Twenty-five years of violating Indian nuns with impunity

In the pic: Indian Christians take part in a peace rally and protest in Allahabad in this March 22 photo after the rape of a nun in West Bengal.

By Christopher Joseph


It is 25 years since the Indian media reported what they then called the first rape case involving Catholic nuns in Independent India. No one has yet been punished for the crime.

Police did arrest four men in connection with the July 13, 1990 rape of two nuns in their convent in Gajraula, near Delhi. However, the trial proved farcical when it was determined they were in jail when the crime was committed.

The court rebuked the police and awarded the nuns compensation. The court also said the case could not be closed until the real culprits were arrested. But it is now a forgotten case. High-ranking Church officials told me this week they have no clue as to how the so-called investigation is progressing.

Media reports said the case was handed to India's top investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation. Theoretically, they are still investigating the case.

Between 1990 and 1995, New Delhi's Theological Research and Communication Institute recorded 20 more cases of murder, rape and assault on Catholic clergy and nuns in India. Since then the number of incidents has grown with about 100 attacks being recorded in recent years.

In the last year the figure has doubled to more than 200, since Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, according to data supplied by Christian leaders.

Another nun was allegedly raped last month in Raipur, while a 71-year-old nun was raped in a convent near Kolkata. Police are investigating these crimes, but if the probes follow a similar pattern to other incidents, all involved, except the victim, will forget about the crime until another one happens.

In the rush to move forward, no one seems to be bothered about getting justice for the victims.

In nearly all cases the perpetrators get away with it.

Over the past 25 years, only one person has been convicted and jailed for raping a nun. This crime occurred in Odisha in 2008. Two others were handed prison terms for sexual assault in the same case but they are out on bail.

No one else has been convicted or punished for raping a Catholic nun in this country despite some cases reaching court. This kind of impunity encourages criminals to commit more heinous acts.

Christian leaders say these crimes are part of an orchestrated effort by Hindu hard-liners to harass and subjugate the religious minority.

Police see the offenses as being among thousands of routine crimes being committed across the country. Hindu leaders dismiss Christian allegations against them as baseless and politically motivated.

All have their points, but if the criminals in the first few cases were caught and punished appropriately, the situation today would have been different.

We are seeing a pattern. Crime repeated; words repeated; victims forgotten. The Church and state move forward with no sense of sin in their omissions.

One nun, who was raped some time ago, told me how she has become frustrated with the protracted court case and wishes to see it end, even if it means the culprits go unpunished.

Each time the case comes up she is forced to re-live the ordeal answering questions from lawyers and the media, she said.

Why is this happening?

In most cases, the rapes were not spur of the moment crimes committed while carrying out a robbery. In the Kolkata case, they specifically chose the 71-year old nun leaving younger nuns in the convent alone.

In the Raipur attack, the culprits deliberately chose the 47-year nun, taking care not to disturb two younger women sleeping next door. They also came prepared with drugs to give to the nun. It was evident they were making a statement against Christians with their crime.

Rape can mean a statement of subjugation in Indian society. It can mean: 'We trample upon what you love, respect and revere… your sister, wife and mother. You live as a subject to us or get out.'

It remains a fact that not a single Hindu Brahmakumaris nun has been sexually attacked in all these years.

Often rapes of nuns are also connected to the land they own or property they live in. After the Gajraula case there were reports the rapes were engineered to scare the nuns away and acquire their land at a cheaper price. Similar reports were published after the Kolkata rape.

In 1991, a politician was accused of encroaching on convent land in Bangalore and threatened to do a "Gajraula" if the nuns made an issue of the incident.

Why does it continue?

Indian society and the Church are yet to act decisively against rape, despite seeing it as a social evil.

In a country where at least two women are raped every hour, police, administration officials and the public shrug them off as just another rape, even if the victim is a Catholic nun.

The Church lives immersed in that reality unable to see that every single rape is a dastardly act.

If the Church is serious about fighting rape, including attacks on nuns, a change of attitude and more concerted action is necessary, not knee jerk reactions.

A rape victim is invariably seen as bringing shame to her family and community. Unfortunately and surprisingly, most female religious congregations also consider a rape within their community as a matter of shame.

One victim told me she was asked to change her name by her congregation and now lives under a false identity.

That sense of shame makes Church hide the crime. Church officials successfully covered up the Gajraula crime for 10 days until the national weekly Sunday Observer published it.

A nun at that convent told they pleaded with the Observer reporter not to publish the story.

That is good enough reason to believe that many more rapes of nuns must have gone unreported.

Even in the latest case in Raipur, the victim’s congregation refused to admit the nun was raped despite the victim making clear assertions that both suspects raped her.

Nuns who survive sex attacks continue to suffer because of the turn a blind eye attitude of those who lead Religious congregations.

The lack of a well-defined policy and established system to handle victims of sex crimes within religious communities also rubs salt into the victims’ wounds.

All too often the victim is hidden. She is suddenly whisked away after the crime and “asked” to live incommunicado temporarily, or in some cases indefinitely.

When sex crimes occur, "our system goes haywire. We’re in the dark. We do not know what to do, or how to go about things," according to Father Ajay Kumar Singh, who works to get justice for victims of anti-Christian violence in Odisha state, including rape victims.

He said the affected people or the local diocese is left alone to do what best it can. Most often they give up halfway through a case when they run out of resources or patience with what is a painfully slow legal system in India.

Opponents of the Church in India also know that its leaders are uncomfortable in dealing with sex-related issues. Victims of sex crimes in the Church are often accused of being child abusers and sexual perverts.

That is enough to end an investigation, they believe. One example that stands out was the murder of two nuns in Mumbai in 1990.

Soon after the investigation began, reports appeared in newspapers saying that the nuns led immoral lives and that one of them had venereal disease. It sapped the energy from Church leaders to fight for the dead nuns.

Church leaders need to break their taboos and overcome their fear of sex and sex-related crimes as a first step if they want to fight sex crimes against nuns and other women in India.

Christopher Joseph is a journalist working for in India.

Source: UCAN

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