Anti-coal mining woman activist murdered in India
Sister Valsa John was fighting the "coal mafia"
Last week, a gang of around 40 thugs invaded the home of Sister Valsa John, a human rights and community activist from the Indian state of Jharkhand.
According to most reports she was then beaten to death - allegedly by the local "coal mafia" which may have been acting on behalf of the Panem mining company.
The company had already displaced tribal (Adivasi) families in the area.
This atrocity against a valiant campaigner comes barely three months after the murder of Shehla Massood - another Indian woman who dared challenge the "lower depths" of the country's mining industry. See: India: Saranda's savagery exposed by national HR team
To view a video on Sistter Valsa's work please see:
Nun from Kerala killed in Jharkhand
17 November 2011
She had been campaigning for rights of tribals
Catholic nun Valsa John (52), who was involved in a movement against displacement of tribal people by coal mining companies in Jharkhand, was shot dead early on Wednesday. The murder happened at Bachuwari village of Pakur district, 430 km from here. The police suspect the coal mafia to be behind it.
|Sister Valsa John Photo: The Hindu|
In the immediate context, she had been protesting against the functioning of a private coal mine in Pakur district. She was staying in Bachwari for the last 12 years, all by herself. She was seeking to protect the interests of the Santhal tribe, some members of which were displaced by the Panem Coal Mines.
According to the police, some unidentified men approached her house around midnight. When she opened the door, she was beaten with sticks and hacked to death.
The nun, who hailed from Kerala, was arrested in 2007 after she protested against the functioning of a coal mine on tribal land.
She was protesting against mining corporations that were exploiting the tribal people of the Pakur region, said Father Babu Joseph, a local spokesperson for the Catholic Church. "We've appealed to the government for an investigation."
"We're investigating. Only after a detailed investigation can we provide a clear picture," said Amarnath Khanna, Superintendent of Police, Pakur. "Three years ago she had filed an FIR, wherein she reported that she was facing death threats. But she didn't mention any name," he added.
PTI reports from Kochi:
Sister Valsa John had told her family members in Vazhakala at Kakkanad in Ernakulam district that she faced death threats from the mining mafia, one of her brothers said on Wednesday.
During a visit in August, she spoke of death threats from the coal mining mafia that she was fighting in order to protect the tribal community, Baby, her younger brother, said. He said Sister Valsa spoke to her elder sister in Kochi over the phone on Tuesday evening and discussed her problems.
Sister Valsa was a member of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary congregation for the last 24 years.
Mr. Baby, along with one of his sisters, is set to leave for Jharkhand to attend the funeral, which was expected to be held on Thursday.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, apex body of the Catholic hierarchy in the State, expressed "deep sorrow" at the murder of the nun.
Activist nun who fought Indian mining companies brutally murdered
By Stephanie Nolen
Globe and Mail
17 November 2011
Sister Valsa John wanted to go home. Living in self-imposed exile hundreds of kilometres away, she pined for the hut in an aboriginal village where she had built a life. She talked about the people she loved there, and the quiet of the nights. Then she added, in a voice both wistful and matter-of-fact: "If I go home, most probably they will kill me."
More related to this story
They did kill her. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, a mob of 25 or 30 men carrying spears, clubs and axes burst into her house in Pachuwara, a remote village in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. They beat and hacked her to death, a week after she went home.
The "they" Sister Valsa feared were "goons" hired by the mining companies she had helped the community of Pachuwara fight. The "coal mafia" told her on more than one occasion to get out of Pachuwara or they would kill her. She had repeatedly appealed to police for protection after threats on her life.
Sister Valsa, 52, was from Kerala in south India, and 24 years ago took her vows as a member of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. 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. Sister Valsa said she did Jesus's work by teaching the aboriginal people - known in India as adivasi or "tribals" - about their rights to their land.
The Santhal community with whom she lived for nearly two decades were pushed off their land seven years ago by a private coal company. It was a familiar story here. Across the tribal heartland of India there are hundreds of these battles being waged, between communities with little education and even fewer resources, and huge mining and industrial corporations whose investments are eagerly sought by India's state and central governments for the jobs they create, the taxes they pay - and the opportunities for graft they offer.
Sister Valsa helped organize the Santhal to demand compensation for their land; she was arrested at a protest in 2007. The company, Panem Coal Ltd., was eventually forced into a compensation agreement, and began to dig an open-cast coal mine, but didn't meet all the terms of the deal. So when it moved to expand on to new Santhal land this year, Sister Valsa and her Santhal supporters dug in to stop them - and that is when the threats turned really ugly.
This past summer, Sister Valsa reluctantly left Pachuwara and took refuge with a friend, a fellow activist nun, at a school for low-caste girls in Bihar where I have been spending time on a project for the Globe. She fit easily into life there, gently shepherding the girls through their day, but she spent hours talking to me about "my people" and the war for land and resources going on in the tribal belt.
A few of these stories have attracted considerable attention, in India and beyond its borders, such as efforts by Vedanta Resources to build a bauxite mine on a mountain considered a god by the Dongri tribal people in the state of Orissa. But most of these fights go on, as Sister Valsa's did, almost entirely unremarked.
After taking her vows, Sister Valsa first worked as a teacher, before deciding she needed to be "closer to people," she moved to the village in 1995. Pachuwara rarely has electricity, and is hours of travel by bullock cart from the nearest town with a train station. Sister Valsa settled in, endured regular bouts of malaria that left her deaf in one ear, and learned fluent Santhali.
At first, her focus was education and hygiene, but when the coal companies showed up, she began to work with a local NGO on organizing non-violent resistance. Sister Valsa wanted the Santhali to receive a share of profits from the mine; this sort of arrangement is nearly unheard of in India.
"She really made a place for herself with the people, and the company could not go ahead with a new mine while she was there - she was really a problem for the company," her close friend Sister Sudha Varghese said.
India's state and central governments have largely refused to recognize land rights or resource ownership of aboriginal people, who mostly live on forest land that is not formally titled and thus by default considered state land. The Panem coal project supplies high-grade coal to two government-owned thermal-electricity projects; India has a severe electricity deficit in its efforts to feed a booming economy.
Inspector R. K. Mallick, the senior police official in the region, told The Globe and Mail it was too soon to discuss the investigation, but that police would soon have "the clear picture." No arrests had yet been made. He would not entertain the question of whether police could have done more to protect Sister Valsa while she was alive. Three years ago, she filed a formal notice with police about the death threats.
Sister Sudha, who attended the funeral Thursday, said most who knew Sister Valsa believe it was people from the Santhal community, in the pay of the mining company, who killed her. "This is what the companies do: they divide people. When people are this poor, when someone gives them a little money, they can do anything," she said. "Valsa knew it, and so many times we asked her to leave. But she said, ‘These are my people and I cannot leave them.'"
Condemn the gruesome murder of activist Sr. Valsa John by the mining mafia
National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF) & National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)
Urgent Press Release
18 November 2011
Sr. Valsa, an activist of the Rajmahal Pahad Bachao Andolan (RPBA) and an ordained nun with the Sisters of Charity of Jesus & Mary, who had been working among Santhal Adivasis in the coal rich region of Dhumka, Jharkhand was brutally murdered by a group of about 40 armed men on the night of 15th November 2011.
On behalf of Indian peoples' movements and resistance struggles, NAPM, NFF and NFFPFW condemn this heinous and cowardly act, evidently conceived by the powerful mining mafia, aimed at essentially hunting down individuals and movements to silence the voices of resistance by people.
Sr. Valsa John had been working among the Adivasi communities in Jharkhand's coal rich region of Santal Parganhas, Pachwara, for the last 20 years. Since early 2000's, Panem Coal Mine Ltd, a project of Punjab State Electricity Board and EMTA (Eastern Minerals and Trading Agency) from West Bengal, has been operating mines in the coal reserves of Pachwara and 32 surrounding villages.
To defend their right over their land and its resources, the Santhal Adivasi community formed the Rajmahal Pahad Bachao Andolan. Sr. Valsa along with others such as Majhi Haddam - the traditional administrative headman of the Santhal tribe, worked to organise the community and were in the forefront of the resistance that was building against the exploitation by Panem Coal.
Despite the MoU signed between the local community and Panem Coal in 2006, tension has been mounting in the area in recent times, especially with regard to the betrayal by the Company. On 16 November 2011, Sr. Valsa was brutally murdered by a group of about 40 men, believed to be hired goons of the coal mining mafia.
Sr. Valsa had been under constant threat from Panem Coal Ltd. and had voiced the same to friends and family. The Superintendent of Police has confirmed that she had filed an FIR three years ago where she reported that she was facing death threats. Hours before her death, Sr.Valsa had mentioned to her family about threats to life from the mining mafia.
It is rather unconvincing that no action was taken by the police to investigate the matter or to provide for her safety, merely because no persons were named in her complaint. The state and some sections of national media have attempted to pass the blame, to discredit Sr.Valsa and to fudge the facts by bringing the ‘Maoists' into the frame.
It is condemnable that the local administration is currently attempting to suppress the truth by intimidating the villagers and andolan activists. It is a matter of national shame that the pervasive nexus between powerful mining companies and the state machinery has cost the precious life of a woman who was working to secure basic rights for the marginalised people.
We demand ordering of judicial enquiry into the murder of Sr.Valsa and the probable linkages between the murder and the death threats she had received from the mining mafia. It is also imperative to investigate the fact that Sr.Valsa was working in an area dominated by right-wing Hindutva forces that enjoyed considerable benefits from the mining corporations.
The state should own-up to not only their apathetic nature in which they dealt with a serious death threat from a citizen but also to tolerating a situation in Pachwara where a mining company have overthrown constitutional and democratic structures while gravely violating the basic rights of Adivasis.
We salute the life, struggle and martyrdom of Valsa John, who spent her life working with the Adivasi community to fight for their land, their livelihood, their very existence!
1. Ashok Choudhury (NFFPFW)
2. Matanhy Saldanah (NFF)
3. Medha Patkar (NAPM)
Contacts: 011-26680883 / 9818905316 / 9582862682
India: Nun murdered in fourth activist killing in 2011
Amnest International (USA) Statement
17 November 2011
Indian authorities must ensure a thorough investigation into the killing of a nun who had worked for the rights of adivasi indigenous communities, Amnesty International said today.
Valsa John, 52, is the fourth social activist to have been killed in unexplained circumstances in India this year.
She was beaten to death by a gang of about 40 people who stormed into her home in the eastern state of Jharkhand on the night of 15 November.
"Valsa John appears to have been murdered in connection with her human rights work," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director.
"The Jharkhand authorities must ensure that those responsible for this gruesome killing are brought to justice.
"Indian federal and state authorities have to ensure that human rights activists throughout the country are protected."
Valsa John's family and human rights activists in Jharkhand told Amnesty International she had received death threats hours before her murder in Pauchuara, Pakur district.
The family told Amnesty International they believe these threats may have come from criminal gangs involved in illegal coal mining in Jharkhand.
Valsa John was jailed in 2007 for protesting against the forced acquisition of adivasi lands for Panem Coal Mines, a coal mine project jointly operated by the Punjab state-owned Electricity Board and Eastern Mineral Trading Agency.
After being released on bail in late 2007, she reached an agreement with Panem paving the way for their acquisition of adivasi lands, in exchange for alternate land, employment, a health centre and free education for the children of the displaced families.
Local media reported that some adivasis were dissatisfied with the agreement.
Three other social activists have been killed this year after fighting on behalf of victims of human rights violations and marginalized communities, or using India's Right to Information legislation to expose human rights violations and government corruption.
Earlier this month, Nadeem Sayed, a Gujarat-based activist, was stabbed to death after he testified on behalf of the victims of the Naroda Patiya massacre case in which 95 persons had been killed during the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots.
In August, environmental activist Shehla Masood, 35, was shot dead in Bhopal city in August after trying to expose environmental violations of urban infrastructure projects and challenging mining plans in Madhya Pradesh.
In March, Jharkhand social activist Niyamat Ansari was abducted and killed after he used the Right to Information legislation to expose local contractors and officials who had embezzled funds earmarked for the rural poor. Suspicions centre around armed Maoists because Ansari's exposes threatened their share of the embezzled funds in return for protecting the corrupt contractors and officials.
India's human rights organizations have been demanding new legislation to protect activists who received threats after filing petitions demanding crucial information affecting the livelihoods of local communities.
"Indian authorities must take all necessary measures to guarantee that human rights defenders and other social activists are able to carry out their legitimate and peaceful activities without fear of harassment and intimidation," said Zarifi.