Sisters in India discuss how attacks, rapes are affecting their ministry


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Sr. Jancy Vattakanal, superior general of Deena Bandhu Samaj, meets with with a tribal woman in Jagdalpur. (Jose Jacob)

New Delhi, India — Christians in India seem to be jittery these days. They feel helpless amid unprecedented attacks they have been facing for some time now.

On June 20, a Catholic nun in her late 40s was gang-raped in the central Indian town of Raipur. No arrests have taken place even after almost two months. In March, another nun in her 70s faced a similar tragedy in an eastern India state. The police have arrested Bangladesh nationals for that crime.

As usual, church groups, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, protested by issuing statements of condemnation and demanding immediate arrests of the culprits. They noted certain impunity in the increasing attacks on church workers and institutions. The administration, they alleged, does little to check such incidents.

In India, where rape is the fourth most common crime against women — after domestic violence, assaults with intent “to outrage the modesty of a woman” and abduction — it should come as no surprise that Catholic nuns are among the victims. Some have called the attacks “deliberate attempts” to intimidate the Christian community. Others, however, say the violence is a reaction because women religious appear to the public as independent women living with property, money and status.

The attacks have rattled Catholic nuns in India. Many shared their anguish and frustration about the violence with Global Sisters Report.

Sr. Rita Pinto, who heads India’s more than 100,000 Catholic nuns, said her immediate reaction to the latest rape was, “Not again.” She called such attacks “inhuman atrocities” on nuns who work for the poor and marginalized and a betrayal to the Indian Constitution that pledges to protect every citizen. Pinto, a Society of Sacred Heart nun, is the president of the women’s section of the Conference of Religious India, the national association of Catholic Religious.

Presentation Sr. Shalini Mulackal, who teaches systematic theology at Delhi’s Vidyajyoti College of Theology and is president of the Indian Theological Association, believes the June 20 rape was a planned act “definitely aimed” to scare local Christians and those working for their advancement.

Mulackal justifies the church reaction to a nun’s rape, saying it perceives such an attack on sisterss as violence against itself. However, she wants the church also to protest when other women are attacked.

The Presentation nun narrated how a top church leader explained at a July protest rally in Delhi that rape deprives a nun of her virginity, the most precious gift she can offer Christ. Such views, the nun theologian said, stem from a “patriarchal myth” that reduces women, even nuns, to their bodies. “Virginity is of the heart primarily, and the physical virginity is only a sign of that deeper virginity. Sisters who are raped against their will do not lose their virginity,” Mulackal asserts.

She further adds that, in a patriarchal society like India, women are raped to teach a lesson to their family and community. The Raipur case, she says, is part of a deliberate move to attack church workers in Chhattisgarh state where right-wing Hindu groups find various ways to oppose the church. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) has been ruling the state for more than a decade.

Pinto too says Catholic religious women are paying the price for their gender in a country where a woman is attacked every two minutes on some level, according to 2012 National Crimes Record data on crimes against women. People dedicated to God had earlier enjoyed respect and non-interference until recently, she said. “The present situation smacks of some viciousness and a kind of a hate campaign.”

However, Chhotebhai (a name meaning “little brother”), who is former president of the All India Catholic Union, says the nuns are attacked not because they are women, but because they are perceived as “missionaries with a sinister agenda” to convert gullible Hindus to Christianity. Chhotebhai’s union is the largest lay association in the country.

Protests in Delhi against anti-Christian violence in India. (John Mathew)

Why do such attacks take place?

Chhotebhai sees “a deliberate attempt” to intimidate Christians in India, because they are soft targets.

Pinto suspects a systematic plan is at work to target the church and its workers. “It seems all this is done with impunity because there is an unspoken acceptance and even encouragement from the powers that be. In spite of concrete evidence, no steps are taken to punish the perpetrators of such ghastly crimes,” she bemoans.

Mary Bambina Sr. Lee Jose, executive editor of Companion India, a monthly magazine for church leaders, says certain groups do not want “the poor uplifted and enjoying their God-given rights.”

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a Catholic laywoman theologian in India, asserts that people see nuns living alone and keeping property and money.

Gajiwala opposes viewing the attacks on nuns as a separate issue. “What makes nuns different? Why is the rape of a Christian girl or woman not seen as an attack on the church? Why do we wake up only when nuns are raped and not when women are raped?” she asked in the social media group of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights.

Every day, 93 women are raped in the country, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The latest data shows the number of rapes was 33,707 in 2013, up from 24,923 in the previous year. However, most rape cases are never reported in India, it says.

A Dalit (formerly known as from the “untouchable” caste) woman was raped by four men in Bihar just eight days after the Raipur incident, but there was hardly any public outcry against the crime.

Gajiwala says all women, not just nuns, suffer after a rape. Indian society, she explains, views the rape victim as bringing shame to her family and sometimes ostracizes her. Women who dare to report rape are forced to re-live the ordeal answering questions from lawyers and the media, she says.

Deena Bandhu Samaj sisters going out for a village visit. (Jose Jacob)
A meeting of a self-help group for women in a village in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh, in March. (Jose Jacob)

Impact on a rape victim and her order

The Raipur victim’s congregation, Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, said the incident has hurt them deeply. “We could not talk to each other for days,” said one nun on condition of anonymity in July.

The victim, she added, has not recovered from the trauma. Adding to her woe is the regular quizzing by police teams and other groups — so much so that she cringes upon seeing new policewomen who come on rotation to provide her security.

The victim recounted to her community members what happened to her on that fateful night. She woke up around 2 a.m. hearing some commotion and saw two masked men inside her room. She was on night duty at a maternity clinic for the poor. Two girls, her assistants, slept in another room. She tried to defend herself but the intruders overpowered her, forced some pills down her throat, and one of them covered her mouth with his hands. She could not shout for help and soon fell unconscious. Her superior found her the next morning semi-conscious, semi-clad and tied to a post of her cot.

The attackers, who entered the clinic by cutting through a window grille, did not take away cash or goods. “What was their motive, we do not know,” the nun said and added that they suspect it was a planned act to intimidate them.

The victim says she was raped, but the police and the administration insist she was only molested (a crime known as “outraging the modesty of a woman,” or sexual assault without penetration), giving the impression that the government wants to downplay the incident.

“The police are trying to find out how the sister and the girls did not hear the noise of cutting the grilles. They are creating artificial noise now and asking them if they heard such noise at that night. It sounds absurd but that is what they are doing,” the nun said.

Protest at the India Gate against the murder of Valsa John. (John Mathew)

The church’s response

Some people find the church responses to the incidents peripheral.

Sr. Lissy Maruthanakuzhy, a freelance journalist, recalls that the church had gone silent on the murder of two nuns in Mumbai 25 years ago after newspapers alleged that they had been sexually active. “But the truth is that their hearts are still bleeding, seeking justice from the church and the government.”

Chhotebhai says the allegation led to a call for exhuming the nuns’ bodies to ascertain the facts. However, the church leaders “balked at the idea, and the cloud of doubts remained. This was a gross mishandling of the situation and the crime was never resolved,” he wrote in

Sr. Talisha Nadukudiyil, secretary of the bishops’ Council for Women, bemoans that the church protests seem to fall on “deaf ears” as attacks are repeated. “What sort of consolation can we promise to a devastated nun and her community?” asks the Sisters of the Destitute nun. The church should protest all incidents of violence against women in India, she stated.

Women religious remain committed to their charisms, work

Chhotebhai says panic could spread if such incidents grow in frequency, “which is exactly what right-wing forces want.”

Pinto claims that nuns have realized the vulnerability of the work situation. “What has happened to one can happen to me. However, I do not experience panic but a realization of the need to be cautious,” she says and adds that she can no more take for granted the freedom and trust nuns used to enjoy.

Mulackal says most nuns are willing to suffer, even die, because they have opted to work for Christ. She cites the case of Sr. Valsa John, who was axed to death by a mob in 2011 because of her organizing work for tribal people displaced by mines. When she started receiving threatening calls, she chose not to move out.

The hut where Sr. Valsa John lived in Jharkhand. (John Mathew)

However, the recent incidents have alerted the nuns to be cautious. Jose says she takes “extreme care” to avoid being alone after evening. She does not answer phone calls from strangers and avoids receiving gifts.

Mulackal says nuns will be prudent in their dealings but continue to do what they are called to do without fear. “If we need to protect ourselves, it would be good if we train ourselves in some skills, like learning karate,” she says.

Asked if congregations should close convents in remote and isolated places, all nuns GSR spoke to were emphatic in saying, “No.” However, everyone stressed the need to build local support.

Rather than closing the convents, Mulackal wants the nuns to strengthen themselves by taking legal measures and accepting help from neighbors. “We must also have a list of local resources on which we can immediately fall upon in case of necessity,” she said. “In any case, if we are really close to the people, they will protect us.”

Nuns working at the grassroots level are also determined to stay on.

Sr. Jancy Vattakanal, superior general of Deen Bandhu Samaj (Society of the Friends of the Destitute), a Chhattisgarh-based congregation, told GSR in March that many of her nuns work in villages under the control of Maoists, outlaws who wage war against the government.

A Deena Bandhu Samaj convent located in an isolated place in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh. (Jose Jacob)

“As we are caught between the Maoists and the police, we have to answer both forces like the villagers,” she said.

She is worried about sending sisters to those areas because their safety is unpredictable. “The only assurance we have is the hope that nothing would happen to them since they are sisters and priests. So far, no negative incident has happened to Catholic priests and nuns in Maoist areas.”

One of her sisters, Julie Mathew, had close encounters with Maoists a couple of times. Once, they had taken her blindfolded to the deep jungle to question her activities. On another occasion, Maoists scaled her boarding school terrace to attack a nearby police station. She and some 50 tribal girls spent the night lying flat on the floor.

Her ordeal continued as the administration and politicians suspected her to be a Maoist sympathizer and forced her to answer before huge crowds of villagers. She has remained in the same place for a few years. “I do not want to leave my people, come what may,” she said.

Vattakanal said they did close a convent after Maoists insisted the nuns buy them medicines and also perform abortions on their women cadres. “We feel sad about closing the mission because people there suffer a lot. They have to walk at least 25 kilometers to get to some health care.”

Despite such hardships, “We have the satisfaction of doing something for people forsaken by others. We are able to educate them about their rights, and lessen their problems and hardships and injustice to them.”

[Jose Kavi is the editor-in-chief of Matters India, a news portal started in March 2013 to focus on religious and social issues in India. This article is part of a collaboration between GSR and Matters India.]