Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nun Meena Lalita Barwa tells of brutal rape by Hindu mob in India

October 25, 2008

A Roman Catholic nun who says that she was raped and paraded half-naked through the streets by a Hindu mob in eastern India emerged from hiding yesterday for the first time to make an emotional public appeal for justice.

With her head and face covered by a black scarf, Meena Lalita Barwa, 29, described how she was attacked at a prayer hall in the eastern state of Orissa in August during the worst anti-Christian riots in India in decades.

The violence — which the Catholic Church says killed 60 Christians and left 50,000 homeless — has drawn international criticism from the Pope and President Bush and prompted calls for a ban on India's powerful Hindu nationalist movement.

Sister Meena said that a mob of up to 50 men armed with sticks, axes, spades, crowbars, iron rods and sickles dragged her and a Catholic priest from the house where they were sheltering on August 25.

One of the mob raped her, while two more held her down, and then a fourth tried to rape her again, before they paraded the priest and her, minus her blouse and underwear, along a road, she said.

When the crowd passed a group of a dozen policemen she begged for help, but they ignored her and talked in a “very friendly” manner to her attackers, she said. “State police failed to stop the crimes, failed to protect me from the attackers,” she said. “I was raped and I don't want to be victimise[d] by the Orissa police. God Bless India, God bless you all.”

She demanded that her case be handled by the Central Bureau of Investigation — India's FBI — rather than the Orissa police, who have been criticised for their inaction during the violence.

Sister Meena went into hiding after the attack to protect herself from Hindu extremists but decided to come forward after the Supreme Court turned down her initial request for a CBI inquiry earlier this week.

Her public appeal comes as pressure mounts on the Indian Government to ban Bajrang Dal, one of India's Hindu extremist groups, for their alleged role in violence in Orissa and elsewhere.

The Government fears that such a move would provoke a backlash from other Hindu extremists and mobilise votes for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of national elections, due in May.

The accused groups deny any involvement in the Orissa violence, saying that it was a spontaneous reaction to the murder of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, a local Hindu nationalist leader, on August 23.

They blame Christians for the murder, although Maoist rebels have claimed responsibility and accuse Christian missionaries of bribing and coercing poor Hindus to convert.

However, victims in Orissa, church leaders and rights groups accuse Hindu extremists of executing the attacks to stir up their supporters ahead of next year's elections.

Father Thomas Chellan, the priest who was with Sister Meena when she was allegedly raped, told The Times that many of the mob were chanting Hindu slogans and were wearing the trademark saffron bandannas of the Hindu nationalist movement.

He said that they forced him to kneel on the ground and doused him in kerosene. One man brought out a box of matches and fumbled with it. “I thought, my God, now I will die.”

Another member of the mob interrupted and said that they should “burn him where others could see”, prompting the crowd to parade him and Sister Meena along the road.

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