In Pathamuttam, a small village near Kottayam in Kerala, a group of five families, including 12 young girls, have been forced to seek refuge in the small church hall of Pathamuttam St Paulâ€™s Anglican Church, with no proper toilet or kitchen facilities, for over 13 days now. The families fear another attack by local DYFI workers if they leave the safety of the church to go back to their homes.
Just two nights before Christmas, on the evening of 23 December, a 45-member-strong group that was going door-to-door singing Christmas carols in Pathamuttam, was allegedly attacked without provocation. Of the 7 men arrested by Chingavanam police in connection with this case, 6 men belong to the DYFI.
The court granted bail to all seven, on the condition that they would not enter Panachikad panchayat, where the church is located, for three months. However, the trapped families report that they continue to face threats, and that one of the accused in the case, Lijo, had returned to the front of the church after receiving bail despite the bail conditions barring him from visiting the area.
â€śThe DYFI workers began harassing the girls in the group [on 23 December], and it was alleged that girls of the carolling group were molested. When we questioned their actions, they attacked us and destroyed our instruments. Later, the workers attacked the church and carol group leaders. From then onwards, we five families have been forced to stay inside the church,â€ť the family members told TNM.
The members say that the DYFI workers threatened them, causing them to fear returning to their homes, and forcing them to instead remain barricaded within the church together for safety. They further allege that the police are protecting their attackers in this case, compounding their fear of leaving the sanctuary that the church provides them.
Yamiya C Thankachen, a B.Tech student trapped inside the church, told TNM, â€śFor the last 13 days, we have been forced to stay inside the church. Our homes are located near the church, but when we tried to exit the church, a group of DYFI members were watching our movements. My term exam was scheduled to be held today, and was later postponed due to the hartal. I am afraid to go to write the exam, and suspect that the accused will attack me.â€ť
She elaborates pitifully, â€śNow all of us members are staying in a small hall and there are no primary facilities to meet basic needs. When we left to go to our houses in the day time, they were watching us from the road and using ugly words. I donâ€™t know how to handle the situation and write my exams.â€ť
Kesiya, a computer science student also trapped in the church, agrees with Yamiya about the sorry state of affairs, and wants the government to take action against the accused.
Johnson PC, committee secretary of the Pathamuttam St Paulâ€™s Anglican Church told TNM, "On Wednesday, one of the accused, Lijo reached the front of the Church. Our kids are afraid to go to school and college. We want the government to arrest all accused in connection with the case.â€ť
Johnson continues, "The police and government are protecting the accused, and we are afraid to return our homes. There is no toilet or a door in the church. The members, including girls, were using neighbours houses to manage their basic needs.â€ť
The government, meanwhile, has shifted charge of this case from Chingavanam police to Kottayam Crime Branch DySP Girish P Saradhi. Police sources say that there are no serious issues in the area and the families can return to their homes, but the trapped families donâ€™t seem to share their confidence.
Meanwhile, DYFI Kottayam district secretary Sajeesh Sasi downplayed the involvement of the DYFI in this case entirely when he told TNM, â€śBasically, we do not know the familiesâ€™ motive is for staying inside the church. No DYFI workers have threatened them. If they are ready to return to their home, the DYFI district leadership is ready to provide security to the members of each family. I had interacted with the Anglican church leaders and they dont raise any complaint against DYFI. If I find any DYFI worker being involved in the incident, we will take strict action against them. Some groups with vested interests are behind the issue. The DYFI leadership is ready to participate in any talks to solve the issue.â€ť
On Wednesday, Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala visited the families and expressed his support for the barricaded families. The UDF district committee will conduct a long march to the Kottayam SP's office on January 4 on this issue. The National Minority Commission also directed the government to resolve the issue immediately.