By Krishna Pokharel And Paul Beckett
[The Wall Street Journal last week serialized an investigation into the death of Sister Valsa John Malamel. It is a tale of greed, lust, friendship, betrayal, faith, and brutality set against the conflict between two major forces shaping India’s future: Industrialization and the preservation of traditional ways of life. This account is based on dozens of interviews, witness statements, court documents, and police files. One chapter of the story ran each day last week on India Real Time and india.wsj.com. Today, we are publishing the story in full. ]
“Where is Sister Valsa?” they demanded. “Where is Sister Valsa?”
In the dark of night on Nov. 15, the mob surrounded the tiled-roof compound. They carried bows and arrows, spades, axes, iron rods.
“I don’t have that information,” replied a woman who lived in the house, according to a statement she later gave to a local court.
You’re lying, she was told.
In one corner of a tiny windowless room off an inner courtyard, Valsa John Malamel, a Christian nun, hid under a blanket punching numbers into her cellphone.
“Some men have surrounded my house and I am suspecting something foul,” she whispered to a journalist friend who lived several hours’ drive away.
“Escape at any cost,” he says he told her. The call was logged at 10:30 p.m.
She called a friend who lived in the same village.“I have been surrounded on all sides,” she told him, according to his own court statement. Then the line went dead.
The landscape of the Rajmahal Hills in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand unfolds in a scruffy mix of deep-red soil, patchworks of small fields of brown grass, clusters of banana, ficus and palm trees, stands of bamboo, and ponds of murky brown water. It is the heartland of the Santhal and Paharia, two of India’s indigenous tribes.
There are small signs of modern life here. Tribe members carry cellphones. A satellite dish sits on the occasional roof. But ancient, pastoral ways persist. The men hunt rabbit with bows and arrows.
Pachwara sits in the center of the tribal region. The village of about 3,000 stretches for miles. The houses are small compounds surrounded by rickety wooden fences, laundry scattered across the slats. Roofs of red tile or thatch stretch almost to the ground. The walls, once white or light blue, are spattered with clay. Pigs and piglets, goats and kids, chickens and chicks, cows and calves roam and rummage in the mud and leaves. Children, trousers and shoes optional, play on the pathways.
On Nov. 7, Surajmuni Hembrom — a 22-year-old woman with thick eyebrows and a gold stud in her nose – says she set out on foot with her aunt from Pachwara. They headed for a weekly market to buy groceries. After shopping, they took in a bull fight, a favorite pastime of the tribes. Then they started for home, she says.
At a crossroads, they encountered Adwin Murmu, a 24-year-old college student, and three of his friends, she says. They started teasing Surajmuni and urged her to join them.
“Why would I, since I don’t know you?” she says she responded.
One of the men caught her by the hand and pulled her onto a motorbike between him and Mr. Murmu, she says. Her aunt tried to intervene but was pushed away. Surajmuni Hembrom says the men drove her to an abandoned house and left her alone with Mr. Murmu. He pushed her inside, she says, and locked the door.
Then, she contends, “he raped me all night.” (Surajmuni Hembrom gave her consent to be named in this article.)
Surajmuni’s father, an oil and rice dealer in Pachwara, says he and his wife searched that night for their daughter. After a hint from a family friend that she had been seen with Adwin Murmu from the neighboring village of Alubera, the couple walked for two hours before dawn to confront Adwin Murmu’s parents.
Adwin’s father says he told them his son had not brought Surajmuni to the house. He says his son was “tricked into” spending the night with her by his friends. A lawyer for Adwin Murmu says his client didn’t commit rape. Police say the friends are on the run; they couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mayur Patel Kanaiyalal, superintendent of police for Pakur district, which includes the villages of Pachwara and Alubera, says he believes the incident took place but whether it was “with or without consent is still to be investigated.”
Later that day, Surajmuni Hembrom was reunited with her parents. They turned to the person that villagers had sought guidance from for years: Sister Valsa John Malamel.
With a broad jaw and hair pulled back behind her head, Sister Valsa was 53 years old and a member of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, a Belgium-based order of nuns. Surajmuni Hembrom, 31 years her junior, was saving $4 a week in the hopes of opening a tailoring business in the village. Despite their differences, the two were especially close.
Surajmuni spent her free time at the compound where Sister Valsa stayed, cooking for her, washing her clothes, and frequently spending the night. If Sister Valsa found something funny in the newspaper, she read it aloud. They laughed about a family in Mizoram state, in India’s northeast, that had 170 members and ate 50 chickens and 50 kilograms of potatoes for one meal.
Sister Valsa’s advice was for Surajmuni Hembrom’s family first to meet with the tribal chiefs, says Surajmuni’s father.
But he says the tribal chiefs said Sister Valsa would decide what to do next. She advised the family to file a complaint at the local police station seven kilometers away.
On Nov. 9, the family and three other villagers went to the police. The officer in charge was Chandrika Paswan. He was standing in for the station chief, who was absent that day. Mr. Paswan refused to accept the family’s complaint. He says in an interview he wasn’t authorized to do so in the absence of his boss. “I told them to settle the matter within their community,” he said.
The villagers returned home. Later that day, Adwin Murmu and his parents showed up at the Hembroms’ house with five villagers and two sons of the local tribal chiefs, both families confirm.
“We are ready to bring Surajmuni to our home as Adwin’s bride,” Adwin’s father says he told the family.
“You want our daughter to marry a criminal?” Surajmuni’s father responded.
On the morning of Nov. 15, Surajmuni Hembrom and her parents returned to the local police station with 13 villagers. The station chief, Banarsi Prasad, also refused to accept their petition, the villagers say.
Instead, they say, he introduced them to a broker who asked the family to accept 50,000 rupees (about $1,000) to settle the matter. The family refused.
The broker confirms the meeting but says he didn’t offer any money. He says he was trying to end the dispute between the families at the request of the police.
Mr. Prasad, the station chief, denies being at the police station that day, saying he was away for police training. He also denies asking a broker to intervene. He claims that, over the phone, he ordered that Surajmuni’s complaint be accepted.
However, his subordinate, Mr. Paswan, says both his boss and the broker were present and that Mr. Prasad, the chief, dealt directly with Surajmuni and the broker.
Dejected, the villagers returned to Sister Valsa’s house to talk about what to do next. They left around 4 p.m. A few hours later, the mob gathered.
Valsa John Malamel was born in 1958, the seventh child of affluent Christian parents in the southern Indian state of Kerala. She attended a local church regularly as a child.
She studied economics at university in Kochi, a major Keralan port city, and taught at a local school. She was inspired by the work of two nuns from a nearby convent run by the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, say family members.
Her father, a metals-company employee who later became a politician, died of a heart attack in 1982. Sister Valsa took it especially hard.
The next year, after graduating, she signed up for the Roman Catholic order of nuns, which was founded in Belgium in 1803 to serve “the poor and the abandoned,” its website says. Out of almost 2,000 nuns, about 400 are Indian. The order runs 55 convents in India, 24 of them in the state of Jharkhand. They are overseen by a provincial office in Ranchi, the state capital.
Sister Valsa first worked in Jharkhand, which was then part of Bihar state, in the late 1980s. A decade later, she was living and teaching at a convent and school in the Jharkhand town of Amrapara. In her spare time she roamed the fields and streams around the village of Pachwara, according to her sisters in the order and family members.
On her rambles, she became friendly with local tribe members – and increasingly sympathetic to the poverty she witnessed there.
In 1998, Sister Valsa moved out of the Amrapara convent and into Pachwara for good. Here she stayed, having apparently found a place where she could accomplish her mission in life: Helping and educating the poor.
She moved into a room in the home of Binej Hembrom. He is the traditional head – or parganaith — of 32 tribal villages including Pachwara. (Many of the villagers share Hembrom as a surname.)
The family already had abandoned the Santhal tribe’s traditional religion to become Protestant Christians. But Binej Hembrom, now 80 years old and almost deaf, continues to fulfill his role as tribal chief during ceremonies and rituals. Those include invoking a deity called “Sing Bonga” in a grove of native “sal” trees.
Sister Valsa “was doing good for the village,” Binej Hembrom said one recent day as he huddled in a blanket in front of the fire in his courtyard.
Sister Valsa did not proselytize, villagers say: there are only a handful of Christians in Pachwara. But she lived as the villagers lived and learned their tribal language, Santhali. She also encouraged them to change their ways.
At the time, adults in the village drank hooch made from the dry husk of the native mahua tree, says Sonea Deheri, a friend of Sister Valsa. Drunk men fought each other for women.
Mr. Deheri says Sister Valsa persuaded him, his wife, and others to stop drinking alcohol. “She would say to us, ‘Follow your culture but live well.’”
Around 2000, Sister Valsa helped the villagers construct their own school, a thatched hut that sits in an open field. She taught there for six years. Today, it is attended by about 170 children.
“We used to live like wild animals,” says Surajmuni Hembrom, who says she was 12 years old when she met Sister Valsa. “But after Sister’s arrival, we learned about living a good life.”
As Sister Valsa visited villagers to persuade them to send their children to the new school, she caught wind of a government survey being conducted of Pachwara and eight other villages for coal reserves, says Shaji Joseph, editor in chief of The Public Agenda, a Hindi-language bi-weekly published from Ranchi.
In an interview he conducted in 2002, Mr. Joseph says Sister Valsa talked about a company that was planning to mine in the area – and of the destitution she felt had been wrought on tribal life by mining projects in other parts of the state.
Jharkhand gained its statehood in 2000 to give greater representation to tribes who have lived there for thousands of years. The state’s name means “forest tract” and more than 30 tribal groups, including the Santhal and Paharia, make up about 28% of the state’s total population of 33 million.
During colonial days, the tribes in Jharkhand mounted several unsuccessful rebellions against the British, who extended their authority to the region in 1765. The British constructed a vast network of railway lines to ship minerals to Kolkata, the original capital of British India, and onward to England to fuel the nation’s booming industrialization.
Jharkhand today is one of the poorest states in India despite being rich in coal and minerals like uranium and iron ore. Pachwara and eight other nearby villages have combined coal reserves of 562 million tons, according to the coal ministry in New Delhi. All of the surrounding Rajmahal Hills area has reserves totaling 14.1 billion tons.
It wasn’t long before the government of the new state sought to extract that coal. It leased out 1,152 hectares of agricultural and forest land to PANEM Coal Mines Ltd. a joint venture between the government-run Punjab State Electricity Board and the privately-run Eastern Minerals & Trading Agency of Kolkata.
The company came to the Pachwara area in 2002. It planned to supply coal to thermal power plants in the state of Punjab, about 1,500 kilometers west, said Bishwanath Dutta, PANEM’s director, in an interview.
The villagers mounted a dogged resistance. Sister Valsa played a central role as an organizer. Their organization was called the Rajmahal Pahad Bachao Andolan or Rajmahal Hills Protection Movement.
Her work in rallying the opposition was a turning point in her relationship with the village. It initially strengthened her bond with villagers – and theirs with her – but it also set the course for future friction.
Villagers chased away company officials when they visited the area. They barricaded the roads with gates of bamboo. They stopped police and government officials from entering the village. They kept vigil with bows and arrows.
In 2003, as the standoff intensified, the villagers filed a petition before the High Court of Jharkhand. They claimed they had special rights under a 1949 law which prevents the transfer and sale of tribal land to those from outside the community. They also claimed the government’s action was against their customary right of self-rule, according to court documents.
Two years later, the court ruled against the claims. It said the 1949 law doesn’t stop the government from using its “right of eminent domain” — the power to acquire any private property for public purpose with compensation to the owner.
Sister Valsa and other activists appealed to the Supreme Court of India. Meanwhile, the company started negotiations for a settlement. It already had won over one village near Pachwara by offering higher compensation than the government. It started mining there in late 2005, says Mr. Dutta, PANEM’s director.
The other villages saw little option but to negotiate: They figured the Supreme Court would uphold the Jharkhand court ruling and that support would wane as company funds were distributed, villagers say.
Sister Valsa acted as an intermediary. The two sides reached an agreement in November 2006.
The company promised to provide displaced villagers with alternative shelter and regular income in proportion to the land they lost. It promised a share of mining profits as well as schools, a hospital and a job to a member of each family. And, as the company moved through the area and tapped out coal seams, there were provisions to return the land — restored to cultivable condition — to the original inhabitants before a new mine could open.
In return, the villagers withdrew their court appeal and the Supreme Court made a copy of the agreement part of its records. The central government has since proposed a law that would require mining companies to give equity and royalties to those affected by mines.
Binej Hembrom, the parganaith, signed the agreement on behalf of nine villages. He also headed a committee to oversee the agreement’s implementation. The other members included Sister Valsa and the tribal chiefs of all nine area villages.
The company began distributing a total of 7 million rupees (about $140,000) yearly to displaced families. Sister Valsa supervised the distribution of the money, according to the company and villagers. Most families in the area earn less than $150 a month, villagers say.
Mining money in the last few years has enriched many villagers. Some new amenities have been built. But the company’s arrival – and the protest movement it sparked – was to take a toll on many other aspects of life in Pachwara.
As Sister Valsa John Malamel became more involved in the anti-mining protest movement around the village of Pachwara in Jharkhand, her relationship frayed with her religious order, the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary.
In the early years that she lived in Pachwara, she used to visit the order’s nearby convent in Amrapara every weekend. But her visits ceased in 2006. “She found she didn’t have the time,” says Sister Lilly Pallipurath, who heads the order’s council that oversees the Jharkhand convents from Ranchi, the state capital.
The council summoned Sister Valsa to discuss her absence. It suggested placing her elsewhere. She refused.
Sister Valsa’s church attendance also lagged, though she told her sisters she celebrated the Eucharist when a local priest visited. The sisters worried that she was neglecting her nun’s rituals.
“We always said we approve of her work but about her religious life we were not very happy,” says Sister Lilly, 50 years old.
Sister Valsa would respond: “What is important for me is the life of the people.”
Was Sister Valsa losing her faith?
“If you look at rituals and other things, one would say she had no faith,” says Sister Lilly. “But rituals and timely prayers are not really faith. That she diminished in her faith, I cannot say that. She always felt close to Jesus.”
Sister Valsa also believed her work was closer to the order’s original mission of serving the poor than the life her sisters led inside their convents. And she wasn’t shy about saying so.
“ ‘I am living the life our founder lived,’ she would say,” says Sister Lilly. “She felt she was living it much more than the other sisters. I said, ‘You can’t say that.’ That was not appreciated.”
In Pachwara, too, resentment was building toward Sister Valsa.
Promodini Hembrom is the 42-year-old niece of Binej Hembrom, the tribal chief, and the daughter of his brother, Cornelious. She says that as Sister Valsa’s role as an activist increased, her father and uncle worked at her “beck and call, out of their goodness and ignorance.”
“We used to tell our fathers, ‘You are the head of the villages, how can an outsider make you run like her dogs here and there?’” Promodini Hembrom says. “But they wouldn’t listen. She had made everybody in the village dumb.”
Cornelious Hembrom, 73 years old, says he and his brother supported and helped Sister Valsa because they believed she was “working for the good of the village.”
After the village reached an agreement in 2006 with PANEM, the local mining company, Pachwara was undisturbed by the company’s activities. But PANEM opened two mines in the area, one in Kathaldih, about seven kilometers from Pachwara.
The mine’s entrance is a craggy and desolate terrain of black and gray shiny sludge. Dump trucks and coal trucks roar along the access road. A narrower road leads up a few hundred yards past machinery, workers’ housing, and piles of trash to the company’s offices. Of the almost 600 people employed at Kathaldih, about 400 are local tribal members, a company official says.
The mining takes places in a vast canyon. Its walls are layered like a Himalayan mountainside but they are devoid of green. In the canyon floor, solitary dots of yellow and orange — a mammoth excavating machine, backhoes and trucks — plow through the freshly-blasted earth to extract, load and remove the coal.
The road from the mine to the railway station in the nearby city of Pakur is in constant use. Dozens of trucks move slowly in giant convoys. Traffic jams are frequent as they meet convoys returning to the pit.
As the trucks trundle by, local men play out a gruesome ritual of desperate poverty. They line the roadside, waiting for their moment. When it comes, they climb the walls of the passing truck and throw out what coal they can grab from the high pile in the truck bed. The drivers make no effort to stop them. Back on the roadside, the scavengers scrape up the fallen coal with a long fork, pack it into tall sacks, mount the sacks on bicycles, and push them to market to sell as fuel in tea stalls or homes.
In the early hours of the morning, local women line the roads to scrape bare-handed for what the men leave behind, their blackened fingers probing the deep coal dust for a nugget. Everything, even the garbage, is plastered with soot.
Since 2005, more than 150 villagers have died after being hit by coal trucks, according to the villagers and police officials. Bishwanath Dutta, director of PANEM, says the transportation of coal is handled by contractors from Pachwara and elsewhere in Jharkhand and the company doesn’t have direct knowledge of these incidents.
The mine also has attracted the attention of local Maoist rebels. They are known as Naxalites after the village of Naxalbari in the neighboring state of West Bengal, where their insurrection started in 1967. The rebels seek the overthrow of the Indian state and have won support among some tribal villagers in Jharkhand and across central India where government services are decrepit or don’t exist. The rebels intimidate villages they view as unsympathetic to their cause. And they target police stations and corporate offices.
In 2009, two senior PANEM officials were shot dead while they were on a morning walk. The murders are under investigation. Police suspect the rebels. On Jan. 10, a group of about 20 Maoists attacked the Kathaldih mine, firing indiscriminately. They killed a security guard, police say.
Villagers in Pachwara and surrounding hamlets have earned unprecedented sums through road construction contracts and other benefits offered by the mining company.
But by early last year, Sister Valsa was growing frustrated. She believed PANEM was dragging its feet on key provisions of the 2006 agreement between the company and nine villages that she helped negotiate, according to villagers and her friends.
In a May meeting of the committee that oversees the pact, she demanded that the company build a hospital that, in 2006, it had promised to complete by the end of 2007, says James Murmu, a PANEM official, who was present. He says the company took her demand seriously and has acquired land where the hospital will soon be constructed.
Sister Valsa also was coming into increasing conflict with Pycil Hembrom, the 40-year-old son of Binej, the tribal chief, according to Sister Valsa’s friend, Sonea Deheri, and police documents filed later.
Pycil Hembrom was responsible for distributing company funds to villagers, a process Sister Valsa supervised. But by early 2011, he had begun challenging Sister Valsa’s supervisory role, Mr. Deheri says, and sought to usurp her.
He says Pycil Hembrom wanted to have “complete control” of the process of negotiating with the company, distributing company funds for compensation and welfare programs, dispensing contracts and supervising the implementation of the 2006 agreement. The contracts and compensation were set to increase dramatically when mining began in Pachwara.
Pycil Hembrom was not available for comment. His son, Prem Hembrom, says his father negotiated with the company only when Sister Valsa was away from the village. He added that his father didn’t “want anything for himself from the company.”
The differences between Sister Valsa and Pycil Hembrom caused a broader rift between the villagers. And it left Sister Valsa in a difficult position: Since she had arrived in Pachwara, she had been staying at the home of Pycil Hembrom’s family, where he also lived.
The atmosphere in their shared house soured. Father Tom Kavalakatt, a local priest, says Sister Valsa recounted to him an incident in June when Pycil Hembrom and his elder brother, Anand, were drinking at the house. Anand Hembrom verbally abused Sister Valsa, Father Tom says she told him.
She confided in her friend Mr. Deheri, too. In a statement later filed with a local court, he said Sister Valsa told him in June: “Pycil has started using abusive words against me and is hurting me emotionally.”
In late June, Sister Valsa moved out of the house to a pair of small rooms in a nearby home.
Anand Hembrom denies that he or his brother abused Sister Valsa. He says Sister Valsa “went out of the house peacefully.” But her relations with the village’s most powerful family would never be repaired.
In July, Sister Valsa John Malamel of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary left the state of Jharkhand for Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala. She went to visit her elder brother, who was suffering from cancer. On Aug.1, he died.
That evening, Sister Valsa phoned her old friend Sister Sudha Varghese, a nun from a different order who runs a girls hostel in Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar.
“She was really down emotionally and physically,” Sister Sudha says of Sister Valsa. Sister Sudha asked her to visit. Sister Valsa accepted and arrived in Patna Aug. 26. She stayed for the next two months.
Sister Valsa spent her days meeting the girls in the hostel and reading books and newspapers. She was weak from chronic malaria and was recovering from typhoid, Sister Sudha says.
Sister Valsa lamented the state of affairs in Pachwara, the village in Jharkhand where she lived. In 2006, she had negotiated a deal with the local mining company, PANEM, that gave benefits to villagers displaced by mining and awarded contracts to local firms. But Sister Valsa had growing doubts about the company’s motives, she told Sister Sudha and other friends.
“She said she was getting in the company’s way and the company was trying to split the group that she had successfully built over the years into two,” says Sister Sudha. Bishwanath Dutta, director of PANEM, denies the allegation.
In the evenings, Sister Valsa talked with her friends in Pachwara by phone. The news was not good.
Sister Valsa had been the villagers’ interlocutor with PANEM since the 2006 agreement was signed. But Pycil Hembrom, son of the tribal chief known as the parganaith, and his supporters wanted to decide for themselves how compensation was distributed, who was awarded contracts, how mining in the area would proceed and how company funds for village development were spent, according to Sister Valsa’s friend Sonea Deheri, police documents and others in Pachwara.
“Didi” – elder sister, in Hindi – “the villagers are speaking against you so you have to be cautious,” Mr. Deheri says he told Sister Valsa in one call. He told her that he had heard threats made against her life.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he says she responded. “I haven’t robbed any money. I am doing service. As long as people want me there, I will be there.”
Before she left Patna, Sister Valsa said to Sister Sudha: “Anything can happen to me.”
Sister Valsa returned to Pachwara Nov. 7. She was met with a hostile reception. Several villagers say Pycil Hembrom organized a blockade that night that stopped trucks from transporting coal from PANEM’s mine in nearby Kathaldih. Their aim: To pressure PANEM into intervening and asking Sister Valsa to leave the village for good.
Mr. Dutta, director of PANEM, says he talked over the phone to Pycil Hembrom the next morning. “It happened while we were drunk and we will open the road immediately,” Pycil Hembrom said, according to Mr. Dutta.
Sajal Kumar Ghosh, a lawyer for Pycil Hembrom, confirms Pycil’s involvement in the blockade but says he doesn’t know about his client’s conversation with Mr. Dutta.
Pycil Hembrom’s cousin, Promodini Hembrom, says Pycil and other family members wanted Sister Valsa to stay away because they didn’t want her interfering in villagers’ dealings with PANEM.
The same night as the blockade, Surajmuni Hembrom, Sister Valsa’s closest friend in the village, says she was raped by Adwin Murmu, a young man from the neighboring village of Alubera.
“He tortured and raped me throughout the night,” she later told police. At 4 a.m. the next morning, Adwin Murmu pulled her out of the house where the alleged incident took place and said, “Run away quickly,” she says. A lawyer for Adwin Murmu denies that his client committed rape. (Surajmuni Hembrom is a distant relative of Pycil Hembrom and Promodini Hembrom. All the Hembrom families in the village trace a common ancestry.)
Sister Valsa recommended Surajmuni Hembrom and her family file a complaint with the police. Over the next week, they were rebuffed twice at the local police station, according to Surajmuni Hembrom, her parents and villagers who accompanied them.
On the afternoon of Nov. 15, Sister Valsa and other friends met at Sister Valsa’s place.
It is a small, tiled-roof compound she shared with a family. Inside the compound’s bamboo gate, an outer courtyard leads to a small passageway where pigeons nest in broken cooking pots tied to the ceiling. The passageway leads to an inner courtyard. Off that courtyard are the living quarters.
The friends talked about what Surajmuni Hembrom should do next to ensure that her rape complaint was registered. Then they dispersed around 4 p.m.
Two hours later, Sister Valsa called her journalist friend Shaji Joseph, chief editor of The Public Agenda, for advice, Mr. Joseph says. He says he suggested that Sister Valsa ask Surajmuni’s family to go to the deputy commissioner – the head administrator — of Pakur district, the area that includes Pachwara.
Later that evening, Sunil Kumar Singh, the deputy commissioner, says he got a call from an acquaintance of Sister Valsa who told him about the police refusal to register the rape complaint.
“I told the caller to bring the girl to my office the next day at 12:30,” Mr. Singh said in an interview.
At 8 p.m., Sister Valsa called her friend Mr. Deheri to ask him to prepare to leave for Mr. Singh’s office the next morning with Surajmuni Hembrom and about a dozen villagers, Mr. Deheri says. He says he called around to alert the group then went to sleep.
Back at the compound, Sister Valsa and Surajmuni Hembrom ate dinner together and had a bedside chat.
“She comforted me, saying ‘If we tread on the path of truth, God will be on our side,’” Surajmuni Hembrom says. They turned in for the night in two different rooms at around 10 p.m., she says. It would be the last time the two friends saw each other.
Not long after, Sonaram Hembrom, whose family lived in the house, returned from his shift as a dump-truck driver at the Kathaldih mine.
“All of a sudden there was a powerful push on the door,” he said in a statement filed later in a local court. About 40 men, armed with primitive weapons – rods, axes, spades – barged into the outer courtyard. They were lit by a partial moon.
Several men pushed further into the compound. Among them, according to the court statements of three witnesses, were Pycil Hembrom and Adwin Murmu, the man who allegedly raped Surajumi Hembrom.
“Where is Sister Valsa?” Adwin Murmu demanded, according to Sonaram Hembrom’s statement.
“I don’t know,” Sonaram Hembrom replied. “I just came back from duty.”
“If you don’t tell, we will kill you,” an unidentified voice threatened.
In her small, dark bedroom Sister Valsa cowered under a blanket. She made frantic calls on her cellphone. The compound was surrounded, she told two friends.
Then, witnesses testified, a voice in the compound shouted: “Found her.”
Then, shouts of “Cut her. Cut her.”
The attackers slashed at Sister Valsa in the doorway separating her two rooms. They cut her from above her left ear to her mouth and on her throat. Then they abandoned her bleeding body in the doorway.
As they fled, they blew whistles, burst firecrackers and shouted “Inqalaab Jindabad” — “Long Live the Revolution.” Near Sister Valsa’s body were scattered a few hand-painted posters, witnesses said.
Soon after, her friend Mr. Deheri rushed in with other villagers. “When we reached, we saw Sister Valsa was dead,” he later testified.
A lawyer for Pycil Hembrom, Adwin Murmu, and five other men allegedly involved says his clients played no part in Sister Valsa’s death.
Word about the murder spread quickly. About 90 minutes later, Gautam Kumar Samanta, a survey officer with PANEM, appeared at the house with Pycil Hembrom and several other villagers.
In an interview, Mr. Samanta says he went with Pycil Hembrom because “he is closely associated with the company and is the son of the parganaith, who is the last word for any matter in the tribal area.”
They stayed at the compound only 10 to 15 seconds, Mr. Samanta says. But before he left, he collected the posters strewn near Sister Valsa’s body.
Each poster was 1.5 x 1.5 feet in size, hand-painted with red ink, he says. They said in Hindi: “Stop looting the people. Punjab’s PANEM go back. Sister Valsa is deceiving the people. Communist Party of India (Maoist).” The party is the official name of the Naxalite rebel movement that has targeted the company in the past.
Mr. Samanta says he took the posters to prevent “terror among the villagers.”
He says he also called the police. They refused to come, saying they had orders not to enter the area at night because of the threat of a Naxalite attack. The next morning, Mr. Samanta says, he gave the police the four posters he had taken from the site of Sister Valsa’s murder.
The investigation into the murder of Sister Valsa John Malamel in her rooms in the village of Pachwara is still underway.
Arun Oraon, the inspector general of police for the state of Jharkhand, is overseeing the probe. He says police have a theory that there were three different motives that brought together the mob that killed her on the night of Nov. 15.
Adwin Murmu allegedly raped Sister Valsa’s friend, Surajmuni Hembrom, the previous week. He may have known that Surajmuni and her family – at Sister Valsa’s urging – were scheduled to visit the area’s most senior bureaucrat on Nov. 16 after police twice refused to accept her rape complaint, Mr. Oraon says in an interview.
Pycil Hembrom, the son of the tribal chief, and others were fed up with what they viewed as Sister Valsa’s interference in their ability to negotiate directly with the local mining company, PANEM, Mr. Oraon says.
PANEM, which operates two mines in the Pachwara area, hands out contracts and benefits to local villagers. Sister Valsa oversaw the payments but Pycil Hembrom wanted to be PANEM’s point person in Pachwara, according to villagers and the police.
Six of the seven suspects, including Pycil Hembrom, hold contracts from the company, ranging from housing and road construction to the transportation of coal from the nearby Kathaldih mine, according to Gautam Kumar Samanta, a senior PANEM official, and the suspects’ lawyer.
“Pycil and others thought they will make maximum money in the absence of Sister Valsa’s supervision and monitoring,” Mr. Oraon says.
Police also believe there were perhaps two dozen Maoist rebels, known as Naxalites, in the mob when Sister Valsa was killed.
The rebels may have wanted to create “fear psychosis” among the villagers so that they joined the rebel movement, Mr. Oraon says. He notes that in the wake of Sister Valsa’s murder, many villagers abandoned their houses and hid in the forests after police began investigating.
“That’s the rebels’ strategy: To get villagers to support them by creating an environment of distrust and fear of government authorities,” he says.
On Nov.17, two days after Sister Valsa’s murder, police finally accepted Surajmuni Hembrom’s rape complaint against Adwin Murmu.
On Nov.18, Jharkhand police suspended Banarsi Prasad, the local police chief, for dereliction of duty. Disciplinary action has been launched against him. Mr. Oraon says that, as the head of station, it was Mr. Prasad’s duty to ensure that Surajmuni Hembrom’s rape complaint was registered the first time she tried to make it. Mr. Prasad declined comment on his suspension and the disciplinary action.
On Nov.19 and 20, police arrested Pycil Hembrom, Adwin Murmu, and five others from the villages of Pachwara and nearby Alubera in connection with their alleged involvement in Sister Valsa’s murder.
On Nov. 21, police filed a petition with a local court asking that the suspects be remanded in judicial custody. In the petition, the police say the suspects had confessed to “having killed Sister Valsa due to money disputes and other disputes in the past.”
The suspects were taken into custody. Five remain in jail, two have been released on bail. They have not been formally charged; police must file charges by Feb. 15.
Sajal Kumar Ghosh, the lawyer representing all of them, says the police have not been able to establish any “intention behind the murder.”
Mr. Ghosh says his clients were tortured by police to make false confessions. He also notes that confessions before the police aren’t permissible in Indian court cases. He says all of his clients are innocent. He also says that Adwin Murmu denies he raped Surajmuni Hembrom.
Promodini Hembrom, Pycil Hembrom’s cousin, says she visited him in jail. Her brother is also one of the accused. She says the men also told her they were “excessively tortured by policemen to make false confessions.”
She says the seven accused were friends who “liked to eat, drink and party but they are not the ones who would kill anybody.”
Mr. Oraon denies police coerced the suspects into falsely confessing.
On Nov. 21, a local Maoist commander, Ramesh Soren, denied in phone calls to reporters that the rebels were involved in the murder, according to Manohar Lal, a local reporter for The Pioneer newspaper, who received a call.
Mr. Oraon, the police official, says Mr. Soren is a new member of the Maoists and that the rebels who were at the Pachwara compound were directed from a higher level of the organization. Police say they are hunting for the suspects.
G.S. Rath, the director general of Jharkhand police, says police also are looking into whether PANEM, the mining company, played a role in Sister Valsa’s murder.
Bishwanath Dutta, PANEM’s director, denies any company participation. “The allegations by the people that the company had connived to kill Sister Valsa are totally absurd,” he said.
As of mid-January, Sister Valsa’s rooms in the small compound where she lived in Pachwara were largely untouched although the site of her murder has been cleaned of blood.
A large metal trunk and a red plastic table occupy the first room, a 10-feet-by-10-feet square. On one wall, a plank suspended from the ceiling by rope holds crumpled copies of a newspaper from Nov. 14, the day before she was killed. Another shelf on another wall holds small pots of coconut hair oil, calamine lotion and Ponds cold cream.
The second room is near pitch black. A candle illuminates a charpoy — a low wooden bed with stretched cloth strips for a mattress – as well as a small gas stove with two burners, jars of herbs and powdered spices, and a large box of Nestle creamer.
Sister Valsa was buried in a public Christian cemetery in the town of Dumka, two hours’ drive from Pachwara. About 700 villagers, nuns and priests attended the funeral, including 30 nuns from her religious order, the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary.
In a prayer at the funeral service, the congregation said: “We believe that she has returned to the Heavenly Father after completing her mission here on Earth.”
A simple wooden cross is stuck in a large pile of reddish-brown soil that covers Sister Valsa’s coffin. Nowhere does the grave bear her name.
Back in Pachwara, Surajmuni Hembrom’s father says he is looking for “a suitable man who agrees to marry with Surajmuni after knowing all that has happened to her.”
But he says he doubts whether any man will come forward. “We are ready to keep her with us all our life,” he says.
Surajmuni Hembrom says she has been hiding out of fear at relatives’ houses. “Had Sister Valsa been here, I would have been fearless” she says. She still wants to train as a tailor. But as twilight descended on the village one January day, she tended to a small herd of cows with a switch. She wore a plaid shawl against the winter chill.
“Whenever she used to be with me and be free, we had lots of fun,” she says of Sister Valsa.
Then Surajmuni Hembrom, and the cows, wandered away.
- Sister Valsa gives her life in fight against Indian mining company (theglobeandmail.com)
- Justice for Valsa John of Jharkhand, latest victim of the mining mafia (kafila.org)
- Slain nun took on coal mafia (thehindu.com)