The nuns have ventured into growing vegetables, stitching clothes and masks, and rearing poultry, which has built their confidence and been a source of joy.

The five nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus (MJ) congregation from the St Francis Mission Home, Kuravilangad in Kerala’s Kottayam district. They are sitting around a dining table talking and having a meal.
news Kerala nun rape case Sunday, August 02, 2020 - 12:53

2020 has been marked by the most drastic changes in human lives and livelihood situations that my generation has seen globally. At the beginning of August, discussions are rampant on social media and news channels about how people have responded to the challenge. For many of us, COVID-19 updates decide our status, schedule and conversations. However, for Anupama Kelamangalathuveliyil, Neena Rose, Josephine Villoonnickal, Ancitta Urumbil and Alphy Pallasseril, March 25 did not bring much change.

Not because they had special immunity to the virus, but because their lives had already been disrupted over two years ago. On June 27, 2018, they registered a complaint that opened a Pandora’s box of legal and religious contradictions, and conflict, which has disrupted their peace, security and identity.

These women, all members of the Missionaries of Jesus (MJ) congregation residing at the St Francis Mission Home, Kuravilangad in Kerala’s Kottayam district, have had two years of real-life experiences on ‘lockdown’. They made one decision – to support a companion, a sister from their congregation, in her fight for justice. The nun had accused the Bishop of Jalandhar diocese, Franco Mulakkal, of raping her at the Kuravilangad convent multiple times between 2014 and 2016. Their decision resulted in the rest of their congregation, their parish church and the institutional church authorities socially and physically distancing themselves from them and the complainant.

“I was only 15 when I joined the convent. Initially, I was just learning English. Only after completing my Class 12 was I formally initiated into religious life in the congregation. Thus, for most of my life, my closest family has been the congregation. The congregation defined my life, my friendships, my work and my thoughts. Being targeted and feeling isolated within the congregation was a big let-down,” says Sr Neena Rose MJ.

How the nuns were vigorously and completely shut down

The silence was loud. The wiping out of their names from transfer lists and databases, both virtually and otherwise, was vigorous and complete. It has been disturbing to see the picture of the accused prominently displayed on the Jalandhar diocese website while the link to the MJ congregation was removed. The link to information about the MJ congregation was also taken off from the website for the Pala diocese where the St Francis Mission Home is located. The Missionaries of Jesus, Jalandhar congregational website itself has either been taken down or is untraceable.

Many supporting the institutional church tried to discredit the nuns. A torchbearer in this defamation campaign has been YouTube channel Christian Times. This channel released two videos in the thick of the investigation, which claimed that the complaint was false, and cast aspersions on the complainant’s character and defamed her. One video titled ‘Bishop Franco speaks his thoughts’ was released on September 30, 2018; another where MLA PC George ‘reveals the truth’ was released on October 3, 2018. The most ostentatious show of support to the accused was when he returned to the Bishop’s House in Jalandhar after being released on bail. Every time the sisters read reports of church leaders visiting the accused – in jail or otherwise – they too waited for such responses, but almost no one has visited them. This ‘othering’ by the rest of their congregation and church authorities has been the toughest part since their lockdown.

“Initially each day was a struggle – to deal with unpleasantness from within the congregation, also the indifference of church authorities to our pleas for response and protection. Also, the fact that close to 20 members from our own MJ congregation went to meet the Kerala Chief Minister to plead for the release of Bishop Franco when he was arrested after public protests. It’s very difficult to recall and talk about those times even now. We felt uprooted. Our entire world – the convent, parish and our work – all snatched away from us in response to our support for the complaint,” recalls Sr Josephine MJ.

The first protest, the first visit to the police station, the first interview with the press, the first conversation with the police, the punishing look from close associates and strangers are all vivid. But this no longer pulls them down. As days, and then months, passed by after the complaint, they realised two things. First, that the struggle for justice was going to be long. Second, it was going to be mostly lonely.

“During the phase between the cases and counter cases, the two pillars of strength were the unity of our six-member team and the support of our families. All our immediate family members have continued to support us in spite of the problems they faced locally. In my parents’ case, when a unit meeting [members of a church are usually organised into smaller units that interact more closely] was scheduled at our house, some members of our unit opposed it, but the parish priest supported us. Finally, those who opposed went ahead and cancelled the meeting without asking us. Many who were close to my parents don’t speak to them anymore,” says Sr Anupama MJ.

Learning to adapt and how

What is interesting is the way the nuns have adapted to deal with their lockdown. There is a confidence in the shared conviction that their stand is aligned to their faith; their truth, their cause to bring justice to one of their own – one who over the years has been a pillar of support to them as a friend, a sister, a mother, a guide and leader. Now, as sisters in solidarity, they are standing up for each other. They started to consciously and actively work towards keeping themselves positively engaged. The case was important, but so was their survival. Being religious, their spiritual growth was as important as the physical and intellectual. They worked hard and tried many things. Gradually, a plan developed.

“It’s a fact that the follow-up of the court case is stressful, but our method of dealing with that is to discuss issues together till we reach a consensus on the way forward. Twice we called a senior religious sister and professional counsellor to speak to us on stress management and help us with meditation. We come together as a group at least thrice daily – to pray, to read a book, for meals and to simply talk. Some things we pursue individually: I practise yoga every morning, some of us enjoy reading, others tend to poultry, grow vegetables and even stitch. Four of us have enrolled for our Master’s degree through correspondence. The list keeps getting longer,” says Sr Alphy MJ.

Their many ventures – growing vegetables, stitching clothes and masks, maintaining the poultry unit – don’t run at a loss, but they can’t be termed as big or profit-making either. The value they add to the sisters’ lives, however, is beyond monetary. Both their labour and its fruits have built their confidence and been a source of joy. They have shared the vegetables, eggs, and clothes and masks with residents of the convent, workers, their families, and police on duty. To be able to give when one is left with nothing has been a deeply empowering experience for the isolated sisters.

Much has changed between 2018 and 2020 though. While there is no denying the hurt they feel, they have stopped feeling humiliated by such instances anymore. The healing has come from a concentrated effort by the sisters to regain control over their emotions and daily lives. Thus, when the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) published its 2020 directory with the accused named the Bishop of Jalandhar, it was just a fact-check on the position of the official Catholic Church and nothing more. They have also gained from a sense of solidarity they have experienced from individuals who believe in them and their cause. One among them is Sr Lissy Vadakel. When it became known that she had given a witness statement to support the complainant, she was given a warning, was threatened, and isolated from other members of her congregation ever since.

“Initially many felt that we are the troublemakers… only after we got a chance to explain ourselves did some people start supporting us. Even now even when I visit home, my mother never sends me alone to church fearing for my safety. The court proceedings and the investigation has brought out evidence against Bishop Franco in a way that cannot be ignored by the public and the church authorities,” says Sr Ancitta MJ.

After being charge-sheeted in April 2019, Franco Mulakkal has failed to appear for most of the hearings. From January to March 2020, he was absent for eight consecutive hearings. He petitioned to have the case discharged – this was rejected first by the trial court and then on July 7, 2020 by the High Court of Kerala. Consequently, the accused was directed to appear before the Sessions Court for the framing of charges and commencement of the trial. This time he used COVID-19 and the lockdown to manipulate proceedings. Within hours of being issued a non-bailable warrant on July 13, 2020, he submitted that he had tested positive for coronavirus and asked that the proceedings be delayed. Subsequently, the execution of his warrant has been delayed twice – first till July 29 and then till August 7, on which date his COVID-19 status will be reviewed.

The three weeks between July 13 and August 7 can be critical to this, as it provides a window for the accused to file his petition for dismissal of the case in the Supreme Court. The petition in the SC is expected to be heard on August 5. It is difficult to believe that the absence of the accused from the court leading to a warrant, and the almost immediate filing of a coronavirus positive report was not part of a strategy to gain time. While that may be considered a master stroke, it is also a fact that two years on, the sisters continue putting up a good fight. Here is hoping for new beginnings, with justice being served, consequences for the accused, and freedom and solidarity for the sisters.

Anita Cheria is the Director of OpenSpace. She is a social analyst and activist who works with and writes on people and institutions that advocate for good governance and inclusion. Winnu Das is a lawyer and performer. She writes about law, society and performance on her blog:

This article has been republished with permission. You can read the original article here.

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