Rebel saints

Four Franciscan Mary Missionery (FMM) nuns who have rebelled against the Church are in the forefront of a struggle for the restoration of tribal ancestral lands illegally occupied, mostly by Christian settlers. "We came here to conscientise the tribals and realised that we needed to be conscientised instead," said sister Mariamma Kalathil.

"There are several religious congregations here. Their primary concern is to provide educational facilities for the settlers rather than to stand by the exploited tribals," said sister Kalathil.

The FMM nuns had started their mission in the region by moving into a remote tribal home at Sholayoor, 20 kms from the nearest bus stop. The nuns worked as coolies (casual manual labourers) for 2 years alongside tribal women, and had firsthand experience about the way they were exploited and treated as mere slaves.

Two years later they set up Ushus (literally, "dawn") on a 0.405 ha plot where they now "survive on our sweat, living on produces of our labour. We never take money from the congregation for our daily expenses," said sister Molly Alex, who came to Attappady in 1985.

The nuns, known as chechis (elder sisters) among the tribals, once successfully led a forcible takeover of tribal land from a settler. Since then, the settlers, supported by government officials and police have been watchful of their movements, said sister Salomi Philipps, who has completed 6 years at the mission centre among tribals who constitute more than 50 per cent of the population in the hill tract.

The nuns have helped about 2,000 tribal families file cases for restoration of land appropriated from them. Although some 180 families have got favourable court orders, only 20 families have taken possession of their lands, while others are still afraid to wrench back their lands from the possession of powerful settlers.

Twenty-one year old Kakilingam is typical of the majority of illiterate tribals in the 250 sq km mountain-belt on the Western Ghats bordering Tamil Nadu. Resigned to his fate, he explained: "My father has gone mad due to an injury sustained in a clash with those who grabbed our lands. If I go to reclaim our land, the other tribals will not support me because they will lose their daily bread. I don't want any more trouble." Sister Kalathil said while the bishop (of Palghat) has told them to "forget about the settlers and continue what you are doing", they have got very little cooperation or active help from other religious congregations.

The church obviously has other ideas. Sister Philjo, the teacher of Carmelite high school in Kottathra, said that the tribals do not cooperate in the programmes for their own development. "They sell the houses alloted to them and move back to their huts. It's difficult to try to improve them," she said in a manner redolent of the attitude of a large chunk of the Christian social workers.

---Anto Akkara is a freelance writer.