South Asia

Woman forcibly held for 22 days in ‘anti-conversion’ clinic in Kerala

A Hindu woman who married a Christian last year was forcefully confined in a ‘yoga centre’ last month, which she claimed was an ‘anti-conversion clinic’ for women and men who married outside their faith or converted to Christianity or Islam as a result of marriage.

She was held in Ernakulam for 22 days where she was forced to abandon her husband or convince him to embrace Hinduism. When she did not co-operate they threatened to kill her husband.

Swetha, 28, married Rinto Isac and lived in Thrissur district for 10 months after their marriage. Swetha’s family objected to their wedding as Rinto was a practicing Christian. “For 10 months after our wedding, we lived happily,” said Swetha.

Swetha’s parents who were offended by Swetha’s decision now began talking with the couple.

Swetha was invited to her sister’s house-warming ceremony in Moovattupuzha on 28 July where her parents also joined from Kannur.

On 31 July, her relatives tricked her into going to this ‘yoga centre’ on the pretext that her sister wanted to join yoga classes. A counsellor named Sujith spoke to all of them. Soon Swetha realised that they were not there for enrolling her sister for yoga classes but that she was their target and her marriage to a Christian man the key subject.

“The counsellor told me that inter-religious marriages are complicated and that such couples have to face many problems,” said Swetha.

A second round of ‘counselling’ was scheduled with both Swetha and her mother following which the counsellor spoke to her in private.

“Then his tone completely changed. He began threatening me to leave my husband, or get him to convert to Hinduism if we wanted to live together. He asked me what religion our children would follow, and I said that I didn’t mind if they embraced Christianity. He threatened me saying he will kill my husband and that they won’t let our kids follow Christianity,” revealed Swetha.

Swetha tried running away from the place but all the doors were shut she said.

Swetha’s parents had enrolled her for a 3-day counselling course and paid a good amount of money to the centre. The Centre convinced her parents that she needs more sessions and extended the sessions. She had to pay extra for these classes.

The yoga centre functions out of a house in Kandanadu under the name – Siva Sakthi Yoga Centre.

Swetha told media that the two-storey house had about 65 inmates, 59 women and 6 men, who had either converted to other religions or married outside their religion. 15 staff members also lived in the centre. The inmates were barred from going to the first floor and they were made to sleep on the floor in dormitories on the ground floor.

Describing her day, she revealed that they would be forced to wake at 4.15am and they would be made to do yoga and prayers, attend classes on Hinduism.

“There would be ‘private’ sessions, where the instructors would demonise the Bible and the Quran,” said Swetha.

The inmates were barred from interacting with each other and threatened by the staff that they were being watched under CCTV surveillance and claimed that voice recorders were installed all over the yoga centre. Their bathrooms did not have locks under the pretext that this is done under precautionary measures, as many girls had attempted suicide in the past.

“The staff members used to beat me when I questioned them about religion and their ways of teaching,” said Swetha who said she was traumatised by the experience.

Rinto Isac, Swetha’s husband was unware of all that was happening with Swetha. According to a report he said: “The last time I spoke to her(Swetha), she had told me that they were going to Lulu mall the next day. After that, I was not able to contact her at all. When her parents failed to give convincing replies, I knew something was wrong.”

On 10 August, Isac filed a habeas corpus petition, which was heard by the court only on 26 September, after Swetha had returned already.

To escape from the anti-conversion centre, Swetha tricked them by pretending to agree to their demands.

“By then I knew that there was no way out for me if I didn’t oblige to their demands. So I acted as if I am convinced by whatever they told me. That’s how they let me go on 21 August,” said Swetha.

Swetha returned to her husband on 11 September, after staying at her sister’s house for few days after being released from the centre.

On returning home, Swetha filed a complaint with the Udayamperoor police on 25 September who visited the yoga/anti-conversion centre and issued a stop memo.

According to media reports, the police have charged Manoj (director of the yoga centre) and other members of staff with wrongful confinement, kidnap and criminal intimidation among other charges. Some members of staff are reported to have absconded.

Another woman, Athira, who had converted to Islam and then “returned” to Hinduism after a stay at the Yoga Clinic, told journalists that her Muslim friends had “misguided” her into embracing Islam. Athira who was at the Clinic at the same time as Swetha, said that she had “returned” to Hinduism of her own accord. She said, “None of us were physically or mentally harassed at the yoga centre, nor was I brainwashed. They behaved with me with love and care”.