At the peak of Summer last week, I undertook a central Indian tour covering a few districts along the banks of the river Narmada. In the sweltering heat, I was advised not to, but then if you wait for seasons, your programmes never get materialised. I was on a tour to Jhabua, Ujjain, Indore, Mandu, Dhar and Maheshwar. I had no plans to go to Udainagar, the place where Sister Rani Maria worked and was martyred for the work she was doing – help the villagers get their right to livelihood.
But I had an extra day at Maheshwar because I finished the Ahilya Fort and the local areas within a few hours. The Fort was not as big as I thought. It just came to my mind to visit Udainagar. But we made a tactical mistake in planning. The road from Indore to Udainagar has got improved but not from Maheshwar where we were put up at Narmada Retreat Tent. But we still decided to undertake the journey of 200 kms. And as expected, there was virtually no road for almost 40 kilometres. We had to negotiate through unpaved fields and thankfully the big vehicle I was driving didn’t betray us.
Sister Maria, originally from Kerala, took to mission work in her Franciscan Clarist Congregation in this remote area of Madhya Pradesh, among the tribal. She helped the villagers get benefits bestowed on them by the government and which they had no information about. As her popularity grew, the money lenders started facing the heat. In all the tribal areas you will find Baniyas from whom the tribal borrow money for their day-to-day needs.
On February 25, 1995, she was dragged out of a bus near Udainagar and stabbed almost 60 times until she breathed her last, in full view of the entire bus passengers, by a person named Samundar Singh. Before killing the nun, he also performed a small puja breaking a coconut and putting vermillion – a tradition commonly used in India before sacrificing animals. The bus driver, despite being threatened not to report it, went on to file a FIR and Singh was arrested and prosecuted. He was allegedly hired by a money lender. Almost a decade later, Singh was pardoned by the family members of the nun, and having repented for his action, he also visited the nun’s parents to seek pardon.
As I visited the place, there was a nun – Sister Jaya – and two diocesan priests. A church is built and her tomb is kept inside this Church. There are no Catholics except for staff of the school nearby and a few Franciscan nuns. Samundar Singh is a frequent visitor to the Church, while the money lender who hired him stays nearby. After being hostile for a few years, he is also repenting for his action though he has not publicly acknowledged it.
The church began Sister Rani Maria’s canonisation and the Vatican gave a green signal to it in 2003. In 2005 she was declared as 'Servant of God' and on 4 November, 2017, she was beatified.
(Binu Alexander is the Editor and Publisher of Living in Faith)