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Sreelatha Menon: The nun's tale

The killing of Sister Valsa John over tribal rights is another episode of land dispute in the coal belt

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

Why would 40 people kill a solitary nun in a remote village in coal-rich Dhumka in Jharkhand? Sister Valsa John is better known as an activist than a nun of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus & Mary. She left her home in Kerala and moved to Jharkhand two decades ago as a missionary, but stayed on for the local Santhal tribals of Pachwara.

Says fellow activist from Jharkhand, Xaviur Dius, she jumped the convent wall into the lives of the tribals in Pachwara. The Santhals had formed the Rajmahal Pahad Bachao Andolan (RPBA) to defend their right over their land and resources. Sister Valsa was at the forefront of their fight after mining company Panem Coal Mine Ltd signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2006 for mining rights in the area. The tribals led by the nun had to withdraw a petition from the Supreme Court. The organisation had to enter into an agreement with the company under pressure from political leaders and false promises made by some activists, adds Dius. They later realised that the company with the coal reserves of Pachwara and 32 other villages had betrayed them. Its promises were not being kept. Sister Valsa had been raising this issue and the death is its consequence, says Dius.

Dius is a former member of the Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee, a state-wide platform of activists resisting all mining MoUs. He says of all the 68 MoUs signed between mining companies and the government since the formation of the state a decade ago, work was allowed to continue only in one case.

This was after the company promised jobs, medical centres, schools and houses to people whose land were taken away for mining. However, the company only gave 14 contract jobs, three houses which were flooded and did not bother to build the medical centres promised, says Dius.

The company spokesperson has denied these charges and has suggested that the nun had differences with a section of villagers.

Medha Patkar-led National Alliance of People’s Movement says Sister Valsa had made complaints to the police against the company. She had also complained to her relatives a day before the murder, citing danger from the company.

With coal prices soaring from Rs 300 a tonne in 2006 to Rs 3,000 three years later, the cost of human lives were plumbing, the nun’s fellow activists say.

Pachwara saw four more murders and several hit-and-run cases. One of the victims was the son of the tribal leader of the RPBA led by the nun. This was followed by the murder of another activist of the movement. His wife and son were later found dead, too, hit by a 60 tonne dumper truck, says Dius.

Whether the company was to blame or not, the death of the nun points to a land deal gone wrong just as it has happened in many other places.

Stan Swami, another activist who played a key role in fighting the company through the courts, says there was disagreement whether a deal should be signed with the company. He says, “Sister Valsa walked out of a comfortable convent life and lived in a shack with no vested interests. There was no doubt about her commitment to the people.”

The story of Sister Valsa is just another land accord gone wrong similar to the ones in Kalinga Nagar, Gopalpur and Sarai Kela where activists have still managed to keep the companies out of action.

Only if the nun’s sacrifice makes rulers and miners see sense in the claims of tribals to their land, then the death won’t go wasted.

First Published: Sun, November 20 2011. 00:03 IST