A sit-in protest by Catholic nuns in Kerala’s Kochi city, demanding justice for a fellow nun who has accused a bishop of raping her, continues to draw support from all sections of society save one – politicians.

The protest, a first in the history of the Catholic Church in India, has been organised by the Save our Sisters Action Council, a collective of eight independent church organisations. It has been on since September 8. From a relatively small crowd, it has grown in strength with hundreds of activists, artistes, students, priests, nuns and members of the public joining in. On Wednesday, prominent personalities such as film actor Rima Kallingal, director Ashiq Abu, singer Shahabaz Aman, academic Sunil Elayidam and poet Kalpetta Narayanan turned up at the protest venue to offer their support.

Conspicuous by their absence are leaders of the two major political parties in the state – the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress. The Congress’ Ramesh Chennithala, who is the leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, was in Ernakulam district on Monday but did not visit the protesting nuns. His party colleagues PT Thomas and Bindu Krishna as well as veteran Left leader MM Lawrence did meet with the nuns but not as representatives of their parties. The Congress legislator from Ernakulam, Hibi Eden, has been another notable absence.

Father Augustine Vattoli, one of the leaders of the Save our Sisters Action Council, said politicians were giving the protest a miss for fear of losing Christian votes. Christians make up 18% of Kerala’s population and are an important vote bank for both the Congress and the ruling party.

“Major political parties have the wrong notion that priests have control over Christian votes,” Vattoli said. “So they never speak against the clergy. This is vote-bank politics.”

The nun, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation, has accused Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The congregation is based in Jalandhar and runs two convents in Kerala. The alleged abuse took place in one of the convents. Mulakkal has denied the charge and claimed his accuser is getting back at him for ordering an inquiry into a complaint that she was in a relationship with a married man. The protesting nuns say they have no hope of justice from both the Church and the police.

Film director Ashiq Abu at the protest venue in Kochi on Wednesday.

We are with the survivor: Government

Vattoli alleged that the Left Democratic Front government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had not arrested Mulakkal despite collecting evidence against him.

“The nun filed the complaint 77 days ago, but the government has failed to provide justice to the rape survivor,” he said. “I do not understand why the police are going slow with the investigation.”

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who holds the home portfolio and therefore controls police affairs, is undergoing medical treatment in the United States. His private secretary and party colleague MV Jayarajan rejected allegations that the police were going slow in the case. “There was no laxity on the part of the police,” he told Scroll.in. “The investigation is on the right track.”

Jayarajan said the alleged rape had happened four years ago and the police needed time to verify the charges. “The police team registered a case and started the investigation immediately after receiving the complaint,” he said. “They travelled to seven districts and to Jalandhar to collect evidence. They are in the final stages of the investigation.”

Minister EP Jayarajan, who chairs cabinet meetings in the chief minister’s absence, said the government was with the rape survivor. “The police are trying to arrest the accused bishop with clinching evidence and that is the reason for the dealy,” he told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram.

Kerala Students' Union activists protest against MLA PC George's comments blaming the rape survivor in Kochi on Wednesday.

Empty words?

If this were true, why are political leaders reluctant to be seen with the protestors, asked Shyju Antony, another leader of the Kochi protest. “Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala told media in Kochi on Monday that his party will not allow the probe against Mulakkal to be scuttled,” he pointed out. “We would have taken his statement at face value had he visited the nuns. But he conveniently gave it a miss.”

Antony said the nuns had the support of the public, which gave them “the courage to fight”. He added, “Political parties should take note of this.”

A close friend of the rape survivor told Scroll.in that the protesting nuns were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. “We never expected such huge support from the public,” she said. “This gives us the strength to continue our protest.”

Singer Shahabaz Aman speaks at the protest venue.

Hope and fear

Yet, as the nuns draw strength from the growing support, their relatives say they are living in fear and have even received threats.

The brother of the rape survivor said he was afraid to travel by road these days. “The nuns and I planned to travel to Thiruvananthapuram today [Wednesday] to participate in a protest,” he said. “But we dropped the plan for fear of safety.”

He added, “We are fighting powerful people and hence we are worried. We cannot take any chances at this point.”

The father of the survivor’s friend said his family had been living in fear ever since the police complaint was lodged. “My family has been receiving threats after the nun raised complaint against Mulakkal,” he said. “We can live peacefully only if he is put behind bars.”

All photographs by TA Ameerudheen