Sister Rani Maria. A Martyr of social justice

She worked with the landless and exploited farming families.  She organised village women into self-help groups, and helped families establish savings accounts. Her activities were a thorn in the flesh of moneylenders, social exploiters and propertied upper castes, who hired an assassin to get rid of her.

On February 25 1995, Sr. Rani Maria, a member of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, was travelling in a private bus from Udainagar to Indore.  Samandhar Singh, in the pay of the local money lenders, boarded the same bus. As the vehicle began to climb up Nachambore Hill, Singh started stabbing the sister. Then he dragged her off the bus, while continuing thrusting his knife in her body. He hit her 54 times. The sister died almost instantly. Nobody among the passengers bothered to protect her.

Udainagar is a village in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. The state is over 90% Hindu and less than 1% Christian. Now as then, the Christian community suffers various forms of discrimination.  Sr. Rani Maria was loved by the poor, and she loved then in return. “They are my best friends,” she used to say. Her work attracted some of them to embrace Christianity. Her admirers, even among non-Christians, called her Indore Rani (“Queen of Indore”). She sought to make the exploited poor conscious of their rights, by organising study classes and workshops wherever she went.

All these activities infuriated the landlords, as they challenged their vested interests. Above all, she became the worst enemy of the moneylenders who extorted the income of the people in the form of exaggerated interest rates. In spite of many threats, the sister never stepped back from her initiatives. 

Rani Maria was born on January 29, 1954, to Eliswa and PailyVattalil, the second daughter of seven children. Pulluvazhy, her birthplace in Kerala state, was a remote village consisting of both traditional Christian and non-Christian families. Her parents and family members were traditionally rooted in the Christian faith. Their parish belonged the Syro-Malabar rite. At baptism, she was given the name Mariam, but her parents lovingly called her Marykunju (“Little Mary”).

After finishing her high school studies, she spoke to her family about her plans to enter religious life. Her immediate relations and elder brother were against it. They even requested their father not to give her permission. But he replied: “If she insists, what shall I do? If God so desires, how can we go against it?” In July 1972, Marykunju joined the Franciscan Clarist Congregation at Kidangoor, Kerala.

During the years of formation, she was inspired by the Gospel of Luke: «The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (4, 18). As she meditated on this text, she longed to go to the missions where the Good News of the Lord was not yet heard. She made her first commitment on May 1, 1974, and took the name Rani (“Queen”) Maria. Her final commitment was on May 22, 1980.

Her missionary dream was fulfilled when her superiors sent her to Bijnor, in Uttar Pradesh, in 1975. She served the poor in the villages of Bijnor for seven years. At the same time, she completed her graduation privately from the University of Bhopal and her Master’s in Sociology from the Riva University.

From Bijnor she was transferred in 1983 to Karunalayam at Odagadi, in the diocese of Satna. Here, too, she served the marginalised for about nine years, three as local superior of her community. Right from the beginning, she held leadership positions. She served Amala Province as the Provincial Social Service Consultant from 1991 to 1994 and was elected Provincial Councillor for Social Service in December 1994.

Wherever she was posted, she was active in giving formal and non-formal education for children. This slowly gave way to a much wider field of assisting the oppressed and the marginalised. Gradually, she became instrumental in the formation of self-help groups, non-formal education centres, adult education centres, credit unions, village committees, animation and leadership programmes, and in developing irrigation facilities with the assistance from the state government and banks.

She was actively involved in the betterment of the adivasis (indigenous people), especially the women. She thoroughly studied the situation and began “conscientisation” programmes to make them aware of their rights and of the injustice perpetrated on them. She taught the farmers crop rotation and pressed parents to send their children to school. She encouraged women to start small savings accounts to keep them away from the moneylenders.

As the news spread about her assassination, the entire Christian community in Indore and beyond, social activists and people of good-will stood up to protest. A large number of people participated in her funeral procession from Indore to Udainagar.

Since then, her tomb in Udainagar has become a symbol of love, service and sacrifice. It has become a place of prayer and pilgrimage. Many cherish her memory and use it as a powerful symbol of engaging themselves to liberate the oppressed. Through the courageous life and death, she has sown the seed of love, justice and brotherhood in many hearts.

If her death inspired many more sisters to work for the poor, her beatification will further inspire many other men and women, religious and not, to dedicate themselves zealously for the cause of the marginalised. On November 4, 2017, Sister Rani Maria Vattalil was beatified at Indore (India).