A Christian bother narrates the attack on Presentation Sisters in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India by Hindutva militants

In Freedom of faith in india, RSS

Subject: Bhopal

On Thursday the 15th of May, 2008, at 6.30 in the evening, Marie Selvum, a second year Novice in Pratishta Niketan, the Novitiate of the Presentation Sisters, went out to the gate to close it. There were two young men on a motorcycle there, who asked, “Is this a church ?” She said it wasn’t. They politely said their is that sos, but entered the gate. Marie decided to make for the front door and close it ; but they were faster. They barged in to the Novitiate. She realised then that there were two more motorcycles behind them, and a Maruti van, and she noticed that the men in them were young, well dressed, with mobiles and other indications that they were of a class higher than that of the local villagers. They had cricket bats and hockey sticks, and some were picking up stones from around.

When they had a sufficient number of men inside, they demanded that she call all those in the house, downstairs. She knew that Sr. Rose, assistant to the Novice Mistress, was upstairs, in the computer room. She made her way upstairs. A man followed her. He demanded that Sr. Rose go down immediately. Sr. Rose coolly told him to go down : she would make her way down. He turned around, and grabbed two Novices around the shoulders, Marie and Josie. As they neared the head of the stairs, Josie found a way of wriggling out of his grasp, and made off. Sr. Rose told her, and others, to lock themselves in rooms. But though they were all terrified, they were transfixed by the cries of Marie, who had been grabbed now by the hair, and forced downstairs. She was unable to do anything else but cry, “Bhaiyya ! Please don’t do this !” When they reached the bottom of the stairs, he forced her into the community room, which had a TV, a bookshelf, and some chairs and tables. She realised that he wanted to bolt the door, and so she hung on to it. He smashed the door – it was made of wire gauze – but she clung to it, and sank to the floor. He dragged her by the ankles and swung her around. She continued imploring him with the same words, “Bhaiyya ! Please don’t !” .

At that stage another young man, who had been giving orders around to the mob, told him to leave her, and concentrate on smashing things. He complied immediately. They smashed the TV, knocked down the bookshelf, smashed the furniture and all the glass in the windows.

Meanwhile, Sr. Sylvia, the Novice Mistress, who was in the farm, figured that all the noise was not just from the “Sammelan” across the road, and wasn’t the result of the wind slamming furniture around (which it had been doing for some days). She came in to the house by the front door, to find a mob of around 50 people howling slogans at the gate, and when she entered the house she found people smashing every single window, light switch and light bulb they could find. She continually asked, “Who are you ?” “What do you want ?” “Why are you doing this ?” and asked them to stop. The only response she got was further destruction. One boy, who seemed to be the leader, said, “We are Hindus. We want you out of this place”.

Then, as suddenly as they had come, they were gone.

The Sisters found that their telephone line had been cut (in this day and age, they had resisted getting a mobile connection), so Sr. Sylvia took a back route to the village and called people. Before she got back to the Novitiate, the Police had arrived. I was in the process of taking Gussy to Habibganj Station for his train to Delhi. I picked up Shivaji, one of the Novices, and headed for Gandhi Nagar right away. When I arrived, I saw that priests, Sisters and Brothers from the vicinity had arrived, and the Police were still taking down statements.

I rejoiced that Marie and Josie were being asked to recount the events again and again for everybody who came. And there were some calls (on borrowed cell phones) from their own Sisters, in Delhi, and Chennai, and Goa, which were just what they needed. It gave them both, more especially Marie, the opportunity to describe the events, just as they were ; to remember them as events that had happened. I encouraged them to do so as often as they could, and to be careful to use the Past Tense ; and not to be afraid of saying that they had been afraid, or panicky, or that they wanted to cry. That way they had a chance of placing those horrific events in the Past, where they belonged, and making a space for the lives they were going to live, starting from the Present. The police were already offering a picket for the nights to come, and the days. This would help them to face the future, and leave behind the fear that wanted to cling to them. I kept pointing out the courage that they had displayed at crucial points, and suggested that they could wonder where this courage came from.

I was glad that I could do that for them. Otherwise there was really nothing I did. It was a time when I could actually experience the duty of being brother, which has sometimes nothing to do with doing, just being there. It was a powerful experience for Shivaji, too, because the Novices knew him better, and they were able to break down and cry when he was present. That was a long night, because the Sisters had to make statements, and First Information Reports, and eventually go to the Police Station, and it was past 12.30 when all were able to retire. I think most were able to sleep. Next morning they were able to make jokes about shouts and cries that they had heard from one another’s beds. I thought it was a good sign.

But now the procession began. All day long, more and more people came in, some of them simple people who came to express their solidarity, but many of them officious officials, one more policeman, from one more department, one from the CID, one from the CBI, then the first of the politicians, who could smell an opportunity to be in front of the cameras.

At this stage it was not helping the young Sisters in the focus of the events to live their lives. So I agreed with the Sisters that none of them would speak to anybody, but anybody. They were able to go upstairs, and do some ordinary things, like having class, and prayer, and help with cooking meals

And each well-wisher was invited to look at the rooms where the damage had been done. And if he wished to speak to the people who were actually involved, he got a gentle but firm no. Of course, the poor fish would fall into the trap of asking the next question, “What was the reason for this behaviour ? Was it about land ? Or was it about conversions ?”, and it served him right. Because then he got the full barrage of unbridled rhetoric and oratory (no, no, not a little chapel) salted with irony and spiced with sarcasm, and points which they had better ponder on, because the next listener was going to get the same dose.

They were reminded that this remains a democracy, and a vibrant, healthy democracy at that. If people had any problems, they were welcome, and they knew that they were welcome, to talk to the Sisters. If they had any complaints, the Police were alive and well. And if they had a case, they could move the Courts. The country was aware that the Christians were the first to acknowledge guilt when they were guilty. (Shamed nodding of heads). And the fact that not one, not one, case of conversion has ever been brought to light, was offered to them in the soft, gentle tone of voice usually employed by the punter who senses victory on the last lap.

It was suggested to them that 20 young men who needed cricket bats and hockey sticks and a back-up force of 50 slogan shouting people in order to attack 11 defenceless women should really be given awards for bravery, if they would come forward and give their names. Such bravery is required for our armed forces. The right place for them should be on the front lines of Ladakh and Siachen, defending our country.

But, of course, (and they had to admit) they could hardly be real Indians, if they could stoop so low as to treat women that way. In fact, they were the antithesis of all that the Hindu religion advocates.

It was information to them that the Sisters were helping the children of the most destitute in the nearby villages with their school work, giving them tuition where they needed it. And they were invited to ponder the possibility that therein lay the problem for those wearing fancy clothes and carrying mobiles – maybe they could not countenance the fact that the next generation would be educated, and no longer subject to the same exploitation that had made them destitute in the first place !

There was some satisfaction in being able to make these suggestions to a captive audience ; but one of the most moving experiences was to see their Provincial, Sr. Pushpam, and two members of the PLT, arrive from Delhi, after 13 hours in a car ; and to see the greetings they exchanged. I knew that healing would come of it. My work was done. The bike ride back gave me a chance to marvel at the gifts hidden in these horrible events.

Sr. Sylvia I think it was who prevented the driver from darting into the fray. If so, it was one manifestation of the Providence Who is our inheritance, and theirs too, our Sisters. Sr. Rose wanted to let the dogs out, but thought better of it. I am convinced that if the dogs had been available, the rowdies would not have had the same qualms about violence – and, having tasted blood, who knows what might have transpired. But the most striking epiphany was when Marie continually looked her captor in the eye and called him, “Bhaiyya”, and, according to her own description, every time she did that, he looked at her and lost some of his fire. I found it hard not to think of “Jesus of Nazareth” – “I am He” – and they fell to the ground. I wonder how that young chap manages to look in the mirror these days : does he think of the girl who called him her brother while he treated her like that ? Is he able to look his own sister in the eye ? Is it possible something will yet happen to him ? Kingdom may yet come of it.

I must admit that I was amused at a very serious moment. On Thursday night, (well, 12.40 Friday morning) Sr. Sylvia led the night prayer, and I was privileged to be present. She started by asking us to pray for peace, to allow ourselves to be penetrated by peace. Then she invited us to send the vibrations of that peace to those who had entered our house that day.

And the song we sang was “Om Shanti Om”, in the original Sanskrit. The reason I was amused was the thought that the brash young man had had the effrontery to declare himself to be a Hindu. If he could only have been present that night !

Not one iota of violence did our Sisters offer during the entire episode. Right now our own Novices are contemplating the enormity of this fact. When I started writing this, I had intended to email it today the 17th, but the Internet refused to cooperate. This evening we had satsang, which normally takes about an hour. Today we were there for a little over two hours. Our reflections were nearly all around the experiences of our Sisters, and the feelings generated in us, their brothers. I was so proud of them, of the strength of their feelings, and their willingness to share them, and to delve into memories of similar events – some of which astounded me. I think I have seen Kingdom come.


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