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Confessions, curses & 5-rupee book: Seedy world of Andhra ‘pastor’ accused of raping followers

Anil Kumar alias Prem Das of Prema Swaroopi Ministries booked for alleged sexual assault, and arrested. His alleged crimes came to light when 28-yr-old woman approached police.

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Payakaraopeta (Andhra Pradesh): A police complaint filed by a 28-year old in Andhra Pradesh last month has blown the lid off an alleged sexual assault and extortion racket run by a 42-year-old “self-proclaimed pastor” under the garb of religion.

According to the complainant, it all started with a Rs 5 book — believed to be written by the accused — which she picked up at a church in Hyderabad in 2018. This, she says, resulted in her introduction to the accused, and her relocating to a religious centre run by him, where she was allegedly sexually assaulted.

The complaint comes a year-and-a-half after the alleged assault, and months after the complainant claimed she escaped from the centre.

In February, the state’s Payakaraopeta police (under Visakhapatnam Rural limits) booked and arrested Anil Kumar alias Prem Das for alleged sexual assault of women at his religious centre at a village in Payakaraopeta mandal.

Two other “pastors”, who ran the centre with Kumar, have also been booked and taken into custody. Police say a 45-year-old woman, Lily, who was allegedly part of the team running the centre is on the run.

Kumar has been booked under sections 376 (rape), 354A (sexual harassment), 493 (cohabitation caused by a man deceitfully inducing a belief of lawful marriage), 374 (unlawful compulsory labour) and others of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The police also said that there were allegations of financial fraud against Kumar, made by two women who accompanied the main complainant.

According to Narsipatnam Additional Superintendent of Police D. Manikanta (Payakaraopeta Police Station is under his jurisdiction), the prime accused, Kumar — a resident of Vijayawada — established a religious organiation named Prema Swaroopi Ministries sometime in 2018. The organisation, located in a village, was run on donations.

Police claimed Kumar had been an employee of Indian Railways till 2017.

“He said he was drawn to how other pastors were treated with respect and wanted similar attention and respect, so he became a pastor,” Manikanta told ThePrint.

While police said Kumar called himself a pastor and the police complaint also mentions him as such, it is unclear when, where or if he was ever ordained, and if he is connected to any formal church.

Meanwhile, the Prema Swaroopi Ministries website claims the organisation was set up in 2015 and that its mission is to “preach the Gospel of Repentance, Deliverance and Forgiveness throughout the world”. The organisation also runs a YouTube channel which has “sermons” by the accused.

According to police, when they raided the centre on 9 February, they found some women (aged between 20 and 45 years), a few men, and boys as young as eight, living on the premises. The complainant had alleged that the boys were treated as “slaves’ by those running the centre.

Reacting to the allegations, renowned evangelist K.A. Paul told ThePrint that the incident should be thoroughly investigated without any bias or agenda.

“I have not particularly spoken to any religious leader about this issue, but I am aware of this incident. Frankly, any church can ordain someone as a pastor,” Paul said. “There are pastors who are trained by organisations and sent into public spaces to spread the message and then there are self-made pastors — who make claims without any accountability, and they’re dangerous.”

ThePrint twice reached Prema Swaroopi Ministries through their website for comment on the allegations, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.


Also read: Punjab principal’s ‘sex assault’ on minors: ‘Open secret, many complaints’, arrest after 12 yrs


Victim purchased book, was ‘drawn’ to pastor’s teachings

According to the 28-year-old’s complaint — accessed by ThePrint — she is a resident of Suryapet district in Telangana and used to work at a software company in Hyderabad.

During a visit to a church there in 2018, she claimed to have come across a small book of religious teachings that she picked up. Priced at Rs 5, the book was a publication of the Prema Swaroopi Ministries, she said.

Inspired by the book’s contents, the complainant claimed she reached the organisation through the number mentioned in the book. According to the complaint, it was Kumar’s number.

A Prema Swaroopi Ministries banner outside the centre | Photo: Rishika Sadam | ThePrint
A Prema Swaroopi Ministries banner outside the centre | Photo: Rishika Sadam | ThePrint

The complainant claimed she wanted to distribute the books in Hyderabad, and Kumar sent her “hundreds” of copies, for which she “paid him Rs 10,000”. The Prema Swaroopi website claims that the book’s circulation runs into lakhs.

Eventually, Kumar allegedly convinced the complainant to leave her job and move to his centre, claiming it to be “God’s command that she dedicate herself to his service”.

According to the complaint, Kumar booked bus tickets for the 28-year old to travel from Hyderabad to his centre, and she left her job and joined the trust in early 2019. The complaint says she found around 30 people already living there, most of them women. All of them had one purpose — “service to God and (to) wash away their sin”, she claimed.

‘Called women for confessions and assaulted them sexually’

Soon, however, she was sexually assaulted by the religious leader, the complainant claimed.

Once someone joined the organisation, she said, their mobile phones would be taken away by the management and all contacts stored there (except the numbers of parents) deleted, allegedly because “Christianity does not permit people to use phones”.

She said the accused would daily call a different woman — chosen from among those living at the centre — into a room for “confession”, a Christian practice where followers admit to the religious head about a wrong done or ‘sin’ committed.

When her turn came, the complainant claimed she was shown “explicit” videos online and asked to imagine herself as one of the characters in the video and the accused as the other. He then allegedly sexually assaulted her. When she objected, she was allegedly told that she would be “cursed by God” if she did not obey the accused. According to the complainant, Kumar claimed to be “a messenger of God”.

That was allegedly, however, not the end of her ordeal. The 28-year-old has claimed in her complaint that she was “forcefully married” to a sibling of one of the organisation’s managers and was even forced to undergo an abortion when she became pregnant in April 2021.

The complainant has alleged that her husband — 30-year-old Veera Satya — physically and sexually assaulted her after they got married. Satya is currently in police custody.

The 28-year-old claimed she was threatened with dire consequences if she told anyone about her assault. She was also told that her parents — agricultural workers in Telangana — would be cursed and they would die. According to the complainant she tried to leave the centre many times, but alleged she was locked in a room.

She said she finally managed to escape in August last year on the pretext of visiting her ill parents.

“My parents still do not know what happened to me. They didn’t even know I joined the trust, I told them much later and they got angry,” she said in her complaint.

Contacted for comment, she told ThePrint: “Whatever I have stated in the complaint is what happened to me.”

ASP Manikanta said the complainant was sent for medical examinations. “There is visible proof that she may have had an abortion, she had stitches on her abdomen.”

Police also told ThePrint that they found explicit/nude photos of Kumar, as well as those of women, on his phone. A few of the photos were of the complainant, who has claimed she was forced to send the images to the accused while staying at the centre.


Also read: Calcutta HC extends POSH beyond workplace, says female school students covered under 2012 Act


‘Women appeared to be in trance, refused to leave centre’

In addition to the 28-year-old, police said they have received complaints from five others against Kumar. While two of these had accompanied the main complainant, the others were received the same week.

One of these is a woman who claimed to have donated to the trust and stayed at the centre for a few days. According to her complaint, accessed by ThePrint, her entire family had been following Kumar’s sermons. This complainant has alleged that another “pastor” from the organisation, Santosh Prakash Raj alias Prashant Kumar, made a “video call” to her sister’s minor daughter and forced her to send him explicit images of herself over the phone.

The other complainants are family members of women who were living at the centre. According to these complainants, police said, while the women were being allegedly sexually assaulted by Kumar, they refused to leave the place, despite their families’ attempts at persuasion. Some of these complainants have also accused Kumar of financial fraud.

Police sources also told ThePrint that when officials from the Integrated Child Development Services department reached the centre during the police raid on 9 February, none of the women was ready to leave the place.

According to police, there were about 27 people (from both Andhra and Telangana), of varied ages and both genders, living at the centre, but the majority were women aged in their twenties.

Police sources said many of the women there were tight-lipped when asked whether they had been sexually exploited by Kumar.

“Some of them denied it, a few others got angry and said we were questioning their service to God. A few women even said things like ‘this body belongs to God, what’s wrong if it is touched? Pastor is a messenger to God’,” a senior police officer said on condition of anonymity.

“We were all shocked. It appeared that the women were brainwashed in the name of religion, they were told that if they impressed the pastor, they would go to heaven and he would help them,” the officer added.

‘All majors, can’t force them to do anything’

Most residents at the centre were reluctant to move out after the raid, police said. The police sent 12 of the women present there and four children (aged between 7 and 12 years) to Sakhi Centre — a shelter for victims of violence — in Vizag city.

Among the rest, some were counselled and left immediately, while the others left the next morning, police said.

About 12 women, who were in their twenties and were at least graduates, came to the trust without telling their families, said District Child Protection Officer Satyanarayana.

“They were not ready to leave the centre, saying that the pastor could never do such a thing and they were all doing service to God. When the police showed them explicit pictures from the pastor’s phone, they in turn alleged that the police had morphed them. We had to counsel them all night, continuously, to get them to move to our women protection centres,” Satyanarayana told ThePrint.

He added that most of the women were drawn to the pastor’s religious teachings through his videos on YouTube and ended up at the trust.

ThePrint visited the Sakhi Centre and met admin G. Saranya, who said most of these women had refused to undergo any kind of medical examinations and denied being assaulted.

She also said most of them had been staying at Kumar’s centre without their family’s knowledge. Four of them, who were from Kurnool district, were preparing for Public Service Commission exams and lied to their parents that they were staying at coaching centres, Saranya claimed.

“They had photos on their phone of paintings and rangoli, with writings like ‘I love you, Father’ and heart symbols. When we asked them about these images they said it was out of respect. When asked why they had joined the centre, they said this was a sinful world and they wanted to go to heaven and the pastor would help them achieve that. We have never dealt with such a case before,” she added.

Saranya said, “They are all majors, we cannot force them to do anything. They’re all connected on a WhatsApp group and it appears that they may get together (meet, stay in touch or try to go back to the centre).”

Echoing Saranya’s words, ASP Manikanta said, “The pastor lured them on the pretext of spiritual discourse and it appears that the women were told that they need to obey the pastor to wash away their sins and reach heaven.”

A makeshift barricade to stop outsiders from entering the centre | Photo: Rishika Sadam | ThePrint
A makeshift barricade to stop outsiders from entering the centre | Photo: Rishika Sadam | ThePrint

ThePrint also visited the centre’s premises in Sriramapuram village. The three-storied building had been sealed by the police, and clothes that had been put out to dry still hung on the walls. Inside were locked rooms and shoe racks still full of shoes.

Local residents have become alert to the fact that there is a controversy of some sort surrounding the place. Asked for directions, some of them told ThePrint, “Have you come here for the church? It is not safe for women, go back.”

Konda Raju, an agricultural worker who said he spent most of his day grazing buffaloes in a plot of land close to the centre, remembered how “a few days before the police came”, a woman had come out of the centre and created a ruckus after an argument with the organisation’s management.

“None of us knew there were so many women inside or something so horrible was happening,” Raju said, referring to the alleged sexual assault.

He added: “The women were not allowed to stand on the balcony and were always locked inside the rooms. None of us outsiders was allowed to step inside the building.”

Another local resident, 24-year-old electrician Appalraju, said he would visit the centre to take the meter readings for electricity bills, but claimed he was never allowed to step inside the premises or talk to anyone.

“They used to ask me to finish my work and leave as soon as possible. If I tried interacting with anyone, the management used to send me away,” he added.

Less than 100 metres away from the centre is a liquor store. One of the owners, Rajesh Kumar, alleged that the management of the religious organisation would often ask them to shift and had once even approached the police for this.

News of the alleged misdeeds of the Prema Swaroopi organisation has now also reached the political circles.

Payakaraopeta MLA Golla Babu Rao, a member of the state’s ruling YSRCP,  told ThePrint, “Even a fortnight ago, a few women had come to the trust alleging that the pastor cheated them financially and demanded justice. I am in touch with the collector and we are yet to check if the building had proper registrations and permissions.

“I still remember when I went to meet those women, at the time the pastor was arrested, they were petrified. Some of them were begging us to rescue them, but were too scared to say anything to the police.”

(Edited by Poulomi Baneerjee)


Also read: ‘Promoting victim blaming’ — student bodies hit out at JNU panel’s notice on sexual harassment


 

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