25 years later, long shadow of the Staines murders | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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25 years later, long shadow of the Staines murders

ByDebabrata Mohanty
Jan 24, 2024 05:38 AM IST

On the 25th anniversary of the killings, the Christian community in Manoharpur gathered for prayers and remembrance. Underlying fault lines still exist

Manoharpur/Baripada It is the morning of January 17. With his one-year-old son wrapped warmly in his arms, and a polythene bag with groceries in it dangling precariously from one hand, Hanat Murmu is in a hurry to get home. His wife is expecting him, and the child is too fragile to be outside in the unforgiving winter chill. He strides past a ramshackle asbestos-roofed building that is indistinguishable from the others around it, except for the cross on top. He hears a familiar voice calling out; a voice that carries authority. He pauses and looks at pastor Chaitanya Murmu, who reminds him to be present for a prayer meeting at the church in Manoharpur on January 22. Murmu, a 24-year-old Santhali tribal Christian, nods furiously. It is a prayer meeting that Murmu has attended all his life — as an infant, as a student, and now as a young father.

The Staines family (HT Archive) PREMIUM
The Staines family (HT Archive)

On January 20, 1999, 58-year-old Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons, Timothy (6) and Phillip (10) arrived in Manoharpur, deep in the middle of a dense sal forest, to conduct a jungle camp to spread the teachings of the Bible. He had worked in the area for 35 years; as a health worker and a preacher, but his catechism had already touched a nerve, angering those who believed he was at the forefront of forcing Keonjhar’s tribals to convert to Christianity. On the night of January 22, as Staines and his two sons slept in their station wagon next to the church, mobs entered the village chanting slogans of “Jai Bajrang Bali” and “Dara Singh Zindabad”, and burnt them alive.

The crime led to a huge furore, shook the core of the nation right from remote Odisha to the capital Delhi, and the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Fifty-one people were arrested in the months that followed, and in 2003, the leader of the mob, Dara Singh, a right wing zealot from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh who had nine previous cases against him that included attacking cattle-laden vehicles, was sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment by the Orissa high court in 2005. Overall, 14 people who were part of the mob were sentenced to punishments that ranged from death to 14 years in prison. Of these 14, 11 were acquitted by the Orissa HC in 2005. One other, Chenchu Hansda, the only minor, was acquitted in 2008. Dara Singh and Mahendra Hembram continue to serve their sentences in Keonjhar jail.

For the past 25 years, on every January 22, the 50-odd Christian families of Manoharpur collect and reminisce about “Saibo”, the name they would once fondly use for Staines. “We organise a prayer on the day and people from nearby villages collect and remember his work. Though I never saw him, our elders tell us stories of how he would always talk of God and peace,” Murmu said.

About 120km away, at the Graham Staines Memorial Hospital in Baripada, where he worked with leprosy patients after first arriving in India in 1965, there was another small gathering of people on January 22, next to the graveyard where he and his two sons are buried. Among them was Subhankar Ghosh, who was in Manoharpur on the night that changed everything. “Twenty-five years may have gone, but every January 22, I relive every moment of that horrible night,” he said.

Manoharpur and Baripada after 25 years

On Monday, outside that asbestos-roofed church in Manoharpur, a crowd of close to 500 people gathered in collective prayer and remembrance. One of them was Chenchu Hansda, now 38, a white gamcha wrapped around his neck, the lines on his face betraying a life of hardship and prison. In 1999, Hansdah was 13, from Kendudiha village of Keonjhar’s Anandpur block, and an alleged member of the mob led by Dara Singh that set the station wagon ablaze in flames of hate.

Three months later, Hansdah was arrested and then sentenced to 14 years in jail by a juvenile court. He spent nine years in juvenile homes in Angul and Berhampur town, but was acquitted in May 2008. He maintains he was “not involved”, “framed” and that the nine years in custody “ruined his life”. In 1999, he was a student in a local upper primary school. In 2008, when he was released, he had become a man accused of burning three people including two children alive, unable to study, unable to find work.

In 2021, he converted to Christianity.

“When I came home, my parents had become old and led a miserable life. I became a daily wage labourer and got married. In the years that followed, my parents and later my wife died. I almost went mad, and took to roaming the streets. Then, I met a pastor who advised me to commit to prayer and take refuge in Christianity,” Hansdah said.

In many ways, Hansdah’s conversion frames the politics of Manoharpur — a village which struggles to escape its violent past; where publicly, incidents of rancour are few and far between; but where, beneath the surface, the fault lines that led to the murder of Staines and his children still simmer.

Overall, the village has around 700 residents, all tribals, and of them 200 are Christians. In the past two-and-a-half decades development has come visiting: there is now a pucca road that connects the village to National Highway 53 that leads to Gujarat’s Hajira, and almost every home has an electricity connection. But most houses are still kutcha with tiled roofs, agriculture is still the primary occupation for four months in the year, and in the rest, most of the young leave to look for work.

Hanat Murmu, for instance, travels to Bhadrak to work as a mason. Renta Hembram, one of the 13 who was found guilty for the Staines murder and spent six years in jail before being acquitted by the Orissa HC in May 2005, now works as a daily wage labourer. “There has been very little development even after 25 years. Though a river passes by our village, there is no irrigation. We have to migrate out in search of work,” said Hembram.

Publicly at least, for most of these 25 years, communal conflagrations have been kept to a minimum. In 2021, there was trouble when the words “Jai Shri Ram” appeared on the rusting iron door of the church. A case was registered and a local tribal was arrested, the administration stepping in to bring calm. But there is tension.

“During Makar Sankranti or any other major festivals, the Christians never contribute, nor do they partake any of our food. They till the land during Raja Sankranti despite our objections. But we don’t usually say anything. Why create controversy when we have seen what happened 25 years ago and brought us shame? But we are unhappy over the divide,” said Rama Chandra Murmu, sarpanch of the Manoharpur gram panchayat.

Ojen Hansdah, another former convict in the Staines case is more direct. “We don’t fight. But we will never get along.”

In the Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home in Baripada, once managed by Staines and his wife Gladys, there is evidence of the support he has always generated. Parbati Baske, a 60 -year-old from Keonjhar was diagnosed with leprosy 40 years ago, and then deserted by her husband. “I lived like an outcaste before I met Saibo. He used to clean my ulcered feet without flinching. He will always have our support,” she said.

Balancing political equations

In the wake of the killings in January 1999, there was a wave of condemnation, with then President KR Narayanan calling the murders a “monumental aberration of time-tested tolerance and harmony”. There were allegations that Dara Singh was acting at the behest of the Bajrang Dal, but a judicial enquiry headed by Supreme Court justice DP Wadhwa was set up, and ruled out the organised involvement of right-wing groups.

In 2008, there was another wave of Hindu-Christian tension in central Odisha when 43 people were killed in Kandhamal after violence spread in the aftermath of the murder of VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by alleged Maoists. Chief minister Naveen Patnaik accused the BJP of using the situation for political gain and abetting the rioters, with over a hundred people arrested. Victims were paid compensation and rehabilitated; churches and homes were rebuilt. Two fast-track courts were set up, and in 2010, Manoj Pradhan, the then sitting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Ghumsar Udaigiri, was convicted. In 2009, Patnaik broke ranks with the BJP, exiting the National Democratic Alliance and calling them communal.

But while critics of the BJP allege that the party’s “hate against minorities” has augmented its rise to its position as principal opposition to the Biju Janata Dal in the state, party leaders say that their growth has been based on organic organisational growth. “In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won both Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj Lok Sabha constituencies not due to any polarisation, but due to [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee’s image and the good work done by Sangh in tribal areas for over a decade. People were repulsed by the killing, but no one in Odisha saw Dara Singh as an associate of Sangh Parivar. Before the incident, the Sangh had already taken roots in tribal areas of the state through Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams. The electoral fortunes were not swung overnight,” said KV Singh Deo, a senior BJP leader.

Political experts say that there has been a broad understanding that majoritarian politics has a ceiling in Odisha, which is overwhelmingly Hindu (over 93.5%), with the populations of Christians and Muslims at 2.77% and 2.17% respectively according to the 2011 census. “As the Muslim and Hindu population is very small in Odisha, right wing politics does not really have fertile ground, and is instead replaced by a syncretic Jagannath culture. But you could see this changing in the future,” said political expert Rabi Das.

Importantly, BJD leaders say, there has been a lid on communal tension in Odisha because of CM Patnaik and his “adroit political handling” of these delicate issues. For one, they say, he has continued an outreach to the minorities by moves such as a visit to the Vatican City in June 2022, and by emphasising a narrative that his is the most powerful regional force in the state and the only political outfit capable of resisting the advance of the BJP.

“At the same time, though he may have exited the NDA in 2009, he has maintained an amiable relationship with the BJP central leadership which often leans on him for support in Parliament. This keeps channels of communication open, and undercuts any attempts by the local BJP units to really capitalise on these underlying tensions. It is not as if he has vacated the Hindu space, and with his focus on Jagannath, he has turned the Hindu politics in the state distinctly regional,” a senior BJD leader, who did not want to be named, said.

It’s in this balancing act from both sides on which politics in the region rests 25 years after the Staines murders.

Back in Manoharpur, Hanat Murmu is recounting what he prayed for in church on January 22. He prayed for the soul of Graham Staines, hero to so many in his village. He prayed for his wife and young son. He prayed for irrigation to reach his village so that people didn’t have to leave for work. But, most importantly, he prayed for peace.

“I never saw what happened that night. But from what my elders have told me, Manoharpur should never see a night like that again.”

Where are they after 25 years

Gladys Staines and her daughter Esther- After the death of her husband and two sons in 1999, Gladys moved to Twonesville in Australia with her daughter Esther, who is now a doctor and mother of five kids. She keeps coming to Odisha and last visited in 2018. A trained nurse, she is now 72 years old and works for Leprosy Mission in Australia.

Dara Singh- Originally from Etawah, Dara Singh alias Rabindra Kumar Pal, was initially handed death punishment by a CBI court in 2003 for the Staines murder. His punishment was commuted to life sentence by the Orissa high court and later upheld by the Supreme Court. He is lodged in Keonjhar jail. He is also serving concurrent life sentence in two separate cases of murder of a Muslim trader and a Christian pastor of Mayurbhanj. He is now 61. Apart from him, his accomplice Mahendra Hembram is also lodged in the same jail in Staines murder case.

The tribals who were part of the mob- The dozen-odd tribals of Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj districts, who were part of the mob led by Dara Singh were initially found guilty of murder, have now been acquitted by the Orissa high court after serving 6-8 years in jail. All are back in their villages.

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