Odisha has, at best, achieved a fragile peace with the issue of mass religious conversions in the state, and the demographic changes have often spilled over and turned into violence. Moreover, in the last two years, the issue of sexual abuse of minors in the state has reached a scary high and has been a topic of much concern among the general populace and civil society. After the heinous rape case of a minor tribal girl at Kunduli emerged, another noxious case of sexual abuse of young girls has taken Odisha by storm and it seems like it is still only the tip of the iceberg that has been revealed.
An issue where both child sexual abuse and forceful religious conversion are being alleged, the fallout has the potential of disturbing the political status quo in the state. The story covers all the dark areas of sexual abuse, possible religious conversion, dubious foreign funding, and plausible political patronage, without which such operations are not possible to run.
The issue came to light when a few female inmates of the Dhenkanal shelter, run by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Good News India, accused the chairman of the centre, Fayaz Rahman or ‘Daddy’, and the caretaker, Simanchal Nayak, of sexual abuse. Rahman, who has since been arrested by the police, has admitted that the centre was running on funds received from Canada and the United States to the tune of Rs 15 crore, but were operating in the state without any registration. The NGO is registered only in West Bengal, but it runs 26 branches in Odisha without any registration. A total of 80 children have now been rescued from the Dream Centre shelter home in Beltikri, Dhenkanal. Authorities also raided other centres running in Udala (Mayurbhanj), Chhatarpur (Ganjam), Rayagada, Nabarangpur, and Bhawanipatna.
There were also videos of a ‘Duban’ (religious ritual marking the conversion to Christianity) floating in the media, but they were denied to have come from any shelter home in Odisha. But based on information provided by Rahman, who is in custody, it was noted that the ceremony could have been conducted in a shelter home of the NGO in Salgadia, West Bengal. Odisha police will investigate this matter further and look into allegations of conversions carried out in the centres located in Odisha.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Mahila Morcha has sent multiple fact-finding teams to all the shelter homes and has alleged that the NGO was responsible for sexual abuse of minor girls and boys, forceful religious conversion, and even human trafficking. The political narrative has heated up with the BJP Mahila Morcha leader Pravati Parida alleging that the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) spokesperson Sasmit Patra has links with the now-jailed chief of the centre, Rahman. Patra is the president of the Odisha Minority Forum, and the BJP alleges that the centre could not operate in Odisha by opening multiple unlicensed shelter homes only with the help of his patronage. Swarajya tried to reach out to both the spokespersons of BJP and the BJD spokesperson Patra for clarifications on the matter, but there were no responses.
This is the second name cropping up after the Women and Child Development Minister Prafulla Samal came under fire for negligence and mismanagement. The BJP has already started protests in district headquarters, demanding the resignation of the minister. One of the most critical accusations fielded by the BJP Mahila Morcha, based on their fact-finding teams, was that unlike the statements by the minister, 15 of the 26 shelter homes had the necessary permissions by the government. The minister has since ordered the closure of the 22 shelter homes in the state, but the fact that these units were allowed to run for years without the necessary permits under the Juvenile Justice Act certainly puts the state government in the dock. Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan also wrote a letter to Home Minister Rajnath Singh seeking central intervention in the matter.
The lack of monitoring by the state government in the incident becomes more crucial in the light of the shelter home case in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, where 30 girls had allegedly been raped and sexually abused. The central government had instructed the states to inspect all shelter homes and it is surprising that the Odisha government found nothing amiss in the interim. After all, 539 such shelter homes were shut down across the country after a nation-wide investigation into the operation of such institutions.
The Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had earlier also ordered an audit of 9,000 child care institutions across the country on infrastructural facilities, and the report had thrown up grim findings. The centre has also planned to launch a new child protection policy for shelters across the country as an aftermath of the Muzaffarpur incident.
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