Authorities seized 12 tearful, fatherless children from a Christian ministry in eastern India last month after local officials demolished the ministry’s school and hostel, sources said.
After Hindu extremists persuaded the district collector to demolish the hostel and school serving 250 students, child protection personnel and police on May 21 seized the six orphans and six other children whose fathers were killed by communist guerrillas known as Naxalites, said Vijay Kumar Pusuru, who founded the school near the village of Lichapeta in Odisha state.
“The children wept bitterly and pleaded, not wanting to depart,” Pusuru told Morning Star News. “They caught hold of branches and trees. But ruthlessly they were snatched and taken away.”
The children and Pusuru’s family were living under a tree due to the destruction of their home along with the hostel on May 13. The 44-year-old Pusuru said the school, about 40 miles south of Malkangiri in the forests of Malkangiri District, is the only one in a radius of 62 miles (100 kilometers) providing English-language education.
The district collector sent 50 people to demolish the school and hostel, which housed 100 children, along with Pusuru’s house, after a local leader of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) began to spread misinformation about him and the school.
The RSS leader opened a school in the area about a year and a half ago, after Pusuru opened his school in 2015. With his land allotment application still pending in the Motu village revenue office, Pusuru was shocked to discover earlier this year that his application file was missing.
“The previous revenue officer who allotted me the land has been transferred, and a new officer has come instead,” Pusuru said.
On Feb. 14 he received an official notice for the school to vacate the land, but he somehow managed to remain by appealing to ruling political party ministers. The revenue office ordered him to pay a fine of 2,000 rupees ($US29), which he paid, but pressure was building against him and the school.
The RSS leader alleged that since he was running a mission school, he was distributing Bibles to the children and conducting Christian prayer every morning and evening.
“Government officials came to visit the children and questioned the children about prayers,” Pusuru told Morning Star News. “The children informed them that there are no morning-evening prayers, but that prayer is a part of the school assembly every morning.”
The RSS leader influenced the district collector to demolish the school and related structures, Pusuru said. While Pusuru and his elderly parents sat peacefully with placards protesting the demolition, the crew began beating them, he said.
“I wept and begged the officer-in-charge, reminding him that the land was allotted to me by the previous officer, but to no avail,” Pusuru said, sobbing. “I had invested a huge amount in the building and furniture, and everything is now gone.”
The demolition crew destroyed everything, including beds, benches and blackboards, he said.
“When we protested peacefully, they beat us,” Pusuru said. “I told them that the reason they are officers today is because they got an opportunity to study, and that they should give that opportunity to these tribal children, but no one listened to me.”
He had transformed the land from an uneven graveyard for animals to an educational institution and home for 100 of the 250 schoolchildren, he said.
“I worked hard on it and built this school and hostel,” he said. “It is a huge loss.”
The commandant of a Border Security Force post near the school, Chandra Shekhar Singh, a Hindu, used to share a meal with the schoolchildren at least once a month, he said.
“He appreciated me often and said that I am doing a great work by taking pains in teaching the tribal children,” Pusuru said. “He had also gifted stuff worth 35,000 rupees [US$500] to my school.”
When Commandant Singh went to meet the district collector to plead for Pusuru’s case, he was told that since Pusuru is a Christian, authorities will not let him run a school in the area, Pusuru said.
Telling Pusuru that only God can help him, the discouraged commandant said authorities had destroyed an established school that was a blessing to the community. He added that he was sad that officials would not object to a liquor store on the land but have destroyed a school.
After the school building was demolished, Pusuru and his wife, 17-year-old son and two daughters ages 23 and 20, along with the orphans and fatherless children, spent days and nights under the trees.
“After the school structure was broken, the commandant fed us for three days,” he said. “I am grateful. These orphan children had been with me for seven years. I am like their father. Where could they have gone? They do not know Odia, only English. We all had nowhere to go.”
It was after local media publicized their plight that child protection personnel and police dragged the 12 children away, he said.
Pusuru and his family continue living under the tree.
The school charged a monthly fee of 250 rupees (US$3.60) for nursery and kindergarten classes and 350 rupees (US$5) for grades one to five.
“It is a meager amount which itself is barely sufficient to run the entire school along with the hostel and the salaries of the staff,” Pusuru said. “I have non-teaching staff who came from homes where they have faced tremendous persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ and were expelled. I gave them shelter along with small pocket money, and they worked as non-teaching staff for me.”
Initially the original revenue officer told him to submit paperwork to his office for a lease of 99 years that would be granted to him, he said. The official instructed him to make a temporary structure on the land and begin operating the school until a permanent building could be erected when his papers were approved.
“I built some classrooms with a temporary metal shed, bamboos and bricks and began to conduct classes in the area,” Pusuru said.
Receiving God’s call to go into the difficult area known for its huge Maoist presence, Pusuru resigned from the Indian Evangelical Team in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh state and came to the thickly forested area in 2011. He said he has planted 45 churches and discipled several pastors and evangelists to take care of these tribal churches.
When a Christian donated farmland to Pusuru, he built eight rooms and started a school for the tribal children.
“They would be running around the village wasting their lives, and nobody cared about them,” Pusuru said. “It was then that God put in my heart to educate these little children.”
He started the school with 20 children until an Officer of the Revenue Department assigned a 4,840-square yard lot for construction of a school two miles outside the village. Gradually 250 tribal children from 30 different villages began to attend the school, some coming from as far as 45 miles away, he said.
Various political leaders have visited the school every year since 2016, he said.
“The district education office came and gave my school a recognition certificate, and various health programs were conducted in our school,” he said.
Children who finished grade five were sent for further studies to the Central School, Navodya Vidyalaya and Orissa Adarsh Vidyalay.
“We have sent 30 students for further studies in the past three years,” he said. ‘Education in these schools is free up to grade 12. Even now the parents of my 250 children tell me that they would not send their children anywhere else to study. Just 18 days are left for the school to be reopened [before the demolition, classes had been scheduled to resume on June 17 after a break]. I hope that happens and we can begin again.”
The village head and elders used to give donations for the school every month in the form of money, grain and other material things, he added.
“The entire village favors me and recognizes my work,” he said. “They have seen me work hard for the upliftment of their children.”
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.