An in-depth report accuses the president of the NCPCR, India’s federal child protection agency, of pursuing a Hindutva-inspired agenda against Christians and Muslims. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has orphaned more than 147,000.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – “How Hindutva hijacked India’s child protection body” is a recent feature story by Scroll.in. In it the Indian digital news outlet levels serious charges against Hindu nationalist groups that are the power base of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Mori.
AsiaNews has covered the issue several times in recent months, most notably in relation to the role played by government agencies mandated to defend children's rights in the "anti-conversion" campaigns by Hindu nationalists against Christian schools and youth hostels.
The in-depth report looks closely at the current chairman of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), the federal agency established in 2007 to protect children.
The agency has been chaired by Priyank Kanoongo since 2018. The 40-year-old teacher from Madhya Pradesh has a long history with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh[*] (RSS), a key Hindu nationalist organisation, and with the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Prime Minister Modi’s party.
Even a cursory examination of Kanoongo’s twitter account shows what types of child abuse are particularly important to him.
A few days ago, for example, he quickly travelled to Tamil Nadu soon after the story of a girl who committed suicide made the news. At the time of her death, she was staying at a hostel run by Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
After his visit, the case was transferred to the Central Bureau Investigation, India’s main investigating agency, which deals with the most serious crimes. A nun is currently in prison for putting “pressure” on the girl to convert, which allegedly led to her death.
As the Scroll.in story shows, the issue of conversions has become a real obsession within the NCPCR. One of the most high-profile cases involves the St Joseph's School in Ganj Basoda, Madhya Pradesh, in Kanoongo’s own home district.
In early December 2021 the educational facility was violently attacked by the usual groups of Hindu nationalists after the Commission launched an investigation (promptly reported by a "friendly site") based on clear disinformation.
The first communions of eight children from Christian families in St Joseph’s parish was passed off as the “conversion” of children attending the homonymous school, which is in reality located in another part of town and is not connected with the parish.
Another example involves accusations levelled at an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mother Teresa in Gujarat, which also started with an inspection by the local NCPCR office because of the presence of some Bibles in the facility run by nuns.
Then there is the inspection Kanoongo personally carried out in the girls' rooms at the Bishop Clemens Memorial Boarding hostel in the Diocese of Sagar, also in Madhya Pradesh.
In the Scroll.in article, the NCPCR chairman defends himself by claiming that he is responding to all the complaints he receives.
However, the investigative report notes a suspicious correlation between the cases covered by the Commission and those examined by the Legal Rights Observatory, a Maharashtra-based organisation founded by Vinay Joshi, who also hails from the ranks of the RSS.
In other cases, Kanoongo did not feel the need to intervene. In 2019 for instance, numerous Muslim children were detained by police for taking part in rally against the citizenship law; they later publicly complained of being subjected to violence whilst in custody.
For Vandana Prasad, a former member of the NCPCR, the political use of the Commission is a “complete abdication of their role,” she said. “But that often happens, to the detriment of ordinary citizens and [the] principles of fairness, justice and equality,” she added.
Shantha Sinha, a veteran activist in the fight against child labour in India, is cautious about the implications of the situation, but she is equally concerned. She chaired the NCPCR for two terms, from 2007 to 2012.
“The Commission is meant to be a conscience keeper for children – it is the only institution available for children to improve their lives and protect their rights,” she explained. For her the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic should be the NCPCR’s main concern at present. And there a plenty of reasons to do so.
In a report presented to the Supreme Court on 13 January, the Commission found that the 147,000 children were orphaned by COVID-19. Most now live with relatives or other people who care for them, but 1,843 were placed in orphanages or other facilities waiting for adoption.
Kanoongo claims this work is being done by the Commission he chairs, saying that this is the first census of orphans since India’s independence.
He adds that the NCPCR is providing financial aid through government programmes and private initiatives.
Many groups involved in this area paint a very different picture, with a high number of orphans still looking for assistance.
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[*] National Volunteer Organisation.