Manoharpur is a small village in Keonjhar district in Odisha.
In the intervening night of 22 January and 23 January 1999, Manoharpur hit newspaper headlines when Graham Staines, a 58-year-old Australian Christian missionary, was burnt to death along with his two sons – 10-year-old Phillips and 7-year-old Timothy. Staines and his sons were sleeping in their station wagon in front of a church in the village, when the car was attacked by a mob.
The mob was led by Dara Singh, a local leader with alleged links to Bajrang Dal. It was a landmark moment in India, revealing fissures in its secular history and uncovering a narrative of ugly violence against Christians in India.
Graham Staines was a Christian missionary who worked with leprosy patients in Mayurbhanj district in Odisha for nearly 30 years. He had come to India from Australia in 1965 and had never left the country. The family had opened a leprosy home in Baripada and his work among adivasis and lepers was well-known. News of his death caused distraught to those who knew him in Baripada, according to India Today.
“It’s as if we all have had a personal bereavement,” said District Collector R Balakrishnan. For the past 35 years, dressed in casuals, sporting his trademark hat and wheeling his rickety bicycle, Saibo – as he was popularly called – was a fixture in Baripada where he did “God’s work”, tending and nursing leprosy patients in a specially-run home on the town’s outskirts.
Why Was He Murdered?
On the night of the murders, Staines had gone to Manoharpur village for a festival. Dara Singh claimed that Staines was involved in forced conversions of adivasis. On the night of 22 January 1999, Singh got some followers together and went to Manoharpur village. Angered by Singh, the mob poured petrol on their car and set it on fire. Reportedly, Staines and his sons tried to escape, but was prevented doing so by the mob.
KR Narayan, the then-President, condemned the incident in harshest of words. He said Staines’ murder was
A monumental aberration of time-tested tolerance and harmony. The killings belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds.
LK Advani, the then home minister despatched a three-member cabinet team to Manoharpur and announced a judicial inquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge DP Wadhwa. The case was handed to the CBI for investigation.
However, in the aftermath of the incident, Gladys Staines, wife of Graham Staines, had repeatedly stated that her husband was not involved in forced conversion of adivasis and lepers.
Why Was Staines’ Murder Significant?
Attacks on Christians in India
Graham Staines’ murder was significant as it came on the heels of a list of violent crimes against Christians. Reportedly on 24 February 1999, the then-home minister LK Advani stated that there were 116 communal-based crimes against Christians in 1998. Churches were also destroyed in the Dangs in Gujarat in 1998. So, Staines’ murder brought violence against Christians in a sharp relief, causing widespread outrage in India.
Even now, when incidents of attacks on Christians rise and periodically made headlines, Staines’ murder is referenced with respect to its brutality and the anger it generated.
Passing of Juvenile Justice Bill 2000
Another implication of the Staines’ murder was the passing of the Juvenile Justice Bill 2000. The law was debated and passed after 13-year-old Chenchu Hansda, an accused in the Graham Staines’ murder, was sentenced to life term. He was the first to be arrested for the crime and was seen by witnesses at the spot of the crime. When the Odisha High Court acquitted 11 accused in the case, a fresh appeal was made against Hansda’s sentence, reports Scroll.in.
What Did the Wadhwa Commission Find?
The Wadhwa Commission, led by Justice DP Wadhwa, was constituted with two objectives. One was to investigate the facts and the circumstances of Staines’ and his sons’ murders. Two, to determine the role, if any, played by authority, organisation or individual in connection with the murder.
The Commission held Dara Singh to be guilty of Graham Staines’ murder, but dismissed allegations that he was affiliated to the Bajrang Dal. This was a controversial decision as it has been written in the aftermath of the Commission’s report that there was plenty of evidence linking Singh to Bajrang Dal.
Dara Singh was a known criminal in the district, with reportedly nine police cases registered against him at the time of Staines’ murder.
After the Wadhwa Commission report, the National Minorities Commission inquired into the Staines’ murders and highlighted Dara Singh’s linkage with Bajrang Dal.
What Punishment Was Given to Dara Singh?
In 2003, a trail court in Khurda convicted all 13 accused. Dara Singh was awarded death sentence, while others were given life imprisonment.
In May 2005, the Orissa High Court commuted to life imprisonment the death penalty imposed by the sessions court on Dara Singh on the grounds that it couldn’t be considered as the ‘rarest of rare’ case.
Dara Singh then appealed against his life sentence in the Supreme Court, but his appeal was dismissed and the SC Bench confirmed the High Court judgement in 2011.
Where is Gladys Staines and Her Family?
Gladys Staines continued to stay in Odisha with her daughter Esther. In 2003, she told the media that she has forgiven the killers of her husband and two sons. According to a report in The Hindu, she said:
I have forgiven the killers and have no bitterness because forgiveness brings healing and our land needs healing from hatred and violence.
In 2005, she was awarded the Padma Shri by the President of India for her work with people suffering from leprosy.
Courtesy The Quint
Graham Staines funeral was the first funeral I had attended.
I was a child back then, barely 7 years of age.
Terrified out of my mind.
Looking at the 3 coffins. A black, two smaller white ones.
My eyes remained on those two smaller ones.
They were around my age. 8. 10.
The official date of their death anniversary falls on 23rd January.
I want to talk about the community and myself today.
Tomorrow the day is reserved for the Staines. Their family. Their loss.
There are deaths which are mourned by the entire community.
Which send ripples of fear and intimidation,
Builds a sense of solidarity in the face of violence and the anticipation of next threat.
Of course there’d been attacks, Churches burned down, thrashings, vandalism.
But++ But the gruesome murder of Staines and his two little sons kind of made us aware of the anti-Christian persecution and the extent to which these terrorists would go to satisfy their blood lust
The Staines had tried to escape the burning Jeep.
They were pushed back into it
50 Sangh members surrounded the jeep.
They had come armed with axes, hammers & other sorts of weapons.
Curiously, they had also come prepared with drums and musical instruments.When they set the jeep on fire,
they started playing the drums and the other instruments loud enough to drown out the desperate pleas for help emitting from the vehicle.
They played the drums and watched the burning jeep until the last of their victims’ flesh turned to ash.There’s a grotesque picture of Staines’ blackened sketelon, covered with ash.
Charred beyond recognition.
It was published across all local newspapers back in 1999.
I don’t know whether the reason was to highlight the extent of brutality or to establish fear among us.It did both, successfully.
The funeral area was crowded beyond its capacity.
Ministers, officers, police wagons thronged the boundaries.
All queuing up to offer empty words of sympathy to the Mrs Staines and her daughter.
Elections were due the next year of course.Can you imagine how unbearable it could be to wait patiently for the three coffins to arrive,
The sorrow of losing the two sons and husband,
While being polite to the throng of politicians and officers and police teams who held the investigation process under their control?And then at the other end, were us.
Huddled into a group.
Shaking their heads, talking in hushed tones,
observing Mrs Staines and Esther (her daughter),
waiting for the coffins to arrive.
That feeling fear among us though, was overwhelming.
Written by Radical Christian missionary