‘We forgive you’: How a Kerala nun’s family embraced her murderer
Sometime in March 2002, one of the murder convicts serving life imprisonment in Indore central prison got an unexpected visitor. Like the rest of the population of Madhya Pradesh (MP), the visitor, Swami Sadanand, a Carmelite Father working among prisoners in the state, was also aware of inmate Samandar Singh. The frail, short-statured Singh, with bulging eyes and a chevron moustache, had murdered a 41-year-old nun, Sister Rani Maria near Indore in 1995, by stabbing her more than 50 times.
Seven years had passed; Singh had befriended three inmates; begun practising yoga; but was getting fewer and fewer visitors, when he was summoned to meet the Father. He rushed to the jail superintendent and said, “I don’t know any Swami. Why does he want to see me?”
“It is regarding Sister Rani Maria. That man says he is her brother. There is no harm in seeing him,” said the superintendent.
It would take the Father two months and five meetings to convince Singh that Sister Rani Maria’s family had forgiven him and wanted to see him.
“I trust you Swami ji, but are you sure this is why they want to meet me? I am asking this because I have done nothing to earn their forgiveness,” Singh would keep asking.
“You have spent seven years here in prison. And you are repenting. You have suffered enough,” would be the Father’s response every time.
In 1992, Samandar Singh was a 28-year-old ordinary villager making a living by farming and doing odd jobs when Sister Rani, professed sister of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, got posted in Udainagar, about an hour’s drive from Indore. She was in the general vicinity of Singh’s village, Semlia Raimal.
Hailing from Pulluvazhy, a small hamlet near Kochi, Kerala’s commercial capital, she worked with the tribal and Dalit communities in Bijnor (Uttar Pradesh) and Satna (MP). Those stints helped her build a rapport with villagers in Udainagar, who depended a great deal on money lenders. She conducted camps informing them about government subsidies and loans and in the process, antagonised the money lenders.
In December 1994, there was a clash between the tribals and the people of Semlia Raimal. Jeevan Singh, a money lender close to Singh, was wounded. Sister Rani bailed the tribals out. “That was the trigger for what happened,” Singh told HT.
Roughly two months after that incident, at 8.15am on February 25, 1995, Sister Rani Maria boarded a bus from Udainagar to Indore. She intended to reach Bhopal to take a train to Kerala and visit her home town. Samandar, Jeevan and their accomplice Dharmendra were already in the bus. “Why have you come here from Kerala? Have you come to convert tribal people to Christianity? We won’t allow that,” Jeevan told Sister Rani. Around 20 km from Udainagar, the bus was passing by a jungle when Samandar asked the driver to stop. He got down, broke a coconut against a rock on the road side, got back in the bus and distributed it to passengers. He offered a piece to Sister Rani but then withdrew it. She asked him, “Why are you so overjoyed today?”
Drawing out a knife, he said, “Just for this,” and thrust it into her abdomen.
As the passengers cowered in terror or began running away, Singh dragged Sister Rani Maria out of the bus and stabbed her to death. There were 40 major injuries and 15 bruises on her body, as per the post-mortem report. “I panicked,” Singh recalled those moments, after which the three disappeared in the thick jungles of the Malwa region, to be caught after three days.
For more than four hours, Sister Rani Maria’s body lay on the road, unattended.
Selmy Paul was working as a nun in Bhopal when she received the news of the murder of her elder sister, Rani. The first thought that came to her mind was that she would never forgive her didi’s assassin.
Sister Selmy said that when she touched the corpse of her sister, she could recall her saying that she would work for the poor till her last breath. Sister Selmy was overwhelmed, thinking that her sister’s wish had been fulfilled. But she could not come to terms with the fact that her sister, who had worked for the poor all her life, had been brutally murdered and abandoned on the road to breathe her last. “I was sobbing and asking Jesus, why did you let my sister die in pain all alone?” recalled Sister Selmy. After a few minutes, she heard a voice. She felt as if Jesus was saying, “Me and Mother Mary were with Sister Rani at the time of her death. Is that not enough for you?”
Since that moment, Sister Selmy said, she began to believe that her sister’s death was God’s plan and Samandar Singh was merely an instrument. “That realisation gave me the power to pardon my sister’s assassin,” said Sister Selmy.
“But how would I convince my family to forgive the assassin and move on?” she wondered.
Two days later, Sister Selmy and her brother, Stephen, were travelling in a bus with Sister Rani’s mortal remains. Stephen said, “Rani is lucky. I heard her saying many times that she was ready to die for the poor.”
Three months after this, Sister Selmy’s mother visited Udainagar for the first time. They had to pass a stretch where they could have come across Jeevan and Dharmendra who were out on bail. Sister Selmy was apprehensive and asked her mother what if she saw them. Her mother said she would kiss their hands because they had the blood of her daughter on them.
“In hindsight, I believe that my sister forgave her assassin and that gave us the power to do the same,” said Sister Selmy. “And don’t forget that our religion encourage forgiving the enemy. We are conditioned like that.”
Though Father Sadanand was in touch with Singh, he had never met or interacted with Sister Selmy. In mid July 2002, he phoned her asking her if she was ready to meet Singh in prison on Raksha Bandhan. “Yes, but I don’t know if I will get access,” she said. The Father said that he would arrange the meeting.
August 21, 2002 is an unforgettable day for Sister Selmy. That evening, all seven passengers in the mini bus – six Sisters and Father Sadanand– remained silent all through the 45-minute journey from Pithampur town (MP) to Indore prison. “I was constantly praying to God to give me the strength to pardon Singh,” said Sister Selmy.
Watch: How Sister Rani Maria’s family forgave her killer and accepted him as one of their own
Singh was shivering when he stood before Sister Selmy with his hands folded. “Maaf karna. Bahut badi ghalti hui hai,” he said, weeping bitterly, looking away.
“We have forgiven you. Do not keep anything in your heart. Be good to everyone,” Sister Selmy told Singh, and tied a rakhi on his wrist. “It is hard to believe but from then on, I received the grace to feel that he was my own brother,” Sister Selmy said.
SAMANDAR, MY BROTHER
She met Singh again after six months. And again on the next Raksha Bandhan. This time, Singh gave her a hand written apology letter and requested her if she could help him in getting parole.
In the next three years, Singh would get parole twice.
Singh had spent nine years in prison when Sister Selmy began to believe that she should explore options for his early release, the way she would have done for her real brother. Sister Selmy and Father Sadanand moved the prison authorities for Singh’s probation.
In August 2006, after spending 11 years and six months in prison, Singh was released on probation.
The following year, he visited Sister Selmy’s family in Pulluvazhy. All through the meeting, Singh said, he could not believe that the family of the woman whom he murdered had forgiven him and embraced him as their third son. “I was thinking that it was beyond imagination, what they did for me. At the same time, I was happy to have got a new family,” said Singh.
Currently in Semlia Raimal village in Dewas, MP, Singh spends his time farming and grazing cattle. “I am doing things which I was doing earlier except for being in the bad company that influenced me,” he said.
He makes sure to visit Sister Rani Maria’s grave and memorial – the latter is constructed at the spot where she was murdered – on her death anniversary. How is it to pray at the grave of someone you killed? Sister Selmy once asked Singh. “The first time, I was trembling. Over the years, I got used to it. Now I pray for her soul’s peace and my peace of mind,” Singh said.
Singh is a changed man. He said the transformation started in the third year of his sentence. RD Shukla, then chief judicial magistrate of Indore High Court, visited the prison to inaugurate a yoga camp. Singh appealed before him for bail. “Shukla sir asked me if I understood the intensity of pain I had caused Sister Rani and her family. He left it at that.
That night, I beat myself with a stick. I was weeping in pain and repenting,” he said. “After a few years, my family and friends stopped visiting me. I realised that I had to suffer all alone for what I did. That was one big learning,” he said.
Singh said until Sister Rani Maria’s family pardoned him, his plan was to kill the two men who persuaded him to murder Sister Rani, and then commit suicide. “Those thoughts vanished once I was forgiven,” he said. “This is a different Samandar Singh standing before you.”
In March, the Vatican cleared Sister Rani Maria’s beatification – the penultimate stage in the four-phased canonisation process in the Catholic Church. The process of her canonisation began in 2003. After four years, she was declared a Servant of God.