Sr. Rani Maria, who is one of the great martyrs of India, is to be declared Blessed on 4th November 2017 in Indore. She was murdered in a knife attack inside a crowded bus by the hit man Samandar Singh on 25th February 1995 because of her work for the uplift of the poor and the oppressed. On this happy occasion of her beatification, it would be appropriate to look back to her missionary life to understand how she came to face the ordeal of martyrdom.
Rani Maria was born on 29 January 1954, as the second of seven children of Paily and Eliswa Vattalil in a small village called Pulluvazhy, Kerala. Her baptismal name was Mariam. After her High School studies at St. Joseph’s Tripunithura she joined the Franciscan Clarist Convent at Kidangoor near Pala in 1972. She made her first profession on 1st May 1974 and took the name Rani Maria. From her early years she was enamoured with missionary zeal and wanted to go to North India to serve the poor and the downtrodden.
With intense desire to work among the poorest of the poor, Sr. Rani Maria arrived at St. Mary’s Convent Bijnor, U. P., on 24th December1975 and started to involve herself in the missionary activities of her community. After serving as a teacher at St. Mary’s School Bijnor for two years, she started to devote all her time in the social ministry. With her burning missionary zeal she used to visit the poor families in villages in and around Bijnor to help the sick and the poor. Her simplicity and cheerfulness captured the hearts and minds of all with whom she came into contact.
On 21st July 1983, Sr.Rani Maria was transferred to Odagady in Madhya Pradesh and was appointed coordinator of the social activities. Here she started to devote her whole time and energy for the uplift of the marginalized and the downtrodden. She organized formal and non-formal educational programmes for the children, the young and the aged. Through various conscientization programmes and contact classes Sr. Rani Maria made the poor villagers aware of their rights and of the injustices they are subjected to and how they are exploited by the landlords. She started cooperative unions and organized self-help groups for the poor villagers in order to help them free themselves from the clutches of the money lenders. Thus many poor people became self-dependent and active citizens. Since her work for the Tribals went against the vested interests of unscrupulous moneylenders and social exploiters, she became a thorn in their eyes, who misinterpreted her work for the uplift of the poor as an attempt to convert them to Christianity.
She made a thorough study of the tribals and realized that they had unconsciously fallen into the debt trap laid by the Baniyas (tradesmen). They had become over dependant on the unscrupulous money lenders who cunningly devoured their meagre earnings and property. She fought for the poor tribals and landless agricultural labourers for their just wages and other rights. She made them aware of the grants allocated by the government for their socio-economic development. Often she would approach the government officials on behalf of the poor. She trained the youth as animators and taught them how to help themselves and the poor by getting financial assistance from the government and private banks of Udainagar and Indore. Thus she could eradicate the poverty of the villagers to a great extent. In 1994 Sr. Rani Maria was elected the Provincial Councillor for Social Work and coordinated the social service activities of the Province.
While fighting for the rights of the oppressed and marginalized, Sr. Rani Maria had to face much opposition even from the government officials. Her fight for the poor and the oppressed went against the vested interests of unscrupulous moneylenders and landlords. She had received even death threats from them. But this did not deter her from fighting for the poor. She was ready to lay down her life for the cause of the poor. She drew her strength to face all the challenges from the Holy Eucharist. She used to spend a lot of time in personal prayer. Her murder was pre-planned and executed by landlords who were offended due to her social work among the landless, tribals and village women.
On the fateful day of 25th February 1995 Sr. Rani Maria took the first bus to Indore, enroute to Bhopal. When the bus reached Nachanbore Hill, some 20 km away from Udainagar, a man called Samandar Singh unexpectedly started to stab her repeatedly. At her loud cries the bus stopped and, bleeding profusely, she ran out of the crowded bus and fell on the roadside. The attacker followed her and continued to stab her. None of the passengers dared to come to her rescue. With excruciating pain from the stab wounds all over the body she repeatedly called the name ‘JESUS’ and succumbed to her injuries. The post-mortem registered 40 major stab wounds and 14 bruises. She was 41 when she was murdered. The late Bishop of Indore, Dr. George Anathil SVD, along with some priests reached the spot by 2.0’clock in the afternoon and found the body lying on the side of the road, soaked in blood. He saw to all the legal formalities and took the body to the Bishop’s House.
From the day of her burial, people began to flock in ever growing numbers to her tomb. Numerous favours are reported to have been obtained through the intercession of Sr. Rani Maria. By keeping her photo in their homes, the poor tribals of Udainagar asked for her intercession in their needs. Several books and pamphlets on her have been published since her death by different individuals and associations.
Sr. Rani Maria’s cause of canonisation began in 2003 and she was declared a ‘Servant of God’ four years later. Pope Francis approved the cause on 23rd March 2017 and confirmed that she would be beatified on 4th November 2017 in Indore. We hope and pray that Bl. Rani Maria would be declared a Saint Martyr within a few years.
The murderer becomes a member of the family
Samandhar Singh was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Inspired by Christ’s forgiving love, the younger sister of Sr. Rani Maria, Sr. Selmy Paul FCC, visited him on 21st August 2002, in the Indore Central Jail. She forgave him and accepted Singh as her brother by tying “rakhi,” on the day of Rakshabandan. Overwhelmed by this unexpected gesture, Samundar Singh asked forgiveness of Sr. Selmy and expressed his repentance and regret. On the occasion of the eighth death anniversary of Sr. Rani Maria, 25th February 2003, her mother Eliswa also visited the jail and kissed the hands of her daughter’s assassin. No gesture of forgiveness could have been more eloquent. After his release from Jail, Samandar Singh visited the nun’s house to meet her family members, who also forgave him and accepted him as a member of their family.
Fr. James Mundackal CST