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September 28, 1998


'I never thought something like this could happen in our village. The nuns were so good to us'

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Jhabua

Dala Dita, the gardener, stands forlorn outside the Priti Sharan Mission at Naupara village in the predominantly tribal Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. There are neither the Adivasi (tribal) patients nor the children who used to come here to get elementary education.

For four days now, Dala Dita hasn't been doing any gardening either. His only activity has been to stand at the gate and receive the ministerial convoys with their flashing red lights and accompanying police jeeps which have been haunting the nondescript mission in this remote village.

This was the place where three nuns were gang-raped in the wee hours of September 23.

"I never thought something like this could happen in our village. The nuns were so good to us. They used to help whenever anyone in the village fell sick. I don't know who could do such a gruesome thing," mutters the forlorn Dita.

The nuns -- three of them were aged between 20 and 25 while the fourth was over 30 -- had come from Tamil Nadu to set up Priti Sharan on October 11 last year. And they had made the village their home.

Says Father Augustine, the priest in charge of Priti Sharan, "We knew Jhabua is one of the most crime-infested districts. But we never expected such a ghastly act to occur here, in our village."

Incidentally, only the four nuns lived in the mission. Their nearest neighbour was Father Augustine, who lives about half a kilometre away.

On the fateful night, Father Augustine was away, having gone to Dahod town for some work. And the two watchmen who were supposed to guard the mission were fast asleep at his residence. Rediff On The NeT pieced together the story of what happened that night from police, villagers and Father Augustine.

At 0200 hours, a group of men arrived at the mission and requested the nuns to accompany them as some children in a nearby village had taken ill. The nuns told them to first call one of the watchmen.

At that the men started trying to force open the collapsible grill outside the main door. That was when the nuns realised their intentions were not honourable. They quickly shut the main door and blew a whistle in a desperate cry for help. But with the nearest dwelling being a good 500 metres away, and the two watchmen soundly asleep, nobody heard the screech. To make matters worse, there are no streetlights and the place is enveloped in darkness after dusk.

With some effort, the gang managed to break down the collapsible grill and the main door.

The nuns then ran into one of the rooms and locked it. But for men who had broken down an iron grill and a main door, this was no obstacle. They soon smashed their way in and picked up whatever they could lay their hands on, including a tape recorder, some gold and silver ornaments, and cash.

Then they began leaving -- but to the nuns' dismay, not all of them. Seven men in their early twenties stayed behind, telling the others they would join them later.

They then dragged the three young nuns out of the mission and took turns to rape them on the grounds outside.

Police say the fourth nun was spared because she appeared to be older. But she got a terrible thrashing for trying to prevent the rape of the other three.

Says a distraught Father Augustine, "I will never forgive myself for going out that day. But the villagers were all so good to us. I never expected anything untoward to happen."

Adds Kheema Bhabur, sarpanch (village council chief) of Barod, 2 km away, "Ever since these nuns came, our children were getting education and medicines. They used to make daily rounds to other villages too. I don't know who could dare do this since our community has never been involved in rape cases."

The sentiment was echoed by Gulab Singh Nagu of Naupara, "Our community (the Bhils) is famous for robberies. But nobody has ever been involved in rape. More importantly, we are very loyal to our employers. So I don't know who could have done this."

Nagu's children have not attended school for four days. Worse, he is not even certain whether their education will continue at all. "My children began going to school only after these nuns came. Otherwise, due to the absence of teachers in the government school here, none of the children of the village used to go to school."

According to Father Augustine, the nuns had started picking up the Bhili language to be able to communicate better with the villagers. "Initially it was very difficult for us to interact with them. Only after living here for nearly a year had we started understanding each other," he says.

The scene in the mission is a sorry one. Medicines are scattered on the floor, chairs and tables are overturned, and a black board on which the basic Hindi alphabet is written hangs askew.

The mission is located at a very remote place. In fact, the Tata Sumo all-terrain vehicle in which this correspondent travelled was stuck in the muck two kilometres from the mission, forcing him to cover the remaining distance on foot.

The nearest village is Barod, nearly 2 km away. And Naupara and Barod together do not have more than 150 houses, many of them empty since most of the tribals are on the move in search of employment. They return to their villages only in the monsoon to sow their fields.

There is no pucca road linking the mission to the outside world. The nearest tar road is at least 8 km away. And that is also where the nearest police outpost is. Moreover, there is no telephone within a radius of 5 km. So poorly connected is the place with the outside world that though the rape and robbery occurred at 2 am, it was only at 0730 hours that a woman from Naupara could go to the police station to lodge a complaint.

According to the police, the marauders had not intended to attack the mission, leave alone rape the nuns. The original plan was to loot a veterinarian at Bagor village, 2 km away from the mission.

The culprits congregated at Jilwania village, nearly 5 km away, in the afternoon of September 22 to carry out their plan. They reached the vet's house at 0100 hours. But when he sounded the alarm, the gang fled.

Said District Superintendent of Police G R Meena, "Since they were unsuccessful at the vet's residence, they tried their luck at the mission. Otherwise, they wouldn't even have come here."

The missionaries' day used to begin with prayer. Then they would go round the villages, ministering to the sick or teaching the tribal children.

The mission has electricity, but power cuts are frequent. The only concession to materialism in the house was the tape-recorder which was stolen.

"Though there are two government schools in these two villages, they do not conduct any classes owing to non-availability of teachers. So we started this service," explained Father Augustine.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who visited Jhabua soon after the incident, insinuated that the gang-rape was a conspiracy by some Hindu organisations against the minority Christian community. He also related the rapes to the Godhra incident in neighbouring Gujarat where members of the Muslim community were driven out by activists of the militant Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

However, there are just six families of tribal converts in the two villages. Father Augustine denies having ever faced any pressure from Hindu militant groups.

Jhabua has been a Congress bastion since Independence. Ninety-five per cent of the population is tribal, three-fourths of them Bhil. They are mostly uneducated forest-dwellers.

There are seven legislative assembly constituencies in Jhabua district. And the Congress holds all seven of them.

Even Dalip Singh Bhuria, five-time Congress MP from Jhabua, could not break the party's stronghold on the area. Before the 1998 general election, he left the Congress to contest the Jhabua seat on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket against a newcomer put up by his erstwhile party and still lost, by more than 50,000 votes. Bhuria later complained that most of the voters in the constituency are illiterate and only know the haath ka panja (the Congress election symbol).

According to Father Augustine, anthropologists consider the Bhils to be a criminal tribe. And if you ever chance to travel upon the road from Indore to Jhabua, you may find yourself agreeing with this assessment.

The police do not permit cars to travel on the roads in the area after 1700 hours. If at all, they have to travel in a convoy of at least 20 vehicles. Because if they do not, there is a very good chance of being waylaid by robbers.

Though the Bhils say their community has never been involved in rapes, policemen say an average of 25 women are raped in the district every year, 250 murders take place, and there is at least one robbery a day on Dhar Road.

"Dhar Road is the road from Indore to Gujarat. It is very much prone to robbery. The Bhils use arrows to puncture the tyres of cars or put huge blocks on the roads to stop the vehicles and then rob the passengers," says Meena. His statement appeared to be corroborated by the smashed glass that we saw at several places along the road.

"In spite of the heavy security after the rape of the nuns, the Bhils have robbed one vehicle today around noon," a policeman pointed out.

Another shocking incident was revealed to Rediff On The NeT by a senior policeman on condition of anonymity. According to his information, two other nuns were raped in Jhabua district by a notorious criminal in March. But none of the villagers we spoke to corroborated this story.

Meena cites another example: "One day a woman came to us to complain about her husband. When our men called him to the police station, he slit his wife's throat right in front of them. For these people, taking a life means nothing," he says.

As if the lawlessness of the district were not enough, the police do not have enough personnel to even cover the territory properly. Jhabua has a population of nearly 1.5 million and only 900 policemen to protect them.

The Bhils have been more or less left untouched by modernisation and liberalisation. They still wear their traditional, fluorescent-coloured pagris (headgear) and move around barefoot, including children and women.

But, interestingly, they have a history to their credit. They were associated with the legendary Rana Pratap and are credited with having helped the Rajput king recapture his kingdom from the mighty Mughals.

Says Kheema, "Our ancestors fought against the Mughals and helped the Marathas. The Marathas always took help from us to keep the Mughals at bay."

The Bhils also believe that Eklavya, the legendary self-taught tribal archer of the Mahabharata, was a Bhil.

The nuns are now at Gopalpura mission in the same district, about 10 km from Naupara. But the missionaries do not allow them to meet any outsiders.

Asked whether the nuns would resume their work, Father Augustine retorts, "Why not? They have not committed any sin. They have been sinned against."

The police has arrested one of the accused, Bahadur Naga of Runkheda village. His interrogation led to the recovery of a radio, a gold chain, and a silver ring belonging to the nuns from the hut of Bapusingh of Zirinaia village who is now absconding.

The police claim they have identified the other 20 culprits also. "But we are not disclosing their names as a precautionary measure," says Meena.

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