An outrage in Orissa

Print edition : January 30, 1999
VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

THE hate campaign waged against Christians by the proponents of Hindutva acquired a monstrous edge when an Australian Evangelist missionary and two of his children were burnt to death in Keonjhar district of Orissa on the night of January 22-23.

Graham Stewart Staines, 58, and his sons Philip, 9, and Timothy, 6, died when the jeep in which they were sleeping at Manoharpur village was set on fire allegedly by Bajrang Dal activists.

A day after the gruesome murders, which triggered a storm of condemnation in India and abroad, about 50 Bajrang Dal activists were arrested in connection with the crime.

Staines had been involved, as part of the Evangelical Missionaries Society which has its headquarters in nearby Mayurbhanj, in work among leprosy patients in the area since 1965. On January 22, he had gone along with Gilbert Venz, another Australian, and a college teacher to Manoharpur to attend a jungle camp organised by the local church.

Staines' wife Glade in Baripada on January 24.-MADU KUMAR / REUTERS

Preliminary investigations by the State police indicated that the gang was led by Dara Singh alias Mahindra Kumar Pal, a Bajrang Dal volunteer who hails from Etawah district in Uttar Pradesh. He has been campaigning for the past 10 years against Christian missionaries in the Keonjhar region, claiming that they are converting tribal people to Christianity.

According to some reports, the gang arrived at the church premises a little after midnight, chanting "Bajrang Dal zindabad". They set fire to the jeep in which Staines and his children slept, and stood around it. "The objective was to kill," a police officer told mediapersons. The gang drove away local residents who tried to intervene. Another jeep, which was empty, was also set ablaze.

THE gruesome murders led to an outpouring of shock and severe condemnation of the Sangh Parivar's hate campaign. President K.R. Narayanan, in a strongly worded statement, said that the "barbarous killing... belongs to the world's inventory of black deeds". It was a "monumental aberration from traditions of tolerance and humanity for which India is known," he added. Staines, the President noted, had "spent years caring for patients of leprosy" and should have been "thanked and appreciated as a role model". Instead, he had been done to death in a gruesome manner, the President said.

Opposition parties took the view that the BJP-led coalition Government had contributed to the climate of hate and violence by compromising with individuals and organisations that spewed communal hatred.

A statement from the Congress(I) said that the Orissa incident was a manifestation of the "sustained hate campaign launched by the Sangh Parivar". Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi sent senior party leader Madhavrao Scindia, who is in charge of Orissa affairs, to Manoharpur.

The Left parties noted that the killings in Manoharpur were a continuation of a series of attacks on Christians. The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that the Orissa incident was the direct outcome of a "systematic hate campaign" against Christians in tribal areas. It demanded a ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's "outfits working under different names in tribal areas". The party said that the Vajpayee Government could not "pretend" that the recent attacks on Christians in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa and other places were sporadic incidents. At least the killing of "two innocent children", it said, must make the Government realise the "enormous consqeuences" of the hate campaign against the Christian community.

Staines with daughter Esther and sons Philip (front row, left) and Timothy, in a file photograph.-REUTERS

The Communist Party of India said that some of the statements of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister had tended to rationalise the acts of vandalism by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal.

The BJP came in for criticism from some of its allies and supporting parties. The Telugu Desam Party, which supports the Vajpayee Government from the outside, said that with the Orissa incident the BJP had lost the "moral right to rule". The Trinamul Congress, an ally of the BJP, demanded that fundamentalist organisations be banned.

The killings drew criticism at the international level as well. The Australian High Commission registered its concern at the "growing troublesome trend" of violence against Christians and deputed a representative to Manoharpur to investigate the incident.

Leaders of the BJP and the usually combative Bajrang Dal, the so-called sword arm of the Sangh Parivar, sought to distance themselves from the incident. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani expressed regret and asserted that no effort would be spared to find the killers.

At the same time, however, leaders of the Sangh Parivar, including ideologue K.N. Govindacharya and Vinay Katiyar, who spearheaded the Bajrang Dal's communal campaign at the height of the Ayodhya controversy, claimed that the Congress(I) Government in Orissa was blaming the attack on the Bajrang Dal to cover up its "failings on the law and order front". In a telephonic interview to Frontline, Katiyar said that the State Government had tried to portray a recent incident in which two undertrials, both Christians, had been killed in an attack on a jail by a crowd of tribal people as the work of the Bajrang Dal. "The Bajrang Dal had no role in any of these gross acts," he asserted.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad claimed that neither it nor the Bajrang Dal had a unit in the Keonjhar area. Ashok Singhal, VHP working president, claimed that Dara Singh was not connected with the Bajrang Dal, and demanded an "impartial inquiry" into the incident.

Sangh Parivar activists in Orissa, who spoke to Frontline over the telephone, however, conceded that the killings may have been carried out by Bajrang Dal activists. An Orissa-based VHP leader told Frontline that some of the tribal communities in the Keonjhar region resented the activities of the missionaries, since there were allegations of large-scale proselytisation efforts. "It is quite possible that some of our activists got carried away," he said.

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