Sister Valsa John

Sister Valsa John, a Catholic nun and a member of Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary was born in Kerela, India. After schooling, she was deeply affected and influenced by the lives of two women missionaries in North India. She had been working among the tribal communities in a coal mining region near the city of Dumka in Jharkand for 20 years. She was hacked to death on November 15, 2011. She was one of the remarkable breed of Indian religious figures who are grassroots social activists, who immerse themselves in the most marginalized and impoverished communities and work on literacy, basic health care and human rights. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai praised Sister Valsa John for being fearless and said she was a person of courage and faith who gave her life in the service of the Gospel. She always wanted to work for the welfare of the exploited and the poor people.

Sister Valsa John
Name: Valsa John
Born : February 19, 1958 at Edapally, Kerela, India
Joined: Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary in 1984
Missionary Work: Pakur & Dumka District of Jharkhand
Died : November 15, 2011 at Pachuara, Pakur District

Sister Valsa John's early life

Valsa John was born on February 19, 1958 in the village Edapally in Kochi, Kerela, India. She was a beloved girl child and that too the last of the six brothers and sisters. Perhaps, Valsa's was full of love that she wanted to share with those who needed most. She was educated at her native place and she began teaching economics at St George High School in Kochi. As a teacher, she had begun reading newspapers and magazines of heroes and heroines in their real life. In the process, she was deeply affected and influenced by the lives of two women missionary sisters in North India: One working in Jharkhand deep inside the jungle and another one serving among Gondis tribal group in Madhya Pradesh.

Sister Valsa John interacting with Local People
Sister Valsa interacting with Local People

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Valsa John became Catholic nun

In 1984 she joined the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary with the intention of working among the poor. She was appointed in a school at Daltonganj in Palamu District of Jharkhand after her initial training, where she began observing the life of poor much more closely. She went for Teachers' Training Centre and taught briefly in Himachal Pradesh. The search for radicalism gradually began to see the light. She went to Khagaul in Patna District, Bihar for a guided experience among the Dalits.

Participation with local people

During that time, immersion and participation were not mere words but acquired experiential meaning: Eating rat meat which was offered to her with love was indeed a test but Sister Valsa ate immersed herself in the daily struggle of Dalits. Frugality became thus a lifelong companion for her; experiential knowledge of hunger and poverty was very important to her so that she is able to relate with the powerlessness of the exploited and the marginalized people.

In 1993, she moved to Kodma in Sahibganj District of Jharkhand to work among Santals (also spelled as Santhals), a largest tribal community in India. Sona Santal Samaj Samiti was formed after the martyrdom of Fr. Anthony Murmu and fifteen others welcomed her. She began walking to villages, meeting women, going to hills with them. She endeared herself to the women of this area by gradually learning the language, customs and of course dances. She began organizing women systematically enabling them to participate in the traditional village councils and other meetings. At this time, tribals in all over India were demanding legal recognition of their traditional governance system. She mobilized women making them to understand the reasons for such a demand. She worked in Sona Santal Samaj Samiti and among the women of this area for two years. Then she moved out of Kodma in 1995.

Working as a teacher

She was appointed as a teacher in a school at Jiapani near Amrapara of Pakur District of Jharkhand. It was really a tough decision for her to make, for her heart was in the villages with the exploited women and their struggles. Then she was appointed as a full time teacher that kept her in the school till evening. She began touring the nearby villages after the classes and during holidays without taking any rest. She met the traditional leaders and interact with them; mobilizing their support for the recognition of local self-governance system. The side effect of her touring the villages was an increase in the strength of the school; more students began attending the schools. She went alone to the villages and often came back much after the sun set.

During one of these walks to villages, she noticed a camp of Geological Survey in the village Baromasia. She enquired about the purpose of such a camp. The officers thought that she would be the best person to persuade the people to part with the land for mining. So, they revealed the real intention of their stay. She began acquiring more information and realized that the tribals would be displaced at a massive scale if the project for mining comes through. She knew all these statistics and she was coming face to face with the actual displacement and the power of the private companies assisted by the administration within the context of liberalization of the economy.

Sister Valsa John and her Colleagues
Sister Valsa John and Her Colleagues

Immersion with Pachuwara

Thereafter, Sister Valsa requested her superiors to relieve her from the school. The superiors gladly granted her request knowing her earnestness and the need of the people. In 1998 she moved to Pachuwara, a Village in Amrapara of Pakur District and began informing the people about the intentions of the Government. The people realized that they were being duped by the Government. The Geological Survey of India had casually told the villagers that they were doing some Government work and no one told them about the impending mines, the procedures for the land acquisition and no rehabilitation packages were announced.

Sister Valsa began unifying the villagers the facts began emerging piece by piece. The Eastern Mines and Trading Agency in joint venture with the Punjab Electricity Board had acquired the coal block of the area and the extracted coal would be transported to Punjab for the electricity production. The Joint venture is known as Panem Coal Mines Limited. The colonization indeed continues in different forms.

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Formation of Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan

Sister Valsa began touring the villages, informing the villagers, mobilizing the people to resist the mine. The villagers deliberated first in hushed voice and then in public. Then the villagers realized that organization of the poor alone would stand by them; they had to organize themselves. She inspired them, stood by them and animated them. The result was their decision to form a Samiti called "Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan" (Rajmahal Hills Protection Movement).

One must realize that Sister Valsa remained throughout with villagers. She ate with them sacrificed the comforts of the convent, walked to the hills even staying under the trees, sleeping on river beds after nightlong deliberations. Her intuitive power helped her in understanding the way tribals moved, organized and resisted. She did lead the movement yet allowing the traditional leadership to be in the forefront. The traditional leaders negotiated and guided the movement.

Fooling of Santals

In the meantime, the Panem Coal Mines Limited set up an office in nearby market town called Amrapara. The civil administration was at the beck and call of the company. The middlemen of the company recruited Santal youths. James Murmu a local geology graduate already working in the company was shifted to Amrapara. He began providing money and drinks to youth. The youth recruited began to be in the payroll of the company. They went around trying to convince the people to part with the land. They provided arguments such as that land belonged to Government and Government would not offer compensation all the time and this is the best time to receive compensation.

The unity of the movement began cracking with the onslaught of the money and allurements. They too have desire to become rich and the educated unemployed youth are the most vulnerable. The movement began breaking and there was always tension the villages. People opposing the mines and the supporters began fighting. The social tension was tearing the social fabric of the harmonious tribal villages. The Tribals began fighting among themselves for the cause of the Panem Company.

Filing of cases against Sister Valsa

The administration began filing cases on the leaders of the movement. The close associates like Joseph and the head of civil area were picked up from the market and jailed. Sister Valsa alone had seven cases foisted on her. The police began catching people when they were going to market. Many men and women began going surreptitiously to the company office in order to receive compensation. The household members of the movement leaders began to be divided. There have been cases of children running away to Delhi and Punjab.

Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)

Sister Valsa painfully bore the decline of the movement. She began contemplating on various ways to reach out to the people. She deliberated continually with her supporters. Her supporters included journalist like Shaji who championed the cause for the tribals. She spent hours at night discussing with the people in various villages. After a prolonged consultation, the Samiti decided to approach the court. The Samiti believed that constitutional provisions would be protected by the courts. They were in a shock when the High Court ruled in favour of the Company and the Government. The Supreme Court recommended for an out of Court settlement. Hence, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the company and the Samiti.

Implementation of RR policy

The MoU was revolutionary influencing the rehabilitation and resettlement policy of the Central Government and the State Government. Sister Valsa was contributed the largest part with the inputs from the people themselves. She began earning many more friends but also foes. Huge amount of money began flowing to the people. Tribals who had never seen such a free flow of money began harbouring aspirations to become powerful. The Samiti members already had power and now they needed money in their hand so that they can hold power over the community. Temptations to become rich faster saw then sacrificing their ideals learned so far.

The movement had educated them to honour their tribal hatred for greed but they began succumbing to greed, power and money. The Company men began appealing them, nefarious methods were employed to allure these youth. The company middlemen, Government servants, local aspiring politicians, once again began providing appeal to youth of the Samiti. The criminalization of the youth began to affect them too; the violence of the mining industry began influencing their character.

The presence of Sister Valsa, people's trust in her, her moral strength, leadership and her over all supervision of the MoU monitoring activities became a hindrance to opponents' evil aspirations. Her presence was a block to their becoming powerful. So, they began propagating false accusations against sister. The opponents began spreading rumors that sister had gone away permanently and they formed a Samiti of their own when she had to be in Kerala to be at the side of her cancer ailing brother for three months. They said that they would not allow the sister's return. One must remember that only a handful of criminalized powerful youth having their vested interest stood agents the sister. The ordinary people were powerless against the mechanization of the politically supported powerful people.

Sister Valsa's worker Surajmuni Hembrom

At that time, Surajmuni Hembrom, a 22-year-old woman, working with her, was picked up in Aluber weekly market by a group of youth and mass raped at night. Parents went to the police station next day and wanted to file the case. The police refused to file the case and chased them away and the parents reported to sister. The victim's parents along with Surajmuni went to Police station second time. The police told them to settle the case out of court and receive monitory compensation. The rape victim refused to compromise and wanted justice. This time sister managed to get an appointment with Pakur District Collector for the rape victim for November 16, 2011.

Sister Valsa John Images

Sister Valsa John Murdered

Probably this was the last straw and the group felt that if they were to be hauled up, they would be inside the jail. Their anger flared; they thought that Sister Valsa was not only hindrance to other greedy prosperity but also block to their life itself. In the early hours of November 15, 2011, a mob of 25 or 30 men, suspected to be opposing the illegal mining mafia, carrying spears, clubs and axes burst into her house in the remote village of Pachuara in Pakur District, they beat and hacked her to death. She was placed to rest at St.Paul's Church, Dudhani in Dumka District of Jharkhand.

The terrible act of her murder, already contemplated and planned, was the result of dehumanization assisted by the company and the violent atmosphere in the mining area. Sister Valsa stood for the poor and the victimized in all situations. This was indeed martyrdom for the cause of the poor and the marginalized communities in Jharkhand. She wanted to share the vulnerabilities of the poor people and like Jesus became vulnerable lamb to be sacrificed. Shedding her blood on the birth day of Jharkhand, she has inspired all struggling people to deepen our life-giving commitment for the liberation of the poor.

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