‘Will become stronger’: Jehovah’s Witnesses look to overcome attack | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

‘Will become stronger’: Jehovah’s Witnesses look to overcome attack

Nov 27, 2023 01:54 PM IST

Blasts triggered by improvised explosive device (IED), allegedly by 57-year-old Dominic Martin who claimed to be an estranged member of Jehovah’s Witnesses sect

“She was like an angel. A lovable kid, with a smile so infectious. I don’t have words,” says Bindu Ramanan, her voice laden with grief.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Kerala has around 15,000 adherents, accounting for less than 0.3% of the Christian population in the state. (HT Photo)
The Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Kerala has around 15,000 adherents, accounting for less than 0.3% of the Christian population in the state. (HT Photo)

The class teacher of ‘7A’ division at the SNDP High School in Neeleswaram in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, Bindu gets overwhelmed with emotion when she talks about Libina KP, a 12-year-old student in her class.

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On the morning of October 29, a Sunday, Bindu said she heard on the FM radio at home about the bomb blasts that pierced a gathering of the Christian sect Jehovah’s Witnesses at a convention centre in Kalamassery, near Kochi. A few hours later, a teacher rang her up to convey that a student named Libina was seriously injured in the blasts.

“Libina is not a very common name... I prayed and hoped that it wouldn’t be her. Soon, we received the news that she had passed away, succumbing to burn injuries,” said the schoolteacher.

The next day at school, Bindu and other teachers had a hard time consoling the students. “Everyone was crying. Libina was a class leader, and everyone liked her. She studied well and at the same time helped others in her class as well. A boy that she used to help with studies has not been able to come to terms with her death. We are giving him counselling,” she said.

A happy memory of Libina that lingers with her, said Bindu, is a handwritten letter complete with butterfly designs that she got via post at home when she had gone on a two-week leave. “Usually, when teachers go on leave, students are happy. But here, I got a beautiful letter which was written by Libina and signed by other students saying how much they missed me and wanted me back. In my 14 years of service, it’s an unforgettable moment.”

While Libina’s mortal remains were laid to rest on November 4, her mother and elder brother, who had also attended the religious convention with her, are still battling for life in a critical condition. Apart from the 12-year-old, three others – Leyona Poulose (55), Kumari Pushpan (53) and Molly Joy Mathew (62) all of whom are members of Jehovah’s Witnesses – have succumbed to severe burn injuries as a result of the blast.

The blasts triggered by an improvised explosive device (IED), allegedly by 57-year-old Dominic Martin who claimed to be an estranged member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect and has since been arrested and charged under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and other grave offences, have turned the spotlight on the small Christian denomination and its members who are known for their door-to-door evangelism and staunch views on subjects like blood transfusions and political neutrality.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Kerala has around 15,000 adherents, accounting for less than 0.3% of the Christian population in the state. Around 60 per cent of the Christians in the state are Catholics. Across India, Jehovah’s Witnesses number around 57,000 and globally, over 8.6 million.

Unlike traditional Christian groups, the sect has no priests, official leaders, churches or liturgical worship methods. Its members worship Jehovah as the one true God and Jesus Christ as son of God. They stand out from most Christian denominations in the fact that they do not believe in the trinity doctrine of the Father, the Son and the holy spirit. But they follow the literal teachings of the Bible whose study became the foundation of the sect’s origin in the 1870s in Pennsylvania, US.

“We are a multi-ethnic religious organisation with members from all walks of life speaking different languages and belonging to different tribes and groups. Our teachings are based on the Bible and we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Our meetings and worship is modelled after the 1st century Christians ie Jesus’ disciples. Our literature is available in over 1080 languages across the world,” said Joshua David, national spokesperson of Jehovah’s Witnesses in India.

“Our principal way of worship is going from house-to-house as part of which we spread the message of comfort and hope and that very soon all that we are facing today is going to be a thing of the past. We have weekly meetings with members at places that we call kingdom halls and once a year, we have larger gatherings or conventions where we discuss Bible principles,” he added.

It was at one such convention in Kochi on October 29, the final day of a three-day gathering, that multiple IED explosions were set off allegedly by Martin around 9:30 am in the middle of the opening prayer. The over 2000 attendees, who had all stood and closed their eyes in prayer, were shaken by a booming sound and a ball of fire that erupted in the middle of the hall near where the audio-video console was kept. While one woman died on the spot, her body burned beyond recognition, at least 52 persons were rushed to hospitals. Three of the injured died while undergoing treatment while three others are still battling for life in a critical condition.

Responding to the blasts, David said, “We are in shock. It makes no sense. Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most peaceful and we have been holding conventions in this country for the last 100 years. This is an unfortunate event. We are cooperating with law-enforcement agencies at every step of the way.”

TA Sreekumar, regional spokesperson of the community in Kerala and part of the organising team behind the blast-affected convention, said those who attended the gathering have been left shaken by the incident.

“We are a disciplined section of people who have held such conventions for many years peacefully. There is a family-like bond between us and almost everyone knows everyone. Suddenly when an incident like this happens, it has shocked everyone. There are people who are having nightmares and unable to have proper sleep. So right now, we are giving psychological and spiritual support to such people and we may have to continue doing it for some time,” he said.

According to the police, Martin, a native of Kochi and a former spoken English tutor, drove from the private convention centre in Kalamassery after conducting the blasts to a private hotel in Koratty town, over 30 kilometres away, where he checked into a room briefly. It was there at the hotel that he is believed to have posted a video on his personal social media accounts taking ownership for the blasts and ‘explaining the reasons’ for doing so. In the video, later telecast on local TV channels, Martin was heard ranting against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, calling its teachings “anti-national and seditious.” He claimed that while initially he was not ‘”serious” about being a member of the sect, around six years ago, he realised that the group was travelling on a “wrong” path.

“Around six years ago, I realised that their teachings were anti-national. I told them several times, but they refused to heed my requests,” he said.

“They are teaching a four-year-old child not to accept a sweet offered by another kid. In a class of 50 kids, 49 are eating the sweet while one kid is not. The child’s parents are injecting poison into its brain. They are asking the kid not to sing the national anthem. When they grow up, they are asked not to vote. They are asking them not to join military or government service,” he claimed.

After posting the video, Martin checked out of the hotel and drove straight to the Kodakara police station where he surrendered before the police, claiming responsibility for the blasts, and submitting several pieces of evidence linking his involvement with the crime. Police retrieved receipts of items he bought for the blast and confiscated his cell phone which allegedly contain visuals he took while building and setting off the IEDs that day.

Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses said while Martin is not a member of the group, he may have attended a Bible study class in the past as his wife’s family were part of the community.

David said, “He has had no association with Jehovah’s Witnesses for many years. His comments and feelings are personally offensive to us and loaded with falsehoods. They are misleading.”

“We love this country and its people. We are peaceful people who go out in the ministry to share a message of hope and comfort. We are the most law-abiding citizens, pay our taxes and obey all the laws.”

Sreekumar rebutted some of the allegations by Martin about the community. On the charge about singing of the national anthem, he said, “We abstain from singing the anthem since it denotes devotion to the country. We believe that our devotion is towards God alone. It’s a right that the Constitution gives us and hence the charge that we are anti-national has no basis. We always respect the country and the national flag.”

“Similarly, we don’t try to bring any party into power or push them out of power. We support the party that has been elected. Globally, we are a community that is politically neutral and therefore there is unity among us. We strive for peace,” he added.

He clarified that contrary to Martin’s claims that he brought up his “objections” and that they weren’t heeded to, there was never any engagement with him about any issues he may have had over the last six-seven years. “The police will investigate what provoked him to do this and we will cooperate with them,” said Sreekumar.

On a recent afternoon, VK Michael, a Jehovah’s Witness who was present in the hall rocked by the blasts but escaped unscathed, stood by the roadside under an umbrella in Kochi selling bottles of gooseberry mixed with pepper chilly for a living. Born into a Latin Catholic family, Michael said he did not understand the purpose of his religion for years. Around 30 years ago, he attended a Bible convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses on a friend’s suggestion and gradually took interest in its teachings. “In other Christian groups, they read the Bible. But here, we learn and understand the teachings of the Bible,” he said.

In the aftermath of the blasts, he said there are conversations within the community on how to heal and move forward.

“Sure, we are shocked and hurt. But we will go ahead with our usual prayer meetings and Bible study sessions. This incident will not weaken the sect, we will only become stronger,” he said.

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    Vishnu Varma is Assistant Editor and reports from Kerala for the Hindustan Times. He has 10 years of experience writing for print and digital platforms and has worked at The New York Times, NDTV and The Indian Express in the past. He specialises in longform reportage at the intersections of politics, crime, social commentary and environment.

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