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Friday, December 8, 2023

Kerala: Govt official suspended as she allows prayer meeting at office

In a recent development, a Kerala government official, K.A. Bindu, the child protection officer in Thrissur, has been suspended following a departmental inquiry that found her in violation of service rules. The investigation concluded that Bindu allowed a prayer meeting at her office, a breach of regulations, reportedly to dispel “negative energy.”

The event in question, held on September 29, saw an employee don a cassock and carry a Bible during the prayer meeting, seeking divine intervention to alleviate the perceived “negative energy.” The inquiry, conducted by the district women and child development officer, revealed that Bindu, who complained frequently about the negative atmosphere in her office, had violated the established norms prohibiting religious rituals within government premises in Kerala.

Government offices in the state strictly adhere to regulations disallowing any religious practices on their premises. District collector V.R. Krishna Teja has initiated another inquiry through one of the sub-collectors, as reported by The Telegraph. The report, which is expected to be submitted within a week, is in accordance with standard procedures.

Upon receiving the suspension order dated November 16, Bindu stated that she only became aware of it on Monday. She mentioned being on leave on November 18, the day the order was served and expressed her surprise upon returning to the office on Monday.

The prayer meeting controversy has sparked discussions about maintaining the state’s secular character. The employee who suggested the prayer and eventually presided over it is reportedly a trained pastor from a Christian denomination. The suspension, which has a standard duration of six months, can be extended based on departmental decisions.

It is noteworthy that Kerala, irrespective of the political party in power, strictly prohibits government employees from displaying religious items or adorning their workspaces with religious portraits. This regulation aligns with the state’s commitment to upholding a secular ethos.

In contrast to neighbouring Karnataka, where government offices often display religious imagery and observe religious rituals, Kerala maintains a stringent stance on religious neutrality within its bureaucratic spaces. The state also prohibits government employees from holding office-bearer positions in religious or communal organizations, as upheld by a Kerala High Court ruling in May 2022.

Bindu, responsible for leading one of the four wings of the district unit of the Women and Child Development Ministry, can appeal against her suspension to the secretary of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Subsequently, if needed, she has the option to approach the Kerala Administrative Tribunal.

It is noteworthy that Christians dominate child welfare units across the country. In March 2022, a woman accused two NGOs, the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief (EFICOR) and Prayas, of forcing her minor daughter to register a false sexual abuse case and converting her to Christianity. The NGOs allegedly produced the girl before the Child Welfare Committee, which placed her in Global Family Trust, where she was reportedly subjected to cruelty and forced conversion. The mother filed a petition challenging certain provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act and rules related to the functioning of Child Welfare Committees. In June 2021, four individuals, including the director and his wife of an orphanage run by the Mother Teresa Welfare Trust in Jamshedpur, were arrested for physical and sexual abuse of children. The accused, Harpal Singh Thapar, and his wife, Pushpa Rani Tirkey, who also served as the chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee, were apprehended after two minor girls revealed the abuse they endured. The victims reported physical and mental torture, sexual exploitation, and diversion of funds meant for the orphanage. 

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