In June 1991 the Pallottines came to Indore diocese at the invitation of then Bishop Most Rev. George Anathil. The two of us were appointed at St. Theresa Church, Pushp Nagar, Indore. In a few months I was also appointed the director for Laity and family as well as SCC commission. In 1993 I was given an added responsibility by the Bishops Conference (CBMP) as the 1st regional secretary to the Laity and Family commission. Since the new responsibility demanded a lot of travelling around and organising meetings and training programs in all the diocese of the region, I had requested Bp. Anathil to relieve me of the parish responsibility and hence from January 1994 I was full time engaged in the diocese and regional animation and training. Sr. Rani Maria was then working in Udainagar, engaged in social and developmental work, organising and training the poor, illiterate and low caste people to liberate them from the clutches of money lenders and from all the oppression and exploitation. She had set up many self-help groups of women and men, seed and fertilizer bank for the farmers and got their children into schools. Through all these the ‘baniyas’, land lords and money lenders were badly affected and certainly they knew who was behind this. They began plotting to get rid of her from Udainagar. Many times, their goons tried to intimidate her in different ways but she went ahead with her mission with courage and enthusiasm in the strength of her prayer life and community support.
On the day Sr. Rani Maria was martyred (25-02-1995) I was at Indore and as soon as Bp. Anathil got the news, he called me up to Bishop’s House. He wanted Fr. Lucas, the secretary and me to accompany him to the place in the jungles where after crossing 40 kms, her body was found by the side the forest road…
The bus (Kapil Bus) in which she was travelling was parked there and a crowd of people from the bus and from nearby village had gathered around. We identified the body and claimed it. With the help of our driver and we two priests lifted up the body and put it in the bus and Fr. Lucas, accompanied by the police took the body in the bus for post-mortem to Indore medical college (MYH). Not one of the people gathered on the spot came forward to help us lift the body because of their custom not to touch the dead body. Bp. Anathil and me took her luggage with us and went to the police station to file FIR. She was in fact going home for her holidays. The people among whom she was working knew that she was going for holidays and of course her enemies also came to know about it. And so they planned to eliminate her this time.
The 1st bus fromUdainagar which normally goes along the longer tarred road to Indore, they got it cancelled and the second bus at 8am. (Kapil bus) which was going by the side of the convent through the jungles and hills was the one she got in. In fact, one of the gang members only took her bag and put it into the bus. She got a seat in the front area, as the bus went ahead it stopped at a roadside small rock cave where all the vehicles offer Pooja, coconut etc. Mr. Samander Singh, who was the domestic help of the UPA Sarpanch of Udainagar was the hired assassin. He took some coconut in a plate and broke it at the rock cave and made pieces of it with a sharp knife he had brought along. He returned to the bus and it started climbing the rest of the hill while Samander went with the coconut pieces / Prasadamand offered to all in the bus beginning from the last seats. As he approached Sr. Rani Maria with the prasadamhe took out his knife and started stabbing her. As she cried for help, none of the 55 passengers dared to come to her rescue, as he threatened everybody. As he went on stabbing all over her body, the bus stopped and the travellers got out and ran away. He then dragged her out of the bus on to the side of the forest road. All through the incident she struggled and went on calling Jesus loudly. She lay there unconscious and bled to her death. The bus driver and the conductor also did nothing.
As we were returning to Indore Bp. Anathil felt strongly that (inspiration) Sr. Rani Maria should be buried at Udainagar among the people she lived and worked. “This seed that has died will bring about a rich harvest, her tomb will strengthen the people and our work there” said Bp. Anathil to me. Then of course it had to be discussed with her provincial superior. At Bishop’s suggestion initially, her superior was not in favour, they wanted to take her body to the provincialate. But Bp. Anathil managed to convince them that in the present context it is the best witness to take her body back to Udainagar and have a solemn funeral as that was her “karma Bhoomi”. After the post mortem the body was brought to the Bishop’s House and by then the funeral plans were set and an action plan was drawn up. The body was kept in the Cathedral for everyone to pray and pay their respect. The news of her murder spread like a wildfire and hit the next day newspaper and TV channels. Not only the diocese of Indore but the whole Madhya Pradesh (that time including Chattisgarh) church as well as from the north and south, east and west started to pour into Indore. On Feb 26th morning we conducted a silent rally with placards and submitted a memorandum to the collector and commissioner to arrest the guilty and bring them to the justice. Bp. Anathil and team moved fast and contacted all media possible and sent in protest letters to the state chief Minister and his team as well as to the central ministers demanding justice and protection to the minority. It was heartening to see the quick and positive response of the state and central administration as well as the local authorities. The Chief Minister Mr. Digvijay Singh himself planned to come to Udainagar to attend the funeral and a helipad was prepared there but at the last minute he could not make it. The funeral procession from Indore cathedral to Udainagar mission took more than 3 hrs. but it was perhaps the most solemn and prayerful and graceful funeral procession of such a length in the history of North India. There were more than 120 vehicles and many more on 2 wheelers in the rally. On the way the procession had many stops as people on the way – all non- Christians paid floral tributes to this great missionary, social worker and a martyr. Full security arrangements were made by the state and everything went well as planned. A large crowd had gathered from Udainagarand adjoining villages where she had served, to bid a tearful good bye to Sr. Rani Maria. Practically all the Bishops of M.P. and many bishops from other diocese joined the funeral mass and funeral service. A large number of priests and religious esp. a big number of FCC sisters, were also present. After the funeral many went to the spot where she was murdered.
Bp. Anathil wanted to have a memorial erected at the spot she was murdered and as he requested the chief Minister, permission was granted immediately. In fact, the Government gave us the freedom to choose whatever area and construct whatever monument. A small memorial was built in a few days but it was partially damaged time and again. But the diocese continued to repair the damages and finally it is there today. The state government and the police department gave us their full co-operation and support to pursue the case and assigned one of the good public prosecutor to fight the case. After due consideration Bp. Anathil decided that we engage our own lawyer and we approached the best criminal lawyer in Indore. But then he declined to take our case as the opposite party moved faster and engaged him. We got the next best lawyer and Bp. Anathilappointed a 3-member committee consisting of Fr. Lucas, Fr. Cherian and Fr. Thomas Thennatt to pursue the case. It is here that I had a closer look at the criminal justice system from the inside! The diocese spent quite a bit as lawyers’ fees and for all other incidentals to fight the case. There were dangers and threats to the committee members as the case was progressing fast but with God’s grace we did not have to face any. Among the numerous witnesses who were in the bus practically all but one retracted and some turned hostile due to various threats and pressuresduring the case proceedings. In fact it was one man’s guts to stand before the judge and give witness to the crime and identify the criminal that proved the case in our favour.He was one of the drivers of one of our mission stations, whose name I fail to recall now. We got a favourable verdict in ayears’ time, and it was a great victory of truth and justice. But I must say that after the court verdict this man who dared to give witness, braving threat to his life and family is nowhere even mentioned in the narrative and found no place in all that happened till today. Mr. Samander Singh, a domestic help in the house of the deputy Sarpanch of Udainagar was a hired killer who got life term jail sentence. Sr. Rani Maria’s parents, her sister and some FCC sisters and others kept visiting Samander Singh and they forgave him unconditionally and this very act really moved him and he deeply repented of the crime and began to believe in the person of Christ and he has grown in his love and devotion to Sr. Rani Maria now. When the parents and sisters approached the governor of the state with an earnest request to release him from the jail, the governor remarked that only you Christians will be able to do this- love and forgive a criminal.
Soon after the murder and the funeral of Sr. Rani Maria the mission work, social and development programs got slowed down due to the threat perceptionand rather tense atmosphere in and around Udainagar. But Bp. Anathil declared Udainagar as a pilgrim centre and tried to mobilise people to Udainagar. Gradually the local people got organized and the fathers and sisters trained and motivated them to continue the good work which Sr. Rani Maria had stared. There is certainly a lot of progress and development there at Udainagar today. The love and respect the people of that place have for her and the miracles Sr. Rani Maria the servant of God has worked and her continued intercession for this mission can all be felt and seen at Udainagar. Wwith her beatification now in Indore,she will be more loved and respected andUdainagar mission and Indore diocese will be all the more blessed.
“Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”. May these words of the Lord really come true at Udainagar through the life and ministry and through her very blood shed for the Lod and the poor and the oppressed.