Indian National Congress party activists hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against the abduction and gang rape of five women in Jharkhand’s Khunti district on 23 June 2018.

Civil society representatives in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand have objected to the arrest of a Jesuit priest for his alleged involvement with the gang rape of five women last month, calling for an independent investigation, reports news site Indian Currents.

“The allegations against Fr. Alphonse Aind … are baseless”, the representatives said in a memorandum presented to the chief secretary of Jharkhand on 25 June.

“Given the experiences and observations during the last week following the arrest of Fr. Alphonse Aind, we have no faith in the current investigating agency, which seems to be biased and motivated,” they said, adding that the investigation should be handed over to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.

Fr. Aind runs the Stockman Memorial Middle school in the village of Kochang, in central Jharkhand’s Khunti district, where on 19 June a play was to be staged by an NGO supporting a group of Catholic nuns to raise awareness of human trafficking. However, the group putting on the play were abducted and the five women were gang raped for three hours in a nearby forest.

When the abductors finally let them go, they told the women – aged between 20 and 35 – not to tell anyone what had happened. But once the news of what had happened started coming out, “the victims requested the sisters not to report to the police as they feared danger for their families”, reported Indian Currents.

Meanwhile the director of the street play team filed a complaint against Fr. Aind. After the police questioned and released the priest on 22 June, he was arrested on 23 June. He was charged with, among other things, not reporting the incident to the authorities, but according to Indian Currents Fr. Aind had intervened, wanting to stop the attackers, but had been told they “were doing it on the order of [the] high command”.

Other charges against him include “conspiracy in the gang rape incident and his involvement in the Pathalgadi movement [a self-rule movement popular in some tribal villages]”, Indian Currents reported.

According to the director general of police in Ranchi, R.K. Mallik, the two suspects arrested so far (of the six identified) said “anti-Pathalgadi sentiments were portrayed [in the street play] … and they wanted to teach the NGO workers a lesson”, according to national newspaper The Hindu.

Church sources, however, told Indian Currents that the team “was in support of Pathalgadi movement, and, hence, [there was] no conflict of interest”.

A Jesuit from Ranchi, Jharkhand’s capital city, told Indian Currents: “It appears that it has been orchestrated by vested interests who would like the Church to be maligned before the elections in 2019.”

The Indian Bishops’ Conference also refuted the accusations against Fr. Aind, saying he could not be held responsible for what had happened to the women, as reported by AsiaNews.

A recent survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation claimed India “is the world’s most dangerous country for women, due to the high risk of sexual violence and [of] being forced into slave labour”.

Virginia Saldanha, secretary of the Indian Christian Women Movement, urged people to “take a good look at the position of women” in India.

“Women are taught that they should not bring disgrace to their community or family – where 70% of violence to women takes place. So, women are afraid to come forward and report violence,” she wrote for Matters India. “If she does have the courage to do so, she has to face ostracization. Most women are not economically independent nor have the time or means to fight cases.”

If women do have the courage to report to the police, they face corruption and “if the man concerned is more powerful, which is usually the case, the woman knows she stands little chance to fight a case against him”, she wrote.

“The silence behind violence is the most pernicious outcome of women’s socialization in India. This silence gives predators and perpetrators the confidence to continue their exploitation of women.”

Christian women in particular face multi-layered exploitation, according to a report released in March by the charity Open Doors International, which found women to be nearly twice as vulnerable as Christian men.

Saldanha said education and awareness programmes were necessary to end gender-based violence and that the Church was the best agency to provide this.