| Father Sukumar Mondal, who was injured in the attack, outside the church. Picture by Amit Datta
Maliapota (Nadia), Dec. 25: A bunch of border bandits burst in with blazing guns, exploding bombs and murderous cries on a midnight mass in a village church and robbed the worshippers of cash and jewellery.
In an operation inside a place of worship unseen in Bengal in recent times, the 40-strong gang fired in the air and terrorised about 1,200 people — hitting them with the butts of firearms and sharp weapons — gathered for the traditional Christmas service in the Catholic church in this remote border village.
They snatched jewellery and wristwatches, and beat the devotees whenever anyone tried to resist. Four priests, who had just started conducting the mass, were among the injured.
The robbers — very likely from Bangladesh, around 5 km from the church — escaped with Rs 30 lakh of loot, according to estimates by church members.
Police arrived around 1 am, when the 30-bigha church premises was shrouded in dense fog. The police fired in the air when the retreating robbers burst bombs.
Nadia district magistrate Krishna Gupta said: “The visibility was almost zero. The police could not do anything more in the circumstances.”
Later, three men were arrested and eight others detained near Tehatta. According to the police, those arrested were among the culprits.
While witnesses inside the church said the gang was about 40-strong, Father T.J. Abraham, the church chief, said in an FIR lodged with Tehatta police that there were about 20 robbers.
The gang entered the church in the middle of Father Abraham’s sermon at 12.10 am. In what appeared to be a well-planned operation, two of the robbers went straight to the pulpit and put their guns to the priest’s head.
They held three other priests, Newton Murmu, Sukumar Mondal and Robin Mondal, at gunpoint, too. Some of the robbers dragged the four priests to the adjacent building, which houses their living quarters and the church office, witnesses said.
Then they cleaned out the almirahs, where cash donations as well as money and jewellery of villagers were kept in safe custody.
All the while, the priests were hit repeatedly. By the end of it, they were covered in blood.
The other goons hit the people in the congregation and stripped them of their valuables. Women and children, too, were not spared the beating inside the Gothic-pillared interiors with stained-glass work.
“The terror went on for nearly an hour before the robbers began leaving the church in small groups. The church is around 5 km from the Bangladesh border,” said Sister Swapna Mondal, a nun in the congregation.
“At first, I thought they were drunk. They surrounded the four priests and forced them out to the adjacent building where they broke open cash boxes and almirahs. One of them even broke the Father’s personal computer,” Sister Swapna said.
After the attack’s first phase, the Sister managed to ring up Tehatta police station. It was after 1 am when three policemen arrived. “At first, the men on duty at the police station said they could not come because there was no vehicle,” she said.
Angered by the policemen’s apparent inaction, some youths snatched their rifles and went after the robbers. By then, the gang had escaped into the darkness.
Villagers said their entire life’s savings were kept in the church. “The villagers here would rather keep their valuables in the church than in banks that are some distance away. They have been doing this for quite some time,” Bisu Mondal, a carpenter, said.
Additional superintendent of police Pallab Ghosh arrived at the spot with about 50 armed men from Krishnagore before daybreak at 4 am. The victims surrounded them. Ghosh and his team were detained for about 90 minutes.
Villagers said the church had not only lost all its money, but their savings, running into lakhs, too. Asked why so much money and valuables were kept in the church, Gupta said: “That is not the subject of the investigation right now. I have asked the police superintendent to see to it that the valuables are recovered.”
“We have identified the gang and raids are on to get to the gang leaders. We are hoping for a breakthrough shortly,” said D.P. Tarenia, deputy inspector-general of police, Murshidabad Range.