SISTER Noel's rake-thin frame, neatly draped in a blue sari, trembles visibly as she relives—yet again, because it haunts her dreams—the night she and three other nuns were gang-raped by tribals at a charitable dispensary in Nawapada village. The motive behind the assault isn't quite clear: the nuns could've been victims of revenge, politics, or simply, of unbridled lust which literally and figuratively stripped them of their habits and exploited their vulnerability as women.
"It's not a minority issue, it's a women's issue," says Rajya Sabha MP Mabel Rebello. But no one, including her colleagues in the Congress, is listening. The rape, followed by an attack on a priest in the same district, Jhabua, and the alleged molestation and murder of a maulvi's wife in Indore, is providing a feast of fodder for political parties.
With the assembly elections just two months away, it's the last thing that Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digivijay Singh needs. In a ham-handed effort at damage control, he demanded the death penalty for the culprits, who he (predictably) claimed were minions of the Sangh parivar. Parroting his chief, Jhabua's Congress MP, Kanti Lal Bhuriya, targeted his BJP rival, Dalip Singh, for aiding "communal elements infiltrating Jhabua from neighbouring Maharashtra and Gujarat".
Digvijay may have managed to convince Indore's Bishop George Anasel of the Sangh parivar's malafides, but not even his own partymen are impressed with this theory. The police have yet to find any political linkages and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) presence in Jhabua is far too tenuous to allow for such an outrageous act of violence, regardless of VHP leader B.L. Prem's provocative statements (See "Attack is only natural").
What Digvijay is seeking to sidestep—and his political rivals within the Congress want to highlight—is the fact that law and order in Jhabua, like motorable roads, is practically non-existent. The crime rate, fuelled by rivers of illicit countrymade liquor, is exceptionally high and dacoities are the order of the day. Lone vehicles do not ply after 7 pm if the motorists value their hides—errant tribals don't just rob, they invariably thrash their victims. The fact that the district has seen four SPs in the space of 6 months—two reportedly fell foul of the local MP—hasn't helped matters. The chief minister's record in protecting minorities is none too bright—three months into his tenure, a nun was pulled off a bus and murdered at Dewas, some 60 km from Indore.
WOMEN activists feel the four young nuns—three are in their 20s—domiciled in a dispensary at least half a kilometre from the parish priest's residence, were sitting ducks for anti-social elements. Their remoteness was accentuated in the early hours of September 23, because parish priest Father Augustine was away. The nuns have no arms—although licenses will now be issued to the missions—and no telephone. When a 21-strong mob broke into the dispensary at 2 am, battering down three doors and ransacking the sisters' living quarters, they could do nothing but pray the villagers and the chowkidar would hear the ruckus and come to help. No one did.
The political conspiracy theory, to which Bhuriya and the Church itself subscribe, has it that tribals never commit rape and therefore, the crime was motivated by outside elements seeking either to defame the chief minister or ignite communal hatred. Church institutions exercise considerable influence over the tribals they serve, so that their political clout is far in excess of the staunchly pro-Congress Christian population's numerical strength which is a mere 4 per cent. The Bishop points to the subsequent stoning of Father Edward's home as evidence that Church institutions in MP are being attacked, in keeping with the countrywide pattern of assaults on the minority community. "This may not be the end of it," he says.
But DIG Vijay Shukul, who has been camping in Jhabua since September 23, says there's no evidence of outside involvement. Nor is there any hard and fast rule that tribals do not commit rape. By and large, cases of molestation go unreported. The police has identified two local gangs who were involved in the attack on the nuns. While the political-criminal nexus in the area is strong, with the former openly providing patronage to the liquor-smuggling mafia, none of the suspects has so far been connected with any politician. Kanti Lal is clearly rattled by the incident—on September 23, his son-in-law spent the entire day parked at the police station. He's angry with Rebello's statement that law and order in Jhabua is in a shambles: "Anyone who says law and order here is bad is a BJP stooge".
The widely-held revenge theory says a tribal, Samna, who had an axe to grind with the nuns, paid two local gangs which have members spread over several villages, to help him in the assault on the dispensary. Local residents claim he had taken a shine to one of the nuns and was upset when she repulsed him. Certainly, the attack was carefully pre-planned and there was a degree of collusion among the local tribals.
Significantly, neither the nearby villagers nor the two chowkidars showed up despite the noise, claiming they hadn't heard a thing until it was all over. Their screams as they were raped—one by six men, one by four and two others by two each—went unheard, or disregarded. When help finally arrived, it came from distant villages. The police haven't yet reached a conclusion, as Samna hasn't been traced. Only two of the 21 suspects have so far been arrested.
The medical report has confused the issue further. The nuns were raped between 2 am and 4 am on the morning of September 23. By the time the parish priest at Gopalpura received the information and rushed over, it was 7 am. His FIR, filed at the Kalyanpura police station, curiously made no mention of rape, only of looting. It was only after the police arrived for fur-
ther investigation at 11 am that they were given the full story. In the subsequent furore, it was 4 pm by the time the magistrate began recording the victims' statements. This took four hours and it was only at 8 pm that the medical examination could be conducted.
By this time, the nuns had washed and changed their clothes. The medical report wasn't too clear, establishing sexual intercourse in only one case. On September 25, a team of doctors arrived from Indore for a second examination and reported rape in three cases but not in the fourth. The nuns continue to state that all four were raped.
However, one of them told Father Pradeep Cherian, the director of a charitable hospital who interviewed them at length, that she had been struck on the head and lost consciousness.
But the nitty-gritty was lost as the political dimensions of the case bloomed with visits by the chief minister, the National Women's Commission, the state minorities commission, sundry MPs, women activists and ministers. Sonia Gandhi instructed Rebello to fly down by helicopter and reportedly plans a trip herself later this month.
Last week, another headache blossomed for the chief minister, with the death—murder or suicide is anybody's guess—of Shabana, the pretty young wife of a maulvi in Indore. Local residents claim she was being harassed by anti-social elements and had either been raped and murdered, or driven to suicide by them. The BJP has jumped into the fray, targeting the chief minister. A chakka jam was organised and furious women of the locality claim the police are attempting a cover-up. "There are four suspects. We know who they are and even if the police let them go, we will not," they told state minorities commission member Ibrahim Qureshi.
What has deeply hurt Sister Noel and her three colleagues is the fact that the tribals to whom they had rendered selfless service did not come to their aid. Had the neigh-bouring villages responded, help may have arrived in time to avert the rape. A clear indication, says Rebello, that social awareness is what's needed—and not political one-upmanship.
(The victim's name has been changed to conceal her identity.)