Suma Sebastian is a nun with a difference. For the 42-year-old human rights lawyer from Kerala, the idea of ‘service’ is not limited to acts of piety. Suma joined the Human Rights Law Network in 2009 after helping destitute people in different parts of the country over 17 years. “Law is my weapon with which I can become a voice of the poor. Most of them are migrants who came to Delhi for work and were accused of crimes and put in jail. Many are implicated in false cases and languish in jail for years while the real criminals walk free using their financial influence,” she said.
The BCom graduate has a diploma in community development from Stella Maris College in Chennai, and an LLB from Jamnagar in Gujarat. She has also studied theology for a year in Bangalore. Standing five-feet-two-inches tall, Suma hardly seems a saviour, but she has rescued prostitutes in Mumbai and HIV patients in Gujarat, besides forming 75 women’s selfhelp groups in Uttar Pradesh.
Suma was offered comfortable quarters while working with a Supreme Court lawyer in 2009 but chose to live in a rented room with two other nuns in a Ghaziabad slum to help in community development. Now she lives in a centre funded by her congregation near the slum that houses 50 physically handicapped children. She visits the poorest prisoners in Tihar to fight their cases and brings them small comforts as a ‘family member’.
While her legal work requires Suma to shuttle between district courts and the high court, she leaves no opportunity to help the poor. Last year, she stopped an illegal demolition drive in Sarita Vihar by standing in the path of bulldozers. “I was visiting one of my clients in the area when I saw 75 houses being evacuated for demolition,” she said. Suma ran to face the bulldozers, and demanded to see the legal order for the drive. As the demolition squad did not have an order, she filed a PIL in the high court.
In her family’s eyes, Suma has always been a miracle child — doctors had advised her mother to terminate the pregnancy due to complications — but she never considered joining an order till the age of 20. The feisty woman wanted to be a newscaster instead. She had auditioned for the position, and while waiting for the result attended a threeday workshop with the Sisters of the Destitute to observe how the congregation functioned.
“I was deeply impressed and the smiles of the poor touched my heart and filled a vacuum. I was a fashionable girl studying in one of the hippest co-ed colleges in Kerala. I cut my waist-length hair and let go of all worldly pleasures and dreams. I have never looked back since,” she said.
Suma had found the inspiration but her family was opposed to the idea of entering the church. “I met with opposition from all sides. My relatives wept, threatened, pleaded with me. I was locked up and gave up eating. Finally, a day before I was to take the vows, my father relented,” she said.
Since 1990, she has visited villages in Kerala, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi NCR; worked with Dalits, victims of trafficking, HIV patients and women and children. Despite an 18-hour schedule, Sister Suma never seems to tire.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Suma Sebastian was offered comfortable quarters while working with a Supreme Court lawyer in 2009 but chose to live in a rented room with two other nuns in a Ghaziabad slum to help in community development