Published On:21 November 2011
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

A Nun’s murder poses questions for State and Church

Activist and Whistle-blower Sr Valsa John pays with her life for defending the Tribals’ ownership of their land, minerals and forests

By John Dayal

It was proper that the candlelight vigil in memory of Sister Valsa John of Dumka, Jharkhand, on Friday 18th November 2011 at New Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral became a celebration of her life, the work of Christian activists in defence of the rights and dignity of the poor, tribals, dalits and marginalised.

It also posed a challenge to the Church in general if it would retreat in fear at the brutality of Valsa’s sacrifice, or get courage from the luminescence of her sacrifice and go deeper into territories of human rights still uncharted -- obeying the demands of Caritas in Veritate, love and the Truth underpinning the social teachings of the church. It also had a message for the State, the government and the political, bureaucratic and criminal justice system – will they wake up to the threat posed to society in general and to whistle blowers and rights defenders in particular from the unholy regime of impunity and the conspiracy between vested interests in governance and the corporate sector for whom profits are God.

Valsa John’s fellow activists in Jharkhand, New Delhi and elsewhere, mourned a comrade. The gathered Archbishops, Bishops, Nuns, Priests and Laity felt the loss of a person who heard the call of God when she was already working as a teacher. Valsa had responded to that call with an alacrity and sincerity that surely will remain a lesson for many more than just her congregation, the illustrious Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. To the common people, Sr. Valsa John is a Martyr whose blood would not go in vain. But they also wanted to find out why she was murdered, calling for a high level enquiry, possibly by the Central Bureau of Investigations, into the criminal conspiracy behind her dastardly murder because Jharkhand State’s police investigation and justice system are rickety at best, and often part of the corporate and mafia conspiracies.

Sr Valsa John, 52, is the fourth social activist killed in unexplained circumstances in India this year. Like many other activists, trade union leaders and Right To Information crusaders, she had a premonition of her death, and had warned friends and relative, and perhaps even the police, that she feared a brutal end.

Valsa was brutally murdered in her room in a rented house in Pachaura, In Pakur in Dumka district of Jharkhand late at night on Tuesday, 15th November 2011. The bloodstained floor of Sister Valsa’s room bore testimony to the violence. She had been attacked by a group, said to number anywhere from two dozen to forty men armed with swords, axes and other weapons. Her head was nearly severed from her body. Some Maoist literature and a spade were left behind, possibly as a ruse.

Many immediate theories were floated to account for the attack. One was that Valsa may have incurred the wrath of a group of local criminals for seeking justice for a raped tribal girl and that may have been the immediate provocation . Valsa had sought an appointment with Pakur deputy commissioner S K Singh after the Amrapara police refused to lodge an FIR against the alleged rapists. Singh did not deny that an appointment had been sought, newspapers reported, quoting him as saying “She may have contacted my office for an appointment.” Amrapara police maintained no FIR about a rape had been lodged at the police station, although they detained two persons for questioning today in connection with the murder. A deathly silence remains in Pachaura, the village where Valsa was butchered.

The local media too has taken sides, some imputing motives. The local reporters of the large media such as the Times of India have particularly come in for scrutiny for their apparently biased reporting.

Valsa was laid to rest at the Christian cemetery at Dudhani in Dumka on 17th November after the Mass in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Her eldest brother, Baby Malamel, and two of her nephews, from Kochi were present for the funeral. About 600 to 700 people were present for the funeral, 200 of whom were from the village Pachaura where she lived.Even as her body as buried in the Jharkhand she had come to love, Valsa has been espoused by national and international organisations working in Human Rights. Amnesty International asked for an enquiry at the highest level, suspecting the hand of mining mafia. Cardinal Telesphore Toppo called it a shame for the state. Officials of almost every church organisation – from the Catholic and Syrian Churches to the Evangelical and Pentecost denominations, made common cause, calling her a martyr in the cause of serving the poor, as mandated by Jesus Christ who she loved so dearly.

Sr Mary Scaria, an Advocate of the Supreme Court of India and also an activist, recalled Sr Valsa as a member of her own congregation, the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary known for their work in education and activists in various parts of the country. The Congregation was founded on the 4th November in 1803, in a little village of Lovendegem in the diocese of Gent, Belgium by the parish priest, Fr. Peter Joseph Triest, in the aftermath of the French Revolution which left so much poverty and misery, specially that of the children. On 4 November 2003 the Congregation celebrated 200 hundred years of living out the charism of the Sisters of Charity. Following the footsteps of the founder, no challenge was too great, no request too trivial and no one too precious. This has been a sacred history during which every milestone has seen the deepening of the threefold dimension of the SCJM life of love - Love for God her father, love for one another and love for all peoples especially the poor, the abandoned and those who are deprived of love and dignity in the world. The sisters are active in England, France, Ireland, Netherlands, Israel, Rwanda, Mali, Congo, South Africa, Venezuela, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Republic of Central Africa and Rome. The Mother house of the Congregation is in Ghent, Belgium.

This was the congregation Valsa chose to be her destiny.

Valsa was born on 19 March 1958 at Vazhakala village of Idappally in Ernakulam District of Kerala, the second child of her parents. A good student, she went on to become a teacher in her home town’s St. Pius UP School,. Her life still felt unfulfilled, and one day Valsa decided she would live and work for the poor and exploited people of our country. The Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary had a convent in her village and she approached them and told them about her wish. They told her that the SCJM sisters work in the rural areas, mainly among the marginalized people and through this congregation; she would be able to fulfil her desire. She did not hesitate. After her religious training she was assigned to Palamu district. In 1993 she came to Sahibganj district and worked with the Jesuit Fathers at Kodma. She was transferred to Jiapani Mission in 1995.

Jesuit priest and tribal intellectual-activist Dr Marianus Kujur says “If she wanted she could have had a cosy and comfortable life in ‘God’s own country’, where she started her career as a teacher more than 20 years ago. But she did not.

She came to Pachaura in 1998 and the anti-mines movement in the area started in 2000, working for the people in coal mining areas of Jharkhand for 12 years and guided them in their struggles. She perhaps did not realise it then, but she was joining a distinguished band of people who had fought for the right of the tribals. Long ago in the 1880s, suffocated by injustice and oppression from all sides visionary leader Sido of Bognadih village near Barhait sent a clarion call to all the Santhals to get organized and rise up in arms. His brothers Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav and his sisters Phulo and Jhano too joined him to give his leadership shape and substance. This, historians recall, resulted in the legendary Santhal rebellion of 1855, which swept the British administrators off their feet.

Valsa landed in the midst of important developments – the issue of rights over the coal in that mineral rich region. Kataldih village near Amrapara block in Pakur district has reserves of good quality of coal on a very large scale The main users are the Punjab State Electricity Board and the private sector Emta Group of companies – collectively called the Panem coal mines..

Human Rights group Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, PUCL, investigated the issue back in 2003 and published a detailed report on the Pachaura coal mining project when the media began reporting resistance from local tribals to the Project. The PSEB is a ‘public utility service’ wholly owned by the Government of Punjab. By a letter of the Ministry of Coal and Mines (Department of Coal), letter No. 47011/1(4) 2000- CPAM dated 26th December, 2001, Pachaura Central Block was allotted to the PSEB for captive mining for supply of coal on an exclusive basis to its own power plants. The PSEB formed a Joint Venture Company, PANEM Coal Mines Limited, with Eastern Minerals and Trading Agency (EMTA) to produce, supply, transport and deliver coal from the coalmines of Pachaura Central Block, exclusively to PSEB thermal power stations. According to Gazette notification, by the Ministry of Coal and Mines (Department of Coal) F.no.38011/4/2002 CA, dated Feb.22, 2002, the Central Government specified “as an end use the supply of Coal from the Pachaura Central Block by PANEM Coal Mines Limited on an exclusive basis to the power plants of Punjab Electricity Board for generation of thermal power.

PUCL noted that the Government surveyed and delineated the whole area covering 41 square kilometers with demarcated divisions such as North, South and Central Blocks. Pachaura Central Block is given to PSEB. This Block measures approximately 13 square kilometers covering nine revenue villages (mouzas) such as Singhdehri, Taljhari, Kathaldih, Chilgo, Bisunpur, Dangapara, Amjhari, Liberia and Pachaura. It is estimated that Pachaura Central Block holds 562 million ton of coal reserve. Out of this reserve it was proposed that in an area of approximately 13 square kilometers open cast mining will be done in 11 square kilometers. The Central Block envisaged 44 years of open cast mining to extract 289 million tons of coal. The Jharkhand Government is expected to get annual royalty at the rate of Rs. 100 crores.

The government claimed it was legally within its power to acquire land for specific purpose given the Land Acquisition Act. The PUCL team heard the local people who said “We have been living here for long. Our forefathers Sido and Kanhu and their followers sacrificed their lives and won for us freedom from oppression and gave us an identity. And all of a sudden, like a bolt from the blue, we hear that someone is coming to enter our premises and oust us as if we are encroachers and criminals.”

The people knew that that elsewhere in Santhal Parganas, at Lalmatia and at Chitra, collieries have displaced and decimated tribals and most of the promises of rehabilitation remained only on paper. The PUCL report highlighted that the tribal community is a cohesive community with its communitarian mode of living, interaction and decision-making. It depends on a life close to nature with its rivers and forests, with agricultural fields and grazing lands, places of communitarian gatherings for festivals and village functions. It also has its ancestral abode right in its midst. It is in this socio-cultural phenomenon they live and conduct their affairs. Their homes may be mud walled and grass roofed but they have a beauty and functional practicality of their own. Land is their most important natural and valuable asset and imperishable endowment from which the tribals derive their sustenance, social status, economic and social equality, permanent place of abode and work and living. It is a security and source fr economic empowerment. Therefore, the tribes too have great emotional attachment to their lands.

Civil servant and later Commissioner for Scheduled Tribes Dr. B. D. Sharma has noted this was the thesis behind Jawaharlal Nehru’s Panchsheel which enunciated that “ people would develop along the lines of their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them. We should try to encourage in every way their own traditional arts and culture. Tribal rights in land and forest should be respected. We should try to build up a team of their own people to do the work of administration and development. Some technical personnel from outside will, no doubt, be needed, especially in the beginning. But we should avoid introducing too many outsiders into tribal territory. We should not over administer these areas or overwhelm them with a multiplicity of schemes. We should rather work through, and not in rivalry to, their own social and cultural institutions. We should judge results, not by statistics, or the amount of money spent, but by the quality of human character that is evolved.”

This was codified in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution which is an integral scheme of the Constitution with direction, philosophy and anxiety to protect the tribes from expropriation. Its objective is ‘to preserve tribal autonomy, their culture and economic empowerment to ensure social, economic and political justice for preservation of peace and good government in the Scheduled Areas. B D Sharma said all actions of the State must be in furtherance of the above Constitutional objective and dignity of persons belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, preserving the integrity of the Scheduled Areas and ensuring distributive justice as an integral scheme thereof. The executive in the name of the Governor stands vested with all the necessary powers, perhaps more, for achieving the aforesaid objectives.”. Sr Valsa John believed in this thesis of justice for the tribals.

The sustained resistance of the people forced the PSEB to work out a rehabilitation package which included monetary compensation, employment against land in exceptional circumstances only to fill vacancies, jobs for one member of a family which has lost three or more acres of land,

Sr Valsa had been jailed in 2007 for protesting against the forced acquisition of adivasi lands for Panem. It was because of her role in negotiations with all the authorities that a more comprehensive agreement was worked out. The agreement with Panem paved the way for alternate land, employment, a health centre and free education for the children of the displaced families. Apart from economic rehabilitation and resettlement benefits, the company agreed to fill the pits of the open cast mines, level them, put good sand, make it cultivable and give back the land to the people. It agreed to a crop compensation for the land under mining at Rs. 6000 per acre per year, a share of the profit to the people (Rs. 10,000 per acre per year) till they fill the pits and give back the land to the people and undertaking to level the remaining land of the people and make it fit for better cultivation using lift irrigation facilities. The company also agreed to jobs for the affected people, free education, a hospital with all modern facilities, quarters with four rooms and a veranda and the standard facilities under existing government rules.

As the local media now reports, there were some who were dissatisfied with the agreement Valsa had reached. No one knows if any of these disgruntled elements are a part of the conspiracy.

For civil society, Sr Valsa’s murder is part of another chain too. Three other social activists have been killed this year after fighting on behalf of victims of human rights violations and marginalized communities, or using India’s Right to Information legislation to expose human rights violations and government corruption. In November 2011, Nadeem Sayed, a Gujarat-based activist, was stabbed to death after he testified on behalf of the victims of the Naroda Patiya massacre case in which 95 persons had been killed during the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots. In August, environmental activist Shehla Masood, 35, was shot dead in Bhopal city in August after trying to expose environmental violations of urban infrastructure projects and challenging mining plans in Madhya Pradesh. In March, Jharkhand social activist Niyamat Ansari was abducted and killed after he used the Right to Information legislation to expose local contractors and officials who had embezzled funds earmarked for the rural poor. Suspicions centre around armed Maoists because Ansari's exposes threatened their share of the embezzled funds in return for protecting the corrupt contractors and officials.

India’s civil society has been demanding new legislation to protect activists who received threats after filing petitions demanding crucial information affecting the livelihoods of local communities.

For the Church and the Christian community, the brutal murder of Sr Valsa has to be also seen in a different light. This certainly is not a question of persecution of a minority community. Sr Valsa was in Dumka not as a proselyser, as some in the print and electronic media make her seem, but as a human rights activist obeying her calling. But the murder does have a critical mission dimension. After being battered into some sort of submission to the will of the state during the seven year regime of the pro Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, and the last eight years of an insipid United Progressive Alliance, the church is at the cusp, or the precipice, of a great rethink.

The state has betrayed the Church on the issue of rights to Dalit Christians. It has given no clear answer in the Supreme court which is hearing Writ petitions by various groups on restoring the rights of Dalit Muslims and Christians which they enjoyed before the passing of the 1950 Presidential Order. The State has also shown no signs of reversing the notorious Freedom of Faith laws enacted by many Congress and BJP ruled States. The government is also playing an insidious game in using the Right to Education Act to “tame” the church institutions. These are signals as much as the central government’s silence to the call of that great Hindutva leader, oncologist Dr Praveen Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who has called for the beheading of anyone who converts a single Hindu. Any other person would have been in jail for saying less.
Will the church be cowed down before this building pressure. There are some murmurs saying that the church must focus on faith and leave social action to others. A section of the Church wants to focus on insinuation building. A small but influential section of the church wants to stress its “nationalistic” credentials to cosy up to the right wing Hindutva elements and evade their political wrath. But this is not the majority of the Church.

One is happy to note a strong spine in all denominations of the Church. The recent mass movement, which the church supported in Tamil Nadu, is an indication of this. The Bishop and priests who participated in the movement against an ill planned nuclear power plant in Koodankulam where villagers of Idinthakarai staged relay hunger strikes to protest against the Koodankulam nuclear plant whose safety has been called into question. Right wing propagandists, politicians and a section of the media have joined hands to demonize the Church. It is heartening to see the brave response of the people and the religious who hold the public cause to be superior to their own well being. The situation in Orissa, Chhatisgarh and several other states may demand the same fortitude and courage from the church. The Nun working in a distant forest hamlet, or standing in challenge to the conspiracy of mafia, police and the corporate sector, is proof that the church actually practices its theoretical preferential commitment to the poor.

[John Dayal is eminent writer, social and community activist. He can be contacted at john.dayal@gmail.com]

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on November 21, 2011. Filed under , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on November 21, 2011. Filed under , , , , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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