The brutal murder of a Roman Catholic nun in eastern India remains a mystery as accusations continue to fly a full month after her killing.
The nun’s name was Valsa John, but she was better known as "Sister Valsa." She was an outspoken advocate for impoverished villagers whose rights she believed were being threatened by coal mining activities in eastern Jharkhand state.
At least seven people have been arrested in the case. Police have suggested Maoist rebels instigated John’s killing because their pamphlets were found near her body, a charge the Maoists deny.
But activists say the case isn’t so clear cut, and that it reveals the dangers of standing up to power and money in a country starving for both.
“The company killed the nun,” said Punit Minj, a tribal activist and member of the Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee who accuses local officials of turning a blind eye to the illicit activities of the Panem Coal Mining Company. “Whenever there is a mass movement, particularly in India, when people are resisting against these corporations, the administration and the government blame Maoists.”
Minj blames mining mafias, bands of thugs he says are paid off by Panem for helping the company illegally grab land and sell black market coal.
The company has not publicly responded to the allegations, but Panem officials have told local media they are concerned about their own safety since Maoists have been implicated in the case.
VOA contacted the director general of Jharkhand's police criminal investigations department, Asha Sinha, but she declined to comment while the investigation is underway.
Sudha Varghese, who knew John for 20 years, described her friend as a hardworking person who “merged herself” into the life and struggle of Bihar’s indigenous communities.
“Valsa organized the youth and she made the people understand that this land is their land, not the company’s or government’s land,” she said.
Varghese says John stayed with her shortly before her death, and said she was anxious about returning to Bihar.
Before her murder, John raised her concerns to the police, according to Minj.
“She had lodged in a file that she has been given threats by the Panem Coal mafia, but nothing has been taken care of, no protection was given,” he said.
Minj is calling on the Indian government to conduct a full investigation into Bihar’s local gangs and authorities, not just the Maoists, who he suggested are an easy scapegoat because the government considers them India’s biggest internal security threat.
Sukas Chakma, the director of the New Delhi-based Asia Centre for Human Rights, says there may be some truth to the theory of Maoist involvement.
“What is clear is that in a number of areas, especially Maoist-affected areas, the companies and the Maoists have been working hand-in-glove against the activists,” he says.
“Here you have a case, where the companies, in the words of the Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram, have been giving finances to the Maoists to continue their operations, but the government of India has not been taking any action, so the nexus between the Maoists and the industry is established, even by the government of India,” he said.
Amnesty International notes that John is the fourth social activist to die in mysterious circumstances in India this year, and calls on the Indian government to protect activists.