwashed. They treated me with love and care. They asked me only to re-read the Quran with an open mind. After doing so, I realised that my understanding of Islam was not correct," Athira told a press meet at Ernakulam.

However, the high court has found merit in Swetha's allegations. After directly hearing her out on Tuesday, a division bench by chief justice described her revelations as "shocking" and directed the police to conduct an investigation and submit a report.

Following the hearing, the court also directed that the state police chief, district police chief, Hill Palace circle inspector and the Udayamperoor sub-inspector be made parties in the case. Further hearing in the case has been scheduled for 10 October.

The Udayamperoor police has confirmed Swetha's allegation that she was detained and tortured at the centre for nearly a month. A member of the investigating team told Firstpost that their preliminary investigation had revealed that the allegations were prima facie true.

He said that some inmates had told the police that they had seen Swetha being thrashed by three women staffers of the centre. Sreejesh, a senior staff member who was arrested, was also present at the centre when the assault happened, the police officer, who did not want to be identified, said.

The Udayamperoor gram panchayat has also served a close memo on the centre. Following this, most of the inmates have gone back. Five inmates, who came from other states, are waiting for their parents to take them back home.

A senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader from Ernakulam said that the news reports regarding the yoga centre had vindicated the party's charge that the Sangh Parivar was misusing yoga to further its Hindutva agenda.

Terming yoga as just a "physical exercise", the CPM tried to counter the Sangh's attempt to hijack the discipline, by organising a de-Hinduised version of it under the aegis of the CPM-backed Indian Martial Arts Academy and Yoga Study Centre, and by making yoga a part of the school curriculum.

The party had staged a massive demonstration in Kannur, where CPM and RSS cadres are engaged in a bloody battle for supremacy, as part of its campaign in January last year. Over 1,200 yoga practitioners, mostly party cadres, took part in the demonstration.

The last International Yoga Day on 21 June touched controversy when Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan called for practicing yoga in a "secular frame of mind", and Health Minister KK Shylaja refused to recite the Sanskrit shloka during a yoga session in the state capital.

The BJP had termed these as an insult to India's spiritual wisdom and its revered saints. Party state president Kummanam Rajashekharan pointed out that by calling yoga a "secular" exercise, the CM had exposed his ignorance and lack of scientific knowledge.

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Updated Date: Sep 27, 2017 21:15:21 IST