Catholic nun serves villagers in Jammu and Kashmir

By Umar Manzoor Shah

Sister Thankama had no idea of life in India’s violence-ridden Jammu and Kashmir state before she moved there eight years ago. She now knows the risk of living in a conflict zone all too well, but loves her work with the church-run St. Joseph Community Hospital.

A native of the southern Indian state Kerala, the 41-year-old nun from the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary congregation, moved to the area on the India-Pakistan border after working in villages in other northern Indian states including Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.

Sister Thankama, who uses only one name, was surprised about the lack of awareness among the local people about several diseases. She discovered the inhabitants living close to the border areas failed to take women’s health and child birth seriously.

The nun has been working in the border districts of Smailpur, Mandal, Nowshera and Nagrota where she said people don’t receive much-needed government attention in terms of medical assistance. Like in other areas in this border region, dreadful diseases like tuberculosis (TB) and pregnancy-related maladies take their toll.

“In the early days, I was surprised that people suffering from TB weren’t aware of the important timing for taking their medicines,” she told while attending to patients in a hospital run by the Jammu and Srinagar diocesan Catholic Social Service that covers the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. Meanwhile, “pregnant women were taking their pregnancies so casually that miscarriages became the order of the day.”

Over the past eight years, the nun and dedicated health practitioners visited villages in the border districts to provide medical assistance.

“Our foremost priority has been to make people aware of various diseases and the children’s immunization needs. We have been successful in this endeavor as more and more people are responding to our calls now,” said Sister Thankama.

Doctor Showkat Ali, the state’s TB specialist, told that TB is often found in people living in rural areas. Ali said the number of TB cases examined in the state in the past five years is more than 300,000.

Sister Thankama holding a weekly awareness camp for women at a health center in the Border district of Samba. The nun says villagers are reluctant to take modern medicine due to a lack of awareness of their effectiveness. (Photo by Umar Manzoor Shah)

State of fear

Due to occasional military skirmishes between India and Pakistan, the villagers, mostly Muslims, live in a constant state of fear. The militarized border they are a part of stretches some 3,300 kilometers across the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea.

Working in the area “means tackling the dangers associated with shelling and firing. I have seen people maimed and killed due to shelling. The politics has ruined the region. Most often people flee, leaving behind their homes and cattle, to look for safe places,” said Sister Thankama.

Government records for the past two years show 26 civilians have been killed and 158 injured in shelling along the border in Jammu and Kashmir. During this period, 216 homes were destroyed in the state border areas.

“The government doctors are reluctant to attend duties every day and people with serious medical complications have to travel for hundreds of miles to the city hospitals. Sometimes they die on the way,” the nun said.

“This is the right time to help these less fortunate people. If they are left in the lurch, we have no right to call ourselves humans. I will continue my efforts and keep praying to God to keep me strong for these war-afflicted people,” she said.

Sister Thankama started a “community-based, health-care system,” which was missing in these areas with the help of the church-run local hospitals. They arrange for nurses to visit people in their homes to offer medical support and educate them on simple health practises.

The St. Joseph Hospital, located in the border district Samba where Sister Thankama works, advances the concept of community-based health care by taking the service to the community, rather than waiting for patients to come to them.

Father Saiju Chacko, director of Jammu and Srinagar Diocese’s social-service wing, told that the community’s illiteracy and economic vulnerability results in children not being immunized and mothers experiencing high-risk pregnancies. “This is the reason that we hold health-awareness campaigns, medical camps, school-health programs and upskill health volunteers at the community level in these often neglected areas,” Father Chacko said.

However, for Sister Thankama, there is much work to be done. “There are 50,000 cases of TB found in the state every year and most of these occur in the rural areas. There is still a tradition of home births with 80 percent of such cases in border areas.”

“People in the villages are still reluctant to get modern medical treatment. We have to put in a lot of extra effort,” she said.

The nun said working for the poor became her dream occupation as she “used to spend lot of time with nuns” in the convents near her home in Kerala. Armed with a basic degree in medical nursing she joined the convent at the age of 23.

Despite tackling many challenging situations, Sister Thankama says she is fulfilling her “dream” of being with the people.


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