India arrests two for Catholic nun's rape. Was it a hate crime?

The March 14 attack at a convent in West Bengal was initially treated as a robbery. Christian groups say the attackers intended to violate the elderly nun and allege a hate campaign by Hindu nationalists. 

Bikas Das/AP
A girl walks with others in a silent procession protesting the gang rape of a nun at a convent at Ranaghat, in Kolkata, India, March 21, 2015. An elderly nun was gang-raped by a group of attackers during a robbery at the Convent of Jesus and Mary School in West Bengal state's Nadia district. The poster reads "shame."

The recent gang rape of an elderly Roman Catholic nun by vandals who looted her convent sent shockwaves across India, where several high-profile cases of sexual violence against women have stirred national outrage.

Police initially said the motive for the March 14 incident was robbery, and that the nun had been attacked after trying to resist the gang. But Christians have argued that the attack was sectarian and part of an ongoing hate campaign directed at religious minorities in a Hindu-majority nation.

On Thursday, police arrested two suspects, one in Mumbai and the other in West Bengal, the state where the attack happened. Both were described as Bangladeshis living illegally in India. Several other suspects in the attack are still being pursued.

One of those arrested, Mohammad Salim Shekh, told investigators that he had been present at a planning meeting for the attack, including the rape, according to an Indian newspaper.

However, an official from the Criminal Investigation Department, a state law-enforcement agency, told a press conference that Mr. Salim’s face did not match either those of five attackers caught on CCTV footage from the convent or three other suspects drawn by police artists. He is suspected of having provided logistical support for the attack. 

Religious sensitivities are rarely far from the surface in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected last year with the support of Hindu fundamentalist groups, some of which advocate the conversion of all Indians to their faith, arguing this is a natural state of affairs. An estimated one-fifth of India's 1.27 billion people belong to faiths or sects other than Hinduism.

Mr. Modi has said that he was “deeply concerned” by the attack on the convent. But his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was quick to frame it as a straight criminal case. “It’s a case of ordinary robbery and rape. To call the attack a communally-motivated attack is pure propaganda,” said Siddharth Singh, a BJP official who handles party affairs in West Bengal. He spoke before Thursday’s arrest was announced.

Herod Mullick, an official from Bangiya Christiya Pariseba, a Kolkata-based umbrella group for Christian organizations in West Bengal, said investigators must find the masterminds behind the attack and described Salim, the suspect who reportedly confessed to being part of the gang, as “small fry.”

“If the man is speaking the truth, it’s clear that the rape on the elderly nun had been pre-meditated by men who are still at large, and the robbery was not the gang’s primary motive at all,” he says.

Details of the attack

During the early hours of March 14, at least eight men entered the Convent of Jesus and Mary School in Nadia district, 80 kilometers northeast of Kolkata. Once inside, the men overpowered the security guard and stole cash and some other valuables, while also raping the head nun and vandalizing some holy items in the chapel. 

Convent officials deny that the nun resisted the attackers, saying that the sexual assault took place after they had stolen money from the vault.

“When they confronted our Sister Superior, she called them as ‘My sons’ and wanted to know what they wanted. When they demanded the keys to get access to the school fund, our Sister Superior quietly handed over the keys and directed them to the vault, without putting up any resistance,” says Sister Shanthi, the principal of the school.

The gang broke a bust of Christ in the chapel and ransacked some cassocks. They also took sacramental breads from the tabernacle, tore them into pieces, and threw them around, the principal said. “We cannot believe that it was a case of regular robbery.”

News of the rape sparked national protests by Christians, with Hindus and Muslims joining them. It came on the heels of attacks on Christian churches and facilities in the capital, New Delhi, and other parts of India.

Minority rights advocates say Hindu radicals were likely behind the attack here and that such intimidation ties into a broader campaign for Hindu conversions. 

“There were younger nuns at the convent. Yet they chose the 71-year-old nun for the heinous attack because they targeted the mother figure of the convent, apparently to inflict maximum humiliation to the Christian community,” says Maria Fernandes, vice chairperson of the West Bengal Minorities Commission, an official body.

A wave of attacks on churches

A day after the attack on the convent, Hindu activists desecrated a church in northern Haryana state and replaced its cross with the idol of Hindu god Hanuman. On March 20, Hindu mobs attacked at least three churches in central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. On March 21, a church was vandalized in western state of Maharashtra.

Joint general secretary of Hindu organization Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) Surendra Jain said earlier that week that Christian missionaries were involved in forcible conversion of Hindus, adding that attacks on churches would continue until Christians stopped converting people. 

John Dayal, spokesman of United Christian Forum for Human Rights in Delhi, said that the VHP and other Hindu nationalist groups were fomenting more anti-minority attacks.

“Like many other Hindu leaders, Mr. Jain is trying to demonize the Christian community in an attempt to shift the spotlight from the Hindu religious nationalists who are terrorizing the Christians and Muslims,” he says.

Last month, at an event in Delhi run by a Christian church, Modi said his government wouldn’t allow any group “to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.”

But Mr. Dayal insisted that action is needed. “[Modi] has not acted against the venomous hate speeches delivered by leaders of his party and its allies, and it has set up the environment where desecration of churches, [the] rape of nuns, and general intolerance become possible or even inevitable.”

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