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activist nun

Sisiter Valsa, middle, in red dress, listens to Sister Sudha Varghese, in blue, at the Prerna Residential School for Girls in Patna, India.Candace Feit FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Sister Valsa John wanted to go home. Living in self-imposed exile hundreds of kilometres away, she pined for the hut in an aboriginal village where she had built a life. She talked about the people she loved there, and the quiet of the nights. Then she added, in a voice both wistful and matter-of-fact: "If I go home, most probably they will kill me."

They did kill her. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, a mob of 25 or 30 men carrying spears, clubs and axes burst into her house in Pachuwara, a remote village in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. They beat and hacked her to death, a week after she went home.

The "they" Sister Valsa feared were "goons" hired by the mining companies she had helped the community of Pachuwara fight. The "coal mafia" told her on more than one occasion to get out of Pachuwara or they would kill her. She had repeatedly appealed to police for protection after threats on her life.

Sister Valsa, 52, was from Kerala in south India, and 24 years ago took her vows as a member of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. She was one of the remarkable breed of Indian religious figures who are grassroots social activists, who immerse themselves in the most marginalized and impoverished communities and work on literacy, basic health care and human rights. Sister Valsa said she did Jesus's work by teaching the aboriginal people – known in India as adivasi or "tribals" – about their rights to their land.

The Santhal community with whom she lived for nearly two decades were pushed off their land seven years ago by a private coal company. It was a familiar story here. Across the tribal heartland of India there are hundreds of these battles being waged, between communities with little education and even fewer resources, and huge mining and industrial corporations whose investments are eagerly sought by India's state and central governments for the jobs they create, the taxes they pay – and the opportunities for graft they offer.

Sister Valsa helped organize the Santhal to demand compensation for their land; she was arrested at a protest in 2007. The company, Panem Coal Ltd., was eventually forced into a compensation agreement, and began to dig an open-cast coal mine, but didn't meet all the terms of the deal. So when it moved to expand on to new Santhal land this year, Sister Valsa and her Santhal supporters dug in to stop them – and that is when the threats turned really ugly.

This past summer, Sister Valsa reluctantly left Pachuwara and took refuge with a friend, a fellow activist nun, at a school for low-caste girls in Bihar where I have been spending time on a project for the Globe. She fit easily into life there, gently shepherding the girls through their day, but she spent hours talking to me about "my people" and the war for land and resources going on in the tribal belt.

A few of these stories have attracted considerable attention, in India and beyond its borders, such as efforts by Vedanta Resources to build a bauxite mine on a mountain considered a god by the Dongri tribal people in the state of Orissa. But most of these fights go on, as Sister Valsa's did, almost entirely unremarked.

After taking her vows, Sister Valsa first worked as a teacher, before deciding she needed to be "closer to people," she moved to the village in 1995. Pachuwara rarely has electricity, and is hours of travel by bullock cart from the nearest town with a train station. Sister Valsa settled in, endured regular bouts of malaria that left her deaf in one ear, and learned fluent Santhali. At first, her focus was education and hygiene, but when the coal companies showed up, she began to work with a local NGO on organizing non-violent resistance. Sister Valsa wanted the Santhali to receive a share of profits from the mine; this sort of arrangement is nearly unheard of in India.

"She really made a place for herself with the people, and the company could not go ahead with a new mine while she was there – she was really a problem for the company," her close friend Sister Sudha Varghese said.

India's state and central governments have largely refused to recognize land rights or resource ownership of aboriginal people, who mostly live on forest land that is not formally titled and thus by default considered state land. The Panem coal project supplies high-grade coal to two government-owned thermal-electricity projects; India has a severe electricity deficit in its efforts to feed a booming economy.

Inspector R. K. Mallick, the senior police official in the region, told The Globe and Mail it was too soon to discuss the investigation, but that police would soon have "the clear picture." No arrests had yet been made. He would not entertain the question of whether police could have done more to protect Sister Valsa while she was alive. Three years ago, she filed a formal notice with police about the death threats.

Sister Sudha, who attended the funeral Thursday, said most who knew Sister Valsa believe it was people from the Santhal community, in the pay of the mining company, who killed her. "This is what the companies do: they divide people. When people are this poor, when someone gives them a little money, they can do anything," she said. "Valsa knew it, and so many times we asked her to leave. But she said, 'These are my people and I cannot leave them.' "