Activist nun who fought Indian mining companies brutally murdered – by Stephanie Nolen (Globe and Mail – November 18, 2011)

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NEW DELHI – 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.”

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.

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