Usha Rani, her husband Shibu, their three children and aunt have been unable to return to their home in the coastal village of Adimalathura in Thiruvananthapuram, and have instead been living in a small hotel room near Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. The family was allegedly attacked multiple times by local people after the local parish priest announced a social boycott (ooruvilakku). They shifted to this hotel room after they were assaulted by a large mob armed with sticks and stones on February 2.
Pulling up her kurti, she shows the burn marks on her body, some of her injuries look fresh and have not yet dried. “The people who attacked us threw some kind of chemical on my body. It smelled like kerosene. I have severe burn injuries on my chest, stomach and underarms. I was not able to sleep, lie down or breastfeed my child. I cried all day and night in pain,” she says, bursting into tears.
The family was subjected to parish priest Melvin Souza’s wrath for questioning why government land was distributed to parishioners for Rs 1 lakh per family.
One-year-old Adam Christ is fidgety and obviously unhappy as his family has been cooped up in a small room in a lodge for the last nine days. Adam even spent his first birthday on February 7 locked up in the room. His elder sisters, two-year-old Aradhya and three-year-old Anugraha, their parents say, are unhappy that they can’t play at the beachside.
A few years ago, the Adimalathura Fathima Matha Church and the people of Adimalathura decided to appeal to the government to distribute poramboke land in their area to about 300 fisher families. Since members from various generations of a family were forced to live in the same huts in most cases, the community was urgently in need of more land, and the majority simply could not afford it.
“Almost all of us belonged to the below poverty line and were dependent on the government ration system even to survive,” says Shibu, who is an auto driver in Adimalathura.
Two years ago, when Melvin Souza joined the church, he told the families that they have to make a donation of Rs 1 lakh each. “When this priest came to our parish, he announced that if we stick together, we can acquire the land. He said that families that give the money will be given three cents each,” says Usha.
She alleges that the priest gave a receipt of Rs 1 lakh as donation to the church and distributed the land amongst people. “People started constructing their homes there. Three months ago, I told a member of the church committee not to construct on the land as it may cause huge losses to them, since they don’t have any title deeds,” Usha says. She alleges that the priest and the church committee decided to ostracise the family after this incident. Usha further alleges that over the past three months, the priest has announced the boycott many times in the church.
She also claims that the District Collector had visited the area asking people to stop constructing on government land but that the priest misguided the public. “The Collector met the priest and instructed him to stop encroaching the land. But the priest convinced the public that the DC came to give an assurance that everyone will get title deeds. People in my village are not well educated, so it is easy to manipulate them,” Usha alleges.
“The locals think that my opposition will make them lose their lands, this is why they attacked me upon the priest’s instigation. But they don’t realise that they cannot own the land without the title deeds,” she adds.
Last week, the police from Vizhinjam station were present when the family was attacked, but police officers too were assaulted by the mob.
“It was a huge crowd which gheraoed Usha Rani’s house last Sunday, attacking her with stones and sticks. It was mostly women in the forefront and it was difficult to rescue the family from there. Three of our police personnel also got injured in the attack while trying to save the family. We filed a case against the priest but it is not very easy to go and arrest him as it will lead to a big law and order issue,” Vizhinjam Sub Inspector Gopakumar says.
A case has been registered against the priest and a few other identifiable persons for rioting under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code including section 148 (rioting), 149 (unlawful assembly), 452 (trespass), 354 (assault on women), 353 (assault a public servant), 332 (obstructing and hurting public servant on duty).
Usha says the police have asked the family to keep away from the village for a few days. “I told the police that I would die in my village but will not shift from there. But many of the police personnel were injured and they requested us to be away for a few days. We have been here for nine days. My husband is not able to go to work, we have no money,” she says.