Thiruvananthapuram | Still grappling with the aftermath of the devastating October 29 bomb blasts at its gathering in Kerala that killed six people, minority religious group Jehovah's Witnesses said it is committed to ensuring the safety and security of its members at all gatherings, big or small.
Satish Joseph, a staff member of the Public Information Department at the national headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Bengaluru, said they were taking several measures to ensure the safety of the group's followers and expressed a willingness to seek help from the police if necessary.
He said the members of the community in Kerala are yet to recover from the shock of the devastating blasts at its prayer convention attended by around 2,300 people in Kochi last month, in which six people were killed, and that the focus now is on providing adequate support and help to those affected by the tragedy.
The six lives lost include those of three members of a family, one of whom was a 12-year-old girl. Several people were injured in the multiple blasts carried out allegedly by a disgruntled member of the group.
"October 29, 2023, is a date that cannot be easily forgotten by us,” its members have said.
Following the blasts, the group is taking special measures to ensure that they never have to relive a day like that again. "At the moment for all our regional conventions across India, we have included door scanners, baggage scanners and metal detectors," Joseph said.
"We have also hired private security agencies. They will deploy armed security guards," he added.
These new measures have become mandatory for conventions following the October 29 incident, he said.
Earlier these measures were not in place, as the halls for the conventions were hired, and it was up to the owners of the premises to take care of security, Joseph said.
Following the devastating blasts last month, a man named Dominic Martin, claiming to be an estranged member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, surrendered before the police in Thrissur district, asserting that he carried out the multiple blasts.
On being asked whether the religious organisation was concerned there may be others like Martin who could carry out attacks at other conventions and meetings of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Joseph said, "Absolutely".
He said that in the world and times we live in, such "horrific" attacks can happen anywhere and not necessarily at a convention alone.
"We live in such an uncertain world where such horrific incidents are carried out by such people. So, from our side we want to ensure all safety and security measures are followed at the rest of the conventions, meetings and gatherings.
"If required, we will be very happy to take help from the police as well, because safety is a priority and life is of utmost value to Jehovah's Witnesses," Joseph told PTI. "We want to do everything possible to safeguard lives." At the convention hall in Kochi where the blasts occurred, security measures such as scanners and metal detectors were not present as nobody expected such an attack, he explained.
These beefed up measures are expensive and would be funded by donations from existing members and any other voluntary contributions from those visiting our places, he further said, adding that the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses need not necessarily fund such measures.
Speaking of the steps taken to ensure security at smaller gatherings, he said, "In our regular meeting places, called Kingdom Halls, we have always had security measures, which we are going to continue." He listed them out: presence of attendants at the entrances and inside the hall who would escort strangers to such meetings and enquire about them, evacuation plans in case of emergencies, fire extinguishers, emergency exits, etc.
"Now we are going to be more vigilant," he said.
There are also CCTV cameras in the Kingdom Halls, even if they are rented premises.
"But we do not have door scanners at these places. However, in places where the situation becomes sensitive, like in Kerala, we will bring in these measures as well," Joseph said.
Whether the safety measures would include shifting to virtual meetings would be decided according to the need of the hour, he said, alluding to such meetings held during the covid-19 pandemic.
However, presently there have been no requests for it.
At the moment everyone, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, are "in shock that such a terrible thing happened" to a community of people who are “peaceful, united and have a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural environment at our gatherings", he said.
Stating that the community is understanding of how some members may not feel secure enough to gather together in a similar space and may request virtual meetings, he said it would certainly be considered. "Obviously, a person who has gone through it would have nightmares. It is very much human to think like that," he said.
This year, 74 conventions were scheduled across India, including Kerala, of which 75 per cent are over. The remaining conventions in other parts of the country will be held as scheduled, but those in Kerala have been postponed following the October 29 blasts, Joseph said.
However, attendance at the conventions in other parts of the country has not fallen since the blasts, and the meetings continue unaffected. "In fact, there were more attendees than expected or projected," he said.
Meanwhile, a a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Kerala Police and various central agencies is continuing its investigation into the blast.
Not wanting to speculate about any more suspects or the "true motives" behind the attack, Joseph said, "We want the investigating authorities and agencies to complete the probe and come out with the facts. We are hopeful that the true motives behind the horrific incident will soon come out.
"Right now our main focus is on providing adequate support and help to those affected by the tragedy." He said that any speculation would only lead to interfering in the probe, but also expressed suspicion that there could be "more than one (accused)".
"If they (police) approach us (Jehovah's Witnesses) as part of their investigation, we will tell them about our suspicions...and what we know," Joseph said.
He said that presently the police were talking to the survivors and their families.
Jehovah's Witnesses also expressed its thanks to the state government for the Rs 5 lakh financial assistance promised to families of those who died in the incident as well as all the other help and support provided to those affected.
The Kerala government had on November 15 announced financial assistance of Rs five lakh each for the families of those who were killed in the blast at the convention held in Kalamassery near Kochi last month.
"We are very grateful for the additional help offered to us by the government apart from what we as a community offered to the victims and their families," he said, adding that "accepting the additional compensation offered by the government is a personal matter of the individuals and their families." He also said that the parent body of Jehovah's Witnesses in Warwick, USA has issued directions to the branch offices in India to take care of those affected .
"On hearing about the incident, they had immediately directed the National Headquarters in Bengaluru to rush people to Kerala for relief efforts and provide pastoral care to those affected," he said.
He said even now the parent body in the USA regularly communicating with the branch offices here in India.
"Right now, our focus has been on helping the victims. Help them emotionally, mentally, physically and practically with whatever aid and assistance we can render," Joseph said.