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Serving in the Red

Sisters help the poor in India’s “Red Corridor”

Sister Julie Mathew shudders as she recalls her brush with death on a cold winter night nine years ago. Stationed at a school for tribal girls in the remote central Indian village of Gangaloor, Sister Julie and her charges were roused from their sleep around 2 a.m. A mob had gathered near the gate of the compound, demanding she open it. Suspecting the mob included members of a Maoist rebel group eager to attack an adjoining police outpost, she refused. Undeterred, the Naxalites — as they are known — used a bamboo pole to climb a tree to carry out their attack.

Gunfire and explosions sounded. Sister Julie, who was then in her early 30’s, instructed the girls, about 50 students between the ages of 5 and 18, to lie flat on the floor. Shards of glass rained upon them as the crossfire shattered the windows.

“Our hearts were beating fast with fear. I was sure we all would be killed,” she says. We only had one option, she continues: prayer.

After some time, they heard a loud explosion, followed by silence. Sister Julie — a member of a Syro-Malabar Catholic community of sisters known as the Deen Bandhu Samaj (Hindi for “Friend of the Poor Society”) — later learned the assault ended suddenly after one of the attackers tripped carrying a deadly bomb.

These violent episodes have been common in this part of central India for the past three decades.

A lush area of hills, valleys and forests, the Bastar region in the state of Chhattisgarh encompasses seven districts covering more than 15,000 square miles. More than a third of the population is considered Adivasi, an umbrella term for India’s many native tribes and ethnic groups, which for centuries have been marginalized, exploited and impoverished.

In 1972, the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a congregation of priests of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, established their first mission among the poor of the region. That same year, Pope Paul VI created an ecclesiastical jurisdiction known in the Eastern churches as an exarchate and entrusted its leadership to the congregation. Five years later, he erected the Eparchy (a diocese in the Eastern churches) of Jagdalpur, one of the first eparchies of the Syro-Malabar Church located outside the church’s historical territory in the southwestern state of Kerala.

Carmelite Father Thomas Kollikolavil directs the eparchy’s social service wing. He says the Naxalites — named for Naxalbari, the West Bengal village where the Maoist-inspired movement began in 1967 — entered the region in 1980, positioning themselves as saviors of Adivasi villagers, devastated after years of abuse and subjugation by landlords and government officials.

Most Naxalite leaders were educated urban youth disillusioned with the unjust social system, says Sister Julie, who has been taken deep into the nearby forest for questioning by the rebels. As the Naxalites established their hold over Bastar, it became an important part of India’s Red Corridor, a contiguous area spanning eastern India rife with illiteracy, poverty, exploitation and overpopulation.

In 2009, the Red Corridor covered nearly 180 districts across ten states, in which the Naxalites ran a parallel government. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described this as the most serious internal threat to the country’s national security. By 2011, military and paramilitary operations reduced the corridor to 83 districts. Yet, the Naxalite grip on Bastar has only tightened.

In 2006, one of the most controversial anti-Naxalite militias, Salwa Judum (“peace march” or “purification hunt”) rose to prominence. Supplied with arms by the government, the organization mobilized local youth, sometimes forcibly, and trained them for combat — in some cases evacuating entire villages and resettling the inhabitants in camps.

Human rights groups allege Salwa Judum torched more than 640 Adivasi villages. Human Rights Watch has reported at least 100,000 people were displaced, many fleeing to the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh to escape the violence. In 2011, amid numerous allegations of arson, murder and rape, the Supreme Court of India declared the government’s support of Salwa Judum unconstitutional and the organization itself illegal, ordering it to disband. Even after this, a squad of Naxalite women slew Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma in a May 2013 attack that killed 27 people.

In this volatile region, more than 400 sisters and 90 priests serve some 3 million people, 60 percent of whom are Adivasi. Rooted in the Gospel and in Catholic social teaching — which focuses on the dignity of every human being, the imperative to advocate and correct social injustices, and the church’s preferential option for the poor — the eparchy has begun programs to teach traditional farmers modern agricultural techniques; founded schools and youth clubs; started hundreds of help groups, most geared toward the needs of women; and established parish communities to nourish souls with the word and the sacraments.

At the forefront of many of these apostolic activities are the Deen Bandhu Samaj and Snehagiri Missionary Sisters.

The Snehagiri Missionary Sisters were founded in 1969 in Kerala to serve the elderly and destitute (Snehagiri is Malayalam for “Mountain of Love,” referring to Calvary). Currently, 32 sisters work in seven centers in the eparchy, including Chavara Ashram, a boys’ boarding school in the Kanker district, a conflict-stricken area of the eparchy.

In keeping with their charism, the sisters also administer homes caring for elderly men and women. Asha Nivas (“Home of Hope”), two miles outside of Jagdalpur, cares for destitute women, some of whom are mentally challenged. Men are housed at Asha Bhavan (“House of Hope”), half a mile away.

Sister Prabha, who administers the two facilities, says parish priests direct people to her. The congregation of sisters, she adds, covers the expenses. “We get no funds from the government,” she explains. This self-sufficiency exists thanks to community initiatives implemented by the sisters at their regional house located in Nakti Semera, such as assembling solar lanterns shipped in bulk from Bangalore. The sisters supplement their income by supplying sacramental wine and communion hosts for the entire eparchy. They also make vestments and cassocks for priests, and train others in this skill. Every sister learns tailoring so she can make her own habit, says Sister Anie John, who directs the sisters’ social works.

Empowered by these efforts, the sisters continue to make their mark — perhaps most visibly in their work to educate Adivasi villagers about their rights.

According to Noorul Hassan, who coordinates the Snehagiri Sisters’ Harama Hak (“our rights”) project, villagers were largely unaware — before the sisters’ arrival — of the many legal benefits to which they were entitled.

One key example is Gram Sabha (“village council”), designed to help and protect tribal and low-caste communities. In resource-rich India, commercial projects to tap into the supply of natural resources in traditional Adivasi lands require the approval of the local community. Villagers also utilize such gatherings to discuss common problems and seek ways to address them, including working with local municipal offices.

“We conducted awareness campaigns, organized rallies and street plays, displayed posters and made public announcements to teach people about the importance of the council meetings,” says the coordinator of the public awareness campaign. Yet, fewer than a tenth of the locals attended the first meetings hosted by the sisters, and most of them were women. But as women became more involved, their husbands grew curious about the sisters’ work.

“My wife would attend and tell me what happened there. I became curious and started coming,” says Dhaniram Kashyap, one of the few educated men in Kesapur village, who has become a leader within his community. Mr. Kashyap says he has learned much from these meetings, and now shares this knowledge with others.

The Snehagiri Sisters also reach out to villagers through health care projects, chiefly through the Maria Bhavan Health Care Center, a dispensary outside of Jagdalpur.

Sister Sincy Pattathil, who manages the clinic, says the infant and maternal mortality rates in the area were high when they arrived some 20 years ago — nearly twice the national average. She says maternal deaths occurred mainly from anemia, infection and unhygienic delivery that led to septicemia.

“Now, infant and maternal mortality rates have come down to zero,” Sister Sincy says of the villages they serve.

Her greatest success has been to convince villagers to have their babies delivered in her clinic or other health care institutions.

“We have rushed to many houses and had to bring the woman to the clinic. We send serious cases to government hospitals.”

In the past two decades, Sister Sincy has seen great changes in the villagers. “When we first came, people would run away from us. Now they are our best friends and protectors.”

The sisters of Deen Bandhu Samaj work largely in remote areas with an active Naxalite presence, says Sister Jancy Vattakanal, who assumed the role of superior general a year ago. The congregation was founded in Jagdalpur in 1978, first consisting of nine sisters looking for challenging missions.

“We evolved our charism based on the needs of the local church,” says the community’s first superior general, Sister Mary Tresa.

Focused on the poor, the Deen Bandhu Sisters serve as witnesses to the Gospel, while respecting the state’s laws against religious proselytization. “We pray for people’s overall development; nobody can object to that,” Sister Mary says.

As with the Snehagiri Sisters, the Deen Bandhu Samaj Sisters found it hard to break the ice with villagers. “They never trusted outsiders, as they have had bitter experiences with them,” says Sister Eugene Vattamattathil, a nurse. Some outsiders, she adds, seek to exploit or dupe them.

Communication itself was an early challenge, as many villages speak different dialects — such as Gondi, Halbi or Moriya. “People appreciate when we can speak their language,” adds Sister Eugene.

Transportation was another problem. Though dirt roads usually allow for bikes, Sister Eugene recalls once having to walk 15 miles to reach a community. Some would even go so far as to swim across flooded rivers, before bridges had been built.

Once they arrived, the sisters immediately felt safe. “The villagers cared for us. Women guarded us at night, sleeping around us in their tiny huts.”

The sisters managed to win over the villagers through home visits and dispensaries that greatly expanded access to modern health care and improved the quality of life for communities neglected by the state. But their impact has gone far beyond medicine.

Where school enrollment and literacy rates were once low, children in their school uniforms are now a regular sight in all villages. Student dormitories host Adivasi children from remote and conflict-affected villages. Sister Jancy says they have erected primary schools in all their centers to give children a good foundation. “If they are taught well in initial classes, they will do well later.”

Sister Eugene also points to hygiene and health education, noting that villagers used to practice bleeding to cure illnesses. “They would bite their own bodies to draw blood. It took us many years to convince them to go for proper treatment.”

Sister Jancy says the congregation plans to open a hospice and palliative center for the poor — especially those suffering from cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases.

However, the sisters have been forced to restrict their village visits and health care services as conflicts between the government and Naxalites have intensified.

Sister Jancy and Father Thomas Kollikolavil say Naxalites rarely trouble the sisters as they recognize the sisters’ efforts to help the poor. In several villages, churches are seen as the only safe houses for visiting government officials to hold meetings or events.

The community’s first superior says they have found villagers and police officers alike settling down around their convents, to feel safer. Yet, she adds, the sisters have often found themselves caught in an awkward position between the two forces, witnessing Naxalites cutting people to pieces and police torturing suspected Naxalite sympathizers.

Once, Naxalites took a priest, a sister and a parish catechist from Gangaloor for questioning, demanding they stop hosting meetings and halt their work in the village.

Sister Jancy recalls they were forced to close one mission after Naxalites imposed unreasonable demands. “They wanted our nursing sisters to perform abortions or bring medicines for them along with our supplies. We had no option but to close.”

Police and administration have also accosted them.

After one encounter with the rebels, Salwa Judum vigilantes confronted Sister Julie and others. “They questioned why the Naxalites had not attacked us. They accused us of colluding with them, and converting children of our hostels.”

In one case, the sisters had to stand before some 10,000 people, including vigilante leader Mahendra Karma, to answer questions. Sister Julie says she vented her frustrations in an outburst before the district magistrate. Both Karma and the magistrate apologized, she says.

These experiences did nothing to deter her. “I want to go and work in all those areas we have closed down,” she says.

Her former superior worries about assigning sisters to remote and difficult areas.

“I can’t say what would happen,” Sister Mary Tresa says. “But no sister working in such remote centers has asked for transfers so far.”

Her successor, Sister Jancy, concurs, adding that the community must continue its work because the villagers depend on them.

“Our services are very much needed. People are suffering in places where we have stopped work.”

Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.

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