Sr. Valsas struggle with the poor tribals



The funeral is over; The voice is silenced;   Sr. Valsa Johns  body was interned in a public cemetery at Vijaypur in Dumka, Jharkhand.  Only her body has been interned; her spirit would live ever in the hearts of the poor and the marginalized and in the hearts of the all the people of good will. Let us remember she has shed her blood on the birthday of Jharkhand, Tuesday 15.11.2011. It is tragic that she has to shed her blood on this joyous day in order to proclaim that Jharkhand needs martyrs for the fullness of life to come in Jharkhand. That speaks of volume of the situation for the poor tribals in the newly created state.

Proclaiming and living out this hope and struggle has been her public life in the last twenty five years. whether working  among  Dalits in Patna or tribals in Santal Parganas, Valsa lived this struggle for hope, justice and life.  Her determination to be part of the struggling masses, to a life of dignity and justice never wavered even once;   The greatest indignity and injustice to the tribals in India is uprooting them from their heritage, God given, ancestor protected land. Once the land is snatched, the violence would follow and tribals would descend to abyss of brutalization and dehumanization.  Sr. Valsa foresaw and mobilized the masses so that they would get justice and their voice would be heard.  She dedicated her last fifteen years of her life to the cause of the displaced and the uprooted. 

Her story was a story of self giving. She was born on February,19, 1958 in the village of Edapalli, kerela. She was a beloved girl child and that too the last of the six brothers and sisters. She received loads of love. Perhaps,   Valsas was full of love that she wanted to share with those who needed most.  Being the youngest in the family, she became a didi to poor and the exploited.  How could the family of six brothers and sisters part with their youngest to a life of dedication and total love?  So they educated her and she became a teacher;   As a teacher  she began reading newspapers  and magazines of heroes and heroines in real life so that she can teach to her children. In the process, she was deeply affected and influenced by the lives of two women m missionary sisters in North India:  One working in Jharkhand deep inside the jungle and another struggling among Gondhs in Madhya Pradesh.  She joined the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary in 1984 with the intention of working among the poor. 

She was appointed in a school at Daltonganj, Jharkhand after her initial training,   where she began observing the life of the poor much more closely. The burning desire to commit radically to the cause of the poor had to be more strengthened. So she went for teachers training and taught briefly in Himachal Pradesh. The search for radicalism gradually began to see the light. She went to Kagaul, Patna  for a guided experience among the Dalits. Immersion and participation were not  mere words but acquired experiential meaning: Eating rat meat which was offered to her with love was indeed a test but Sr. Valsa ate immersed herself in the daily struggle of Dalits.  Frugality became thus a lifelong companion for her; experiential knowledge of hunger and poverty was very important to her so that she is able to relate with the powerlessness of the exploited and the marginalized people.

Valsa then moved to Kodma in Sahibganj district of Jharkhand   to work among Santals in 1993. Sona Santal Samaj Samiti formed  after the martyrdom of Fr. Anthony Murmu and fifteen others welcomed her. She began walking to villages, meeting women going to hills with them. She endeared herself to the women of this area by gradually learning the language, customs and of course dances. She began organizing women systematically enabling them to participate in the traditional village councils and other meetings. It is at this time, tribals all over India were demanding legal recognition of their traditional governance system. Sr. Valsa mobilized women making them to understand the reasons for such a demand.  She worked in Sona Santal Samaj Samiti and among the women of this area fr two years. Sr.Valsa moved out of Kodma in 1995.

She was appointed in a school at Jiapani near Amrapara of Pakur district of Jharkhand. It was indeed a tough decision for her to make, for her heart was in the villages with the exploited women and their struggles.  She was appointed as a full time teacher that kept her in the school till 4.00 P.M. Sr. Valsa would not rest but began touring the nearby villages after the classes and during holidays. She would meet the traditional leaders and inter act with them; mobilizing their support for the recognition of local self governance system.  The side effect of her touring the villages was an increase in the strength of the school; More students began attending the schools.  She would go alone to the villages and often came back much after the sun set.

Movement in Pachuara:

It is during one of these walks-to-villages, she noticed, a camp of Geological Survey in the village Baromasia. She enquired about  the purpose of such a camp. The officers thought that she would be the best person to persuade the people to part with the land for mining. So, they revealed the real intention of their stay. She began acquiring more information and realized that the tribals would be displaced at a massive scale if the project for mining comes through.

History teaches us that tribals have been the victims of development, and rehabilitation as promised has never reached the tribals. Valsa knew all these statistics. Here she is coming face to face with the actual displacement and the power of the private companies assisted by the administration within the context of liberalization of the economy.  

Sr. Valsa requested her superiors to relieve her from the school. The superiors gladly granted her request knowing her earnestness and the need of the people.  She moved to pachuwara village in 1998.   She began informing the people about the intentions of the government.  The people realized that they were being duped by the government. The Geological survey of India had casually told the villagers that they were doing some government work. No officials had told them about the impending mines and the procedures for the land acquisition. No rehabilitation packages were being announced.

 IT IS ONLY WHEN Sr. Valsa began unifying the villagers the facts began emerging piece by peice. The Eastern Minines and Trading Agency in joint venture with the Punjab Electricity Board had acquired the coal block of the area and the extracted coal would be transported to Punjab for the electricity production.  The Joint venture is known as (PANEM). The name Eastern Mines Trading Agency sounded ominously like East India Company. The colonization indeed continues in different forms.

Formation of the Samiti (orgnisation):  Sr. Valsa began touring the villages, informing the villagers, mobilizing the people to resist the mine.  Villagers   deliberated first in hushed voice and then in public; As always, the people realized that organization of the poor alone would stand by them; they had to organize themselves.  Sr. Valsa then inspired them,   stood by them and animated them. The result was their decision to form a Samiti called Rajmahal Pahar Bachao Andolan  (Rajmahal Hills protection Movment)

It is apt to recall a song by Fr. Anthony Murmu, another martyr for the cause of the tribals:  He would often sing that Our God is as rock-steady as Rajmahal hills. These hills had protected the tribals, provided livelihood and now they are going to be destroyed. Oh!  The hills that symbolized the compassion and the quality of God would be in peril. The tribals realized that resistance is the only way out for their life and future livelihood of their children.

The movement followed the following methodology in their resistance:

1.       Writing memorandum:  the simple people began writing to District authorities and to their representatives. This was a learning process for the people; They began understanding the constitutional provisions especially Fifth Schedule, SPT Act, PESA Act and the implications of Samata judgment in Supreme court. These memorandums went unanswered.

2.       Blockades: The area was blockaded at various junctures. They had put up barriers to prevent strangers entering the area. Women, men, children and youth manned these for twenty four hours. It is significant that this blockade continued for six years.

3.       Networking: Many organizations came forward to help the Movement with their supports. The movement began acquiring national limelight.

4.       Empowerment through welfare measures: The agricultural land needs to be protected. The land had to be utilized fruitfully and improvement in the techniques of production was one of the main elements of the alternative to mining. Sr. Valsa began enabling the people for such a process.

One must realize that Sr. Valsa remained throughout with villagers. She ate with them sacrificed the comforts of the convent, walked to the hills even staying under the trees, sleeping on river beds after nightlong deliberations. Her intuitive power helped her in understanding the way tribals moved, organized and resisted. She did lead the movement yet allowing the traditional leadership to be in the forefront. It is the traditional leaders negotiated and guided the movement. 


The  PANEM company set up a an office in nearby market town called Amrapara.  The Santals near and far depended on this market town for their provisions and necessities. The civil administration was at thebeck and call of the company. The middlemen of the company recruited Santal youth first. James Murmu   a local geology graduate already working in the company was shifted to Amrapara.  He began providing money and drinks to youth.   Alubera leaders were the first one to be trapped. The youth recruited began to be in the payroll of the company. They went around trying to convince the people to part with the land. They provided arguments such as that land belonged to government and government would not offer compensation all the time and this is the best  time to receive compensation.  The unity of the movement began cracking with the onslaught of the money and allurements. The tribals are poor and powerless. They too have desire to become rich and the educated unemployed youth are the most vulnerable. The movement began breaking.  There was always tension the villages. People opposing the mines and the supporters began fighting. The social tension was tearing the social fabric of the harmonious tribal villages. The tribals began fighting among themselves for the cause of the PANEM. 2001-2004 witnessed tremendous tension in the villages.

Filing cases  :  The administration began filing cases on the leaders of the movement. The close associates like Joseph and the head of civil area the Pargana were picked up from the market and jailed. While Pargana was released after six months, Joseph remained for two years.  Most of the cases filed were non-bailable in nature.  Sr. Valsa alone had seven cases foisted on her.   The police began catching people when they were going to market.  Many men and women began going surreptitiously to the company office in order to receive compensation.  As a result:

·         The life became impossible: for ordinary people. They were unable to go to market for the fear of police; they were not able to visit their children staying in hostels.

·         The children began to suspect their parents. Although Sr.valsa stood by them, consoled them but it was painful to notice the gradual decline in the unity and the conviction of the people.

·         The village fights were increasing. The household members of the movement leaders began to be divided. There have been cases of children running away to Delhi and Punjab. 

Sr.Valsa painfully bore the decline of the movement. She began contemplating on various ways to reach out to the people. She deliberated constantly with her supporters. Her supporters included journalist like Shaji who championed the cause fot he tribals. She spent hours at night discussing with the people in various villages. After a prolonged consultation,  the Samiti decided to approach the court.  The Samiti believed that constitutional provisions would be protected by the courts. They were in a shock when the High court ruled in favour of the company and the government.  The Supreme Court recommended for an out of court settlement. Hence an MOU was signed between the company and the Samiti. The following would be relevant to understand the innovative significance of the MOU.

The company was made to acknowledge that land belonged to people and the company would be taking only the coal. Hence the land would be returned once the coal extraction is over. The land would be returned after filling and made cultivable.

Until the return of the land, the company would pay crop compensation of Rs6000/- per acre per year to the owners of the land. The owners of the land also would be paid Rs.10000/- per acre as share of the profit earned from the coal.

The people would not be displaced and if need be resettled in vicinity itself. The concrete houses would be built for each household including separate houses  for widows and divorced single women.

The company would offer free education to the children of the project affected people. It also promised to open a school and a hospital to the project affected people.  The company gave an undertaking to comply with all the conditions and full it within a year.

Hence mining started in 2006: The monitoring committee consisted of 2 representatives from each village; 2 representatives of the samiti; 3 representatives of traditional leadership 3 and representatives from the company.

Sr.  Valsas  work, since then,  has been to see that MOU is implemented in letter  and spirit:
(a)  The sick were brought to the dispensary (b)  A dispensary  was built till hospital was built and made operational  so she made sure that the ambulance went around  to fetch the patients(c) The school was to be built  so she oversaw the running of the school (d)  she made sure that Women participated and organized themselves. 

The MOU was revolutionary influencing the RR policy of the Central government and the state government.  Sr.Valsa was contributed the largest part with the inputs from the people themselves. She played the central part in making such a MOU and operationalising it. Thus she began earning many more friends but also foes.

Huge amount of money began flowing to the people. Tribals who had never seen such a free flow of money began harbouring aspirations to become powerful.  The samiti members already had power and now they needed money in their hand so that they can hold sway over the community.  Temptations to become rich faster saw then sacrificing their ideals learned so far.  The movement had educated them to honour their tribal hatred for greed  but they began succumbing to greed, power and money.  The Company men began alluring them, nefarious methods were employed to allure these youth.  The company middle men, government servants, local aspiring politicians, once again began providing allurement to youth of the samiti. The criminalization of the youth began to affect them too; The violence of the mining industry began influencing their character.

The presence of Sr.valsa, peoples trust in her, her moral strength, leadership and her over all supervision of the MOU monitoring activities became a hindrance to opponents evil aspirations. Sr. Valsas presence was a block to their becoming powerful. So, they began propagating false accusations against sister.

The opponents got a shot in the arm when she had to be in Kerala to be at the side of her cancer ailing brother for three months. The opponents began spreading rumors that sister had gone away permanently and they a formed a  samiti  of their own.  They said that they would not allow the sisters return. One must remember that  only a handful of criminalized powerful youth having their vested interest stood agents the sister. The ordinary people were powerless against the mechanization of the politically supported powerful people. 

The Immediate spark for the killing was the rape of the girl working with her.  Surajmuni  was picked up in Alubera weekly market by a group of youth and mass raped at night. Parents went to the police station next day and wanted to file the case. The police refused to file the case and chased them away; The parents reported to sister. The victims parents along with Surajmuni   went to Police station second time, The police  told them to settle the case out of court and receive monitory compensation. The rape victim refused to compromise and wanted justice.  This time sister managed to get an appointment with District collector for the rape victim for 16th of Novemebr 2011. 

Probably this was the last straw and the group felt that if they were to be hauled up,  they would be inside the jail.  Their anger flared; they thought that Sr.Valsa was not only hindrance to other greedy prosperity but also block to their life itself.  The heinous act of her murder, already contemplated and planned, was the result of dehumanization assisted by the company and the violent atmosphere in the mining area.  Sr. Valsa stood for the poor and the victimized in all situations. As always she stood for the cause of the poor and paid with her life.

She wanted to share the vulnerabilities of the poor people and like Jesus became vulnerable lamb to be sacrificed. 

In kathaldi village concrete houses were made by the company and the people reserved one house for their beloved didi but Sr. Valsa preferred a mud house. Her simplicity and frugal life would remain a constant inspiration to the generation of activists. She was silenced by her murderers but her inspiring silent presence would always remain in the heart of all those who struggle for and with the poor.

Rajmahal Pahar Bachao andolan.


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