"They tortured me for 22 days, locked me inside the centre, mentally and physically harassed me until I promised to do whatever they ask me to," says 28-year-old Swetha, a native of Kerala's Thrissur district.
Swetha, a Hindu woman, says she was forcefully confined in a ‘yoga centre’ in Ernakulam for 22 days, where the staff, paid by her family, had one agenda: To force her to abandon her husband, a Christian.
The 28-year-old says that the yoga centre is actually an anti-conversion clinic for women who married outside their faith or converted to Christianity or Islam to marry a man of their choice. She says that the staff at the centre subjected her to days of ‘counselling’, asking her to either abandon her husband, or convince him to embrace Hinduism.
She further alleges that there are several more people locked up in the anti-conversion clinic - and one of the inmates she saw there was Athira, a woman who converted back to Hinduism from Islam recently.
Swetha, a native of Kannur district, is an ayurveda doctor. She was in a relationship with Rinto Isac, a photographer who resides in Thrissur district. Rinto is a practicing Christian and Swetha's family objected to their wedding.
After being in a relationship for three years, Swetha left home on November 8, 2016 and the duo got married in a private temple ceremony in Peechi in Thrissur. Rinto's parents accepted their relationship and the couple began living together in Thrissur. After a few months, they registered their marriage under the Special Marriages Act.
"For 10 months after our wedding, we lived happily," Swetha says.
Meanwhile, Swetha's parents began speaking to the couple.
On July 28, Swetha went to her sister's house in Moovattupuzha, for the sister's house-warming ceremony. Their parents had come down from Kannur for the ceremony. Things took a horrific turn on July 31, Swetha says.
"My parents, my sister and her husband told me that we were going to Lulu mall. After going there, they told me that my sister wanted to join yoga classes and went to this particular centre. Once inside, a counsellor named Sujith spoke to all of us. When he began talking, I understood that we hadn't gone there for any yoga class, but the matter was my marriage to a Christian man. The counsellor told me that inter-religious marriages are complicated and that such couples have to face many problems," Swetha says.
A second round of ‘counselling’ was given to Swetha and her mother. Following this, 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," Swetha says.
While Swetha tried running away from the place, all the doors were shut, she says.
"Initially my parents had put me there for a 3-day counselling course, but then they convinced my parents that I needed to stay there longer," Swetha says.
Inside the centre
Siva Sakthi Yoga Centre functions out of a house in Kandanadu. Swetha alleges that the two-storey house had about 65 inmates, 59 women and 6 men, who either converted to other religions or married outside their religion.
The 15 staff members of the centre, too, lived in the house. The inmates were barred from going to the first floor. On the ground floor where they were kept, there were two large rooms that doubled up as dormitories for the inmates to sleep. They slept on the floor.
Their day would begin at 4.15 every morning, Swetha explains. If they failed to wake up, the staff would pour water into their ears, she alleges. The rest of the day was spent doing yoga and prayers, and attending classes on religion. These classes would explain the different religious teachings to the inmates, but Swetha says there were also ‘private’ sessions, where the instructors would demonise the Bible and the Quran.
She says that the inmates were barred from interacting with each other and that the staff had threatened them saying that the whole building was under CCTV surveillance and there were voice recorders installed.
“There, I also met Athira, the girl from Kasargod who converted to Islam and recently returned to Hinduism after she underwent a course at Aarsha Vidya Samajam,” she claims.
“The staff members used to beat me when I questioned them about religion and their ways of teaching," Swetha alleges.
She says that the bathrooms at the centre didn't have any locks, as the staff claimed that it was a precautionary measure, since many girls had attempted to kill themselves in the past.
For the initial 3-day counselling, Swetha says that her parents paid Rs 15,000. When her mother left after the third day, she paid an additional Rs 5000.
Meanwhile, for her husband Rinto, repeated efforts to contact Swetha went in vain. Her mobile phone was found to be switched off and her parents only told him that Swetha had gone for a counselling course.
“The last time I spoke to her, 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,” Rinto says.
On August 10, still unable to speak to his wife, Rinto filed a habeas corpus petition, but the petition was only heard by the court on Tuesday, September 26, after Swetha had come back home.
"On August 21, they finally let me go," says Swetha.
This was only after Swetha promised that she would convince her husband to convert.
"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," Swetha says.
On September 11, after staying at her sister's house after being released from the centre, Swetha returned to Rinto's house in Thrissur.
Once she returned home, Swetha filed a complaint with the Udayamperoor police, and a team visited the yoga/anti-conversion centre on Monday and issued a stop memo.
According to reports, the police have booked Manoj, the director of the yoga centre, Sujith belonging to Perumbalam, and Smitha, Lekshmi and Sreejesh. They have been booked under IPC sections 120 (B), 323, 354, 357, 366, 342, 403, 506 and 34 for wrongful confinement, kidnapping, outraging modesty, criminal intimidation and misappropriation of property, and are absconding, say reports.
After Swetha's allegations flared up into a controversy, Athira, a woman from Kasargod, who had converted to Islam and returned to Hinduism recently, refuted the allegations against the centre.
In a press meet held in Ernakulam last week, Athira had claimed that she had "returned" to her own religion and that her Muslim friends had "misguided" her into embracing Islam.
One Pratheesh Vishwanath uploaded a video of Athira and her father refuting allegations against the centre in Ernakulam.
"None of us were physically or mentally harassed at the yoga centre, nor was I brainwashed. They behaved to me with love and care," she said.
(Names used with permission)
Read Athira's version here: Kerala woman who left home and converted to Islam, now 'returns' to Hinduism