A nun active in fighting for the rights of villagers threatened by coal miners was hacked to death with an axe by unknown assailants in Jharkhand, sparking calls on Thursday for an urgent investigation.

Valsha John, 52, was beaten and then chopped with an axe on Wednesday in the mineral rich state where she had led a campaign for five years against alleged exploitation of villagers by private coal miners.

This kind of brutal killing needs to be urgently investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch. But the government must also take into account the repeated attacks on civil society activists, including those who are highlighting incidents of corruption, she added.

No arrests have been made but police investigating the murder said John had previously complained she was facing death threats, linking the crime to India's all powerful mining mafias, newspaper reports said.

Displacing villagers to meet growing demand for coal and iron ore from states like Jharkhand has sparked a backlash across a swathe of eastern India, leading the government to propose sharing mine profits with the communities, though activists say that illegal private mining continues unabated.

Activists fighting for transparency in the mining areas are particularly at risk. India has taken other measures to expose official corruption, including a Right-to-Information (RTI) law passed in 2005. But according to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, at least 12 RTI activists have been murdered since January 2010 for seeking information deemed to be in the public interest, a growing concern for the country's human rights commission.

The recent murder of this activist is of course concerning, We expect that lawful action will be taken by the relevant public authority, said J.K. Srivastav, public relations officer at the National Human Rights Commission. If they do not, then we may have to issue a notice voicing our concerns, he added.