Serving in the Red

Sisters help the poor in India’s conflict-stricken “Red Corridor”

by Jose Kavi with photographs by Jose Jacob

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Sister Julie Mathew shudders as she recalls her brush with death on a cold winter night nine years ago. Stationed at a school for tribal girls in the remote central Indian village of Gangaloor, Sister Julie and her charges were roused from their sleep around 2 a.m. A mob had gathered near the gate of the compound, demanding she open it. Suspecting the mob included members of a Maoist rebel group eager to attack an adjoining police outpost, she refused. Undeterred, the Naxalites — as they are known — used a bamboo pole to climb a tree to carry out their attack.

Gunfire and explosions sounded. Sister Julie, who was then in her early 30’s, instructed the girls, about 50 students between the ages of 5 and 18, to lie flat on the floor. Shards of glass rained upon them as the crossfire shattered the windows.

“Our hearts were beating fast with fear. I was sure we all would be killed,” she says. We only had one option, she continues: prayer.

After some time, they heard a loud explosion, followed by silence. Sister Julie — a member of a Syro-Malabar Catholic community of sisters known as the Deen Bandhu Samaj (Hindi for “Friend of the Poor Society”) — later learned the assault ended suddenly after one of the attackers tripped carrying a deadly bomb.

These violent episodes have been common in this part of central India for the past three decades.

A lush area of hills, valleys and forests, the Bastar region in the state of Chhattisgarh encompasses seven districts covering more than 15,000 square miles. More than a third of the population is considered Adivasi, an umbrella term for India's many native tribes and ethnic groups, which for centuries have been marginalized, exploited and impoverished.

In 1972, the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a congregation of priests of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, established their first mission among the poor of the region. That same year, Pope Paul VI created an ecclesiastical jurisdiction known in the Eastern churches as an exarchate and entrusted its leadership to the congregation. Five years later, he erected the Eparchy (a diocese in the Eastern churches) of Jagdalpur, one of the first eparchies of the Syro-Malabar Church located outside the church’s historical territory in the southwestern state of Kerala.

Carmelite Father Thomas Kollikolavil directs the eparchy’s social service wing. He says the Naxalites — named for Naxalbari, the West Bengal village where the Maoist-inspired movement began in 1967 — entered the region in 1980, positioning themselves as saviors of Adivasi villagers, devastated after years of abuse and subjugation by landlords and government officials.

Most Naxalite leaders were educated urban youth disillusioned with the unjust social system, says Sister Julie, who has been taken deep into the nearby forest for questioning by the rebels. As the Naxalites established their hold over Bastar, it became an important part of India’s Red Corridor, a contiguous area spanning eastern India rife with illiteracy, poverty, exploitation and overpopulation.

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