By Nirmala Carvalho
MUMBAI, India (Crux) – Religious sisters in India say they are “committed to our education ministry” after an attack which left several of them hospitalized in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on March 26.
Members of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) attacked the Little Flower Higher Secondary School in Chinnasalem, physically assaulting – and even attempting to strangle – the nuns and causing around $150,000 in damage.
The RSS is associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India Since 2014, with Narendra Modi serving as prime minister. Religious minorities claim incidents of harassment against minorities – particularly Christians and Muslims – have increased since the party took power.
“Two of our religious were discharged on April 3, after a week in hospital, where they were treated for the injuries as a result of the assault. One of the nuns was treated for leg injuries, and severe abdominal/internal injuries, the other nun was beaten on her neck. Three other nuns were treated and discharged after a day, for injuries,” said Sister Devaseer Mary Siria Pushpam, the provincial of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
“This incident is also a sad reflection on the dignity of women. The attackers had no respect for us, even as women, one of our nuns, with abdominal and internal injuries was pinched on her stomach. This cannot be condoned,” she told Crux. “Women must be respected and treated with dignity. In our school, we emphasize dignity and respect, leadership, service and values essential for the upbringing of our children to be responsible adults.”
Hundreds of people attacked the school after a teenage student committed suicide due to academic pressure ahead of an exam, some of them demanding money. They returned the next day, and classrooms were looted, windows were broken, and even the chapel was vandalized.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India issued a statement expressing “its shock, pain and hurt at the violence against the staff.”
“We grieve the death of the young girl who committed suicide out of fear that she may not pass her 10th Standard Maths Public exam and that she would bring shame to her family and her parents. We offer our condolences to the family of the girl and offer them all our support and comfort. We pray for the repose of her soul and for her parents and family in this difficult time of their lives,” the statement said.
“We are however appalled and worried by the violence unleashed against the School staff and the Sisters and we condemn it unequivocally. The bishops express their solidarity, with the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Lourdes Province of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Congregation, who are providing quality education for the last 74 years, through this school to boys and girls from the most backward families,” the bishops continued.
The bishops’ statement, released April 6, said the incident “reflects the terrible face of mobocracy” in the country, and added it was a “dreadful indictment” of the country’s system of law and order.
“That the group strategically divided itself and attacked the school and the boarding home systematically and simultaneously, manifests the murderous intent of the mob. The special targeting of the sisters, of the religious places in the campus and the sacrilegious attack on the crucifixes of the sisters, with attempts to strangulate the sisters with the chain holding the cross reveals the darkest side of human beings,” the statement continued.
“This attack and violence is not only against the Christian minority but against the very ethos of our secular and peace loving nation. It is a result of hatred being sown in society and hatred is a terrible beast which when allowed to grow is dangerous. It will devour not just the minorities and the weak but eventually destroy the very social fiber of our nation and society and gobble up every other group,” the bishops said.
Although more than 200 people were involved in the assault, the authorities have only arrested 6 people, and detained two others for questioning.
“However, all our religious sisters, are only speaking of forgiveness and mercy,” said Sister Devaseer.
“They have already forgiven their attackers from their hearts, but they want some system in place, to prevent any such incidents in the future,” she told Crux.
The nun said the school welcomes all students, regardless “of caste or creed.”
“All our students are treated equally, and we are committed to quality education, health, wellbeing and educational success of the students,” Sister Devaseer said. “While we are committed to our education ministry, our safety has to be ensured.”