Religion
“They were to persuade me in 6 hours. I spent 7 months at the yoga center bearing the brunt”, says Ashita.

Ashita recalls that horrific morning lucidly. “I cried and shouted for help all through the journey. They stuffed a cloth into my mouth. My father’s brother and a man called Ashwin, a staff member at the yoga center, beat me inside the car,” she says.

20-year-old Ashita, a nursing graduate, was born to Anoop Kumar and Preetha in a small town called Dharmadom in the Kannur district of Kerala. Her father is a Divisional Forest Officer in Kannur and her mother a teacher.

Ashita told TNM outside the Kerala High Court that she was living a simple life as a nursing student when she met Suhaib, who used to work as a journalist then.  The two fell in love and decided to marry each other.

But tension grew in Ashita’s house when her parents learnt of the relationship between their Hindu daughter and a Muslim man. Her parents were determined that there would be no wedding, says Ashita.

When chiding did not work, her family became more aggressive, she alleges.

On January 29, Ashita was forcibly taken to the Siva Sakthi Yoga Vidya Centre at Udayamperoor in Tripunithura by her parents. She was given milk laced with a sedative and then shoved into a car, says Ashita in a criminal case filed against the yoga centre and 11 accused.  

“The staff members from the yoga center had promised to convince me against marrying Suhaib. My parents along with a few men from the yoga center forcibly took me to the centre. I remember it was an Innova car,” says Ashita.

 Ashita remembers that they played loud music in the car to drown out her cries. “When we reached the yoga center, I refused to get down from the car. They thrashed me and dragged me out of the car and later locked me up in a room. I kept crying as loud as I could for help. They would tie me to a chair and tortured me day and night. The center used to play loud music all the time,” she says.

The torture, Ashita says, continued for several days until she decided to surrender and accept that she would end the relationship with Suhaib.

On February 23, Suhaib filed a habeas corpus petition against Ashita’s illegal detention. The court then asked for Ashita to be produced in front of the magistrate. But Suhaib’s petition was dismissed after Ashita submitted that she was not under illegal detention and that she was voluntarily residing with her parents.

But, says Ashita, “What I said in court was not the truth. I was blackmailed. They had threatened to kill Suhaib.”

She alleges that she was threatened by 'Manoj Guruji', the Director of the yoga center and other staff members before she went to court. “Manoj and his followers blackmailed and threatened me before reaching the court. They accompanied my parents to the court. I was scared. I gave in to the pressure and agreed to go back home with my parents.”

KR Manoj, the Founder and Director of Arsha Vidya Samajam, also runs the Shiva Shakti Yoga Vidya centre, which he claims conducts courses on Hinduism.

The second visit to the yoga centre

While Ashita went back home, the counter petition filed by her family and the yoga centre continued to haunt Suhaib. He had been portrayed as a ‘jihadi terrorist’ who wanted to marry a Hindu girl as part of a ‘Love Jihad’ campaign.

Weeks after she reached home, Ashita managed to get in touch with Suhaib again.  The couple then decided to elope on March 22. “But my parents got wind of my plan. What happened next was a deliberate attempt to paint me as mentally unstable. They took me to a psychiatrist in Vadakara and he said I was mentally unfit. On March 23, my father’s brothers dragged me into a car. I was made to take some pills. Soon I fainted. When I woke up, to my horror, I was back in the yoga center,” alleges Ashita.

In a criminal petition he filed, Suhaib says that he was on the phone with Ashita when she was dragged out of her house, and he could hear her cry on the other side. Suhaib immediately informed the Sub Inspector of the Dharmadom police station, but the police filed a report stating that a mentally unstable young woman had been taken for alternate therapy. 

Ashita spent the next seven months of her life locked up at the yoga centre.

From cultural centre to yoga centre

The heated scandal around the yoga centre first arose in September, after Swetha Haridasan, a woman detained at the centre for 22 days filed a complaint after getting out.

Caught off guard, the government responded by sealing the centre, while those in charge of it, including Manoj, fled.

Swetha’s allegations were bolstered by another woman Shruthi Meledath, who also told the court she was confined at the yoga centre. And some days later, a former instructor at the centre added in his testimony, filing a petition to implead himself into the case against the centre.

Read- Tortured for 22 days: Hindu woman married to Christian exposes Kerala 'anti-conversion clinic'

Speaking to TNM, the instructor (who wishes to remain anonymous) says that the yoga centre had originally begun as a cultural centre called the Manisha Samskarika Vedi at Perumbalam in Alappuzha district in 1998.

“I joined the center in 2002. Manoj started the venture as a cultural center. Around 2005, he even brought out a magazine which preached about Vedic history and culture of Hinduism. In the initial years, after its establishment, it mainly worked as a cultural center. This was the reason several people like me joined,” the former staffer tells TNM, preferring to be anonymous.

It was in 2009 that Manoj decided to start the yoga centre. By 2011, Manoj started working with the ‘Hindu Help Line’ a group actively engaged in ‘rescuing and re-converting’ Hindus who had converted to Islam or Christianity, says the instructor.

“We started noticing that young girls were being brought to the centre for counselling. The centre had two floors then, we worked on the ground floor. The conversion-related issues were dealt with by Manoj and his selected followers”, he recalls.

But a horrific sight he witnessed one day jolted him. “One day we were returning to the yoga centre after lunch. We were shocked to hear a girl crying from the second floor. We rushed to the spot and saw a young Kannadiga girl tied to a chair and being tortured,” he alleges.

Some of the staff members quit soon after, says the instructor. “We quit soon enough. But after three years, Manoj has filed false cases against us, that we misbehaved with women at the yoga centre. He is an influential person. We had pleaded for anticipatory bail from the court when he charged us with false cases,” he says

What Ashita underwent there

It was a yoga centre only by name, says Ashita. “I did everything but yoga there. We were made to cook food for Manoj and his followers. We were never made to do yoga, not even once. Both girls and boys stayed in the yoga center and Manoj used to conduct Sanathanadharma classes for us. He even asked me to convert Suhaib to Hinduism. The classes were to ‘enlighten’ the attendees about the evils of other religions,” she alleges.

Ashita says that any attempt she made to contact Suhaib was rewarded with physical assault. Ashita had enrolled in a distance programme in literature after her nursing degree. When she was taken for an exam for this course to the SNDP school in Kalamassery, she tried to get in touch with Suhaib.

“I was caught. They got me out of the examination hall, locked me up in the room at the yoga centre. I was even beaten with a stick,” she recalled.

Things then took a murkier turn. In her complaint, Ashita alleges that she was also taken to the Amritha Institute of Medical Sciences and medicated there.

“I spent almost five days there. The doctor knew Manoj. I was under medication. They had convinced my parents that projecting me as mentally unstable before the court with medical certificates would help them win the case”, she says.

Both Ashita and the former staffer have said in their complaints that women were sexually harassed in the centre too.

“Murali, one of the staff members at the Yoga center had made sexual advances towards me. When I informed Manoj about this, he told me to bottle it all up”, alleges Ashita.

On September 10, Ashita and her friend Aswathy made a miraculous escape.

“Around 7pm in the evening, we went outside the yoga centre on the pretext of throwing out kitchen waste. We jumped over the fence and ran to a nearby marshland filled with bushes. We hid ourselves there for three hours, though the water stood till our waist. Around 10 pm we managed to reach the main road and met a taxi driver called Eldo. He was a good man and was kind to us. He gave us Rs 300 and also bought us two train tickets to Thalassery”, says Ashita.

Ashita then went straight home and convinced her parents that she would live with them and pleaded with them not to send her back to the yoga center. She stayed with her parents for about a month. On October 10, Ashita managed to run away from her parents and met Suhaib. Since then the couple have been on the run.

“I have spent 6 months of my life, bearing all the pain they inflicted on me. I still stand strong. I want to marry Suhaib and we both don’t want to convert. We have applied for marriage registration under the Special Marriages Act,” says Ashita.

“I feel trapped. We have been on the run for so long… It’s been several days now. I am afraid of my own family. My life is under threat”, the 20-year-old says.

Denials and counter accusations

Manoj, however, tells TNM that the allegations against him and the centre are baseless, and insists that Ashita was mentally unstable.

“These are false and baseless allegations made against us. We strongly believe that physical torture is not a solution for anything. Ashita has been undergoing treatment for medical illness since her 12th standard. Her parents had taken her to a lady psychiatrist when she was in school”, Manoj claims.

 Manoj outrightly dismisses Ashita’s allegations that she was threatened to speak against her will at the court.  

 “When she was taken to the court she had clearly spoken against the allegations raised by Suhaib. If she was being tortured by us, why didn’t she speak up? How can anyone take to violence inside a court or challenge a supreme institution of that magnitude? We had never threatened her to speak in favor of us,” he countered.

Manoj goes on to claim that, “She in fact lived like a family with us. She had participated in the cultural programs we conducted, we have pictures of her. We mean no harm to anyone, there is a vested agenda of the Popular Front of India to tarnish our image.”

Ashita’s father spoke to TNM reluctantly, but said that he has no complaints regarding the yoga center and its services.

“I am not a religious person. I don’t believe in any religion, I only believe in karma”, says Ashita’s father Anoop Kumar.

“I am completely satisfied with the Siva Sakthi Yoga center and its services. They don’t preach religion at the center, they only teach Vedic history. We never forced Ashita to join the yoga center, she volunteered instead,” he claims.

‘Goebbelsian untruths’

Ashita and Suhaib aren’t the only complainants against the centre. Swetha Haridasan and Rinto Isaac too are pursuing the case against the centre. However, the Arsha Vidya Samajam has denied Swetha and Rinto’s version of events as “Goebbelsian untruths” to the Indian Express.

Not every former inmate of the yoga centre has spoken against it. Athira, a woman who had converted to Islam and then re-converted to Hinduism has openly vouched for the centre in the media.

Read- Kerala woman who left home and converted to Islam, now 'returns' to Hinduism

But with more versions of damning allegations emerging against the Siva Sakthi Yoga Vidya centre, there is a case building for a serious investigation into the ways in which conversion and re-conversion centres function in Kerala.