Back from India’s “Red Corridor”

In the Summer edition of ONE, Jose Kavi reports on the challenges facing sisters working in the conflict-stricken "Red Corridor."

In the Summer edition of ONE, Jose Kavi reports on the challenges facing sisters working in the conflict-stricken “Red Corridor.” He offers here some additional impressions of covering that story.

A sigh of relief went up from me when my train crossed over to Odisha from Chhattisgarh, two neighboring states in India’s central-eastern region. My four-day stay in Chhattisgarh was one of the toughest periods in my 35-year-old reporting career.

Chhattisgarh was one of the few of India’s 28 states that I had not visited until a reporting assignment took me there in March. It would be an understatement if I say I was not anxious or worried to visit that predominantly tribal state.

Gathering my wits, I boarded the plane to the Chhattisgarh capital of Raipur, some 750 miles southeast of New Delhi. The aircraft was full but only a couple of the passengers were tribal. The others were non-tribals: politicians, government officers, contractors and employees of transnational firms — all outsiders who lived off the mineral-rich state.

Their presence reminded me what I had read about Chhattisgarh, one of India’s states that struggled with a plethora of problems.

One of the problems was the stranglehold of Maoists over several pockets in the state.

In the past 20 years, the revolutionary Communist group that follows the ideals of Chinese leader Mao Zedong has killed more than 12,000 people in nine states, with Chhattisgarh topping them all.

During the nearly six-hour drive from Raipur to Jagdalpur, my host Father Augustine Vadakkedom explained that the Maoists had entered the state in late 1970s to help the poor tribal and Dalit communities who had been oppressed. However the protectors mounted a full-fledged war against the government and its security forces and the two marginalized communities soon found themselves caught in the middle.

Now I was wading into this troubled corner of the country. My assignment was to study the works of two Catholic women religious congregations serving Jagdalpur diocese that covers the Maoist-infested Bastar region.

Father Augustine and the sisters from the two congregations took us to places where we were told the Maoists were quite active. While passing through a forest road to go to a mission station, Father Augustine stopped at the spot where a landmine explosion two years ago killed at least 27 people, many of them top political leaders in the state. A red crumbled car stood in front of the nearest police station as a mute witness to that incident.

During the trip we met women such as Sister Julie Mathew who were caught in the crossfire of Maoists and security forces. Sister Julie had close encounters with Maoists at least three times. Once, she and another sister were blindfolded and taken by the outlaws to their hideouts deep inside the forests for questioning. She also told how she and some 50 hostel children faced death when Maoists attacked a police station that was adjacent to their convent.

The sisters explained how they had to reluctantly close village dispensaries under pressure from the Maoists, who wanted the church people to perform abortions and carry medicines for them.

But there were rays of hope in this dismal scenario.

First, there is the quiet revolution the nuns’ presence is stoking among illiterate men and women in remote villages. In one village, an aged woman shared how the people used to cower at the sight of even an office assistant in a government office. But the sisters are giving the people a sense of dignity and confidence. A few days before I met them, thought, the villagers had marched to a district collector as a group and gotten him agree to give them electricity to their village.

The villagers also admitted that they had strictly followed caste barriers until the sisters arrived. Now, they all sit together and seek solutions to their common problems. The sisters have taught them that is that there is strength in unity. And the task is not over yet. That is why women like Sister Julie say they would remain, whatever the price they have to pay.

I let out a sigh of relief as the train chugged out of the last station in Chhattisgarh. I was comforted by the thought that there are still some people out there who are willing to risk their lives to improve the lives of others.

But reminders of the risks they face are never far away. Just a few days after I left the region, the newspapers reported another ambush by the Maoists that killed at least five security persons.

Read more about how sisters are working to change lives by “Serving in the Red” in the Summer edition of ONE.

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