MUMBAI, India – When Father Madan Singh was recently appointed the director of Jana Vikas, a grassroots organization based in the eastern Indian region of Kandhamal, the very first thing he did was to visit a young girl named “Jungle Rani,” whose mother gave birth to her in 2008 when tens of thousands of Christians took refuge in a forest during ferocious anti-Christian riots.
A project of the Indian Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, Jana Vikas works among the most marginalized communities of the country, including the Dalits, meaning the “untouchables” under the ancient caste system, and the Tribals, meaning members of India’s indigenous groups, with the aim of empowering them for economic and social progress.
Singh was appointed director of Jana Vikas Sept. 15 in Bhubaneshwar, and he shared the story of his visit to the girl whose story symbolizes the suffering that often faces the people he serves.
Rani was born in the forests of Kandhamal, where her heavily pregnant mother fled to escape murderous mobs during the worst anti-Christian riots of the early 21st century. The violence exploded in the summer of 2008, when militant nationalist Hindus attacked Christian targets, leaving more than 100 people dead, 6,500 houses burned and looted, and 350 churches, 45 health and education institutes destroyed.
Minakhee Digal, Rani’s mother, was one of the Christians caught up in the chaos, fleeing deep into a nearby forest to save her life and that of her unborn child. She says her pain and agony increased with every step, yet she had to be in the jungle in spite of heavy rain.
She delivered her first girl child in the jungle, despite having no spare clothes into which to change, and no way to clean herself up after the birth. She had no clothing for her new-born child, and no way to start a fire to warm herself and the infant.
Although her daughter’s actual name is Chinmayi Digal, everyone knows her as “Jungle Rani,” which literally means “Queen of the Forest,” because that’s where she was born.
After a day in the jungle, Digal fled to a nearby relief camp, where she again had to face both insecurity and crude facilities to take care of herself and her newborn child. The girl survived and is now studying at Oriya Medium School in her own village.
“I have talked with her parents, and next year I will be supporting her to study at Mount Carmel Convent, Balliguda, which is 15 kilometers away from her village,” Singh said.
“Her father is a day laborer, and her mother is a housewife. Now they have two more children. They are good practicing Christians,” he said.
Prior to his new role, Singh served as assistant director at Jana Vikas since July 2012, and he says that experience has prepared him to lead the center “in service of people.”
The Christian community in Kandhamal was hit by a first wave of religiously motivated violence during Christmastime in 2007, and a far more vicious cycle in August-October 2008. Observers say the legacy of those attacks has left a deep scar among the local population.