The Staines case verdict

Published : Oct 24, 2003 00:00 IST

The trial court has convicted and sentenced Dara Singh and 12 others for the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his two minor sons. However, some of the observations of the court on the motive of the crime are disappointing.

in New Delhi

ON September 22, a designated court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) at Bhubaneswar sentenced Dara Singh to death and 12 others to life imprisonment for the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his two minor sons, Phillip (11) and Timothy (7), in Orissa's Keonjhar district on the night of January 22, 1999. District and Sessions Judge Mahendra Nath Patnaik, who awarded the sentence, had on September 15 held all but one of the 14 accused guilty of offences including criminal conspiracy, murder, unlawful assembly, rioting, arson, causing damage to property and mischief by setting fire. Anirudh Dandapat alias Andha Nayak was the only accused acquitted, for want of evidence. Dara Singh reportedly told his counsel Bana Mohanty that he did not want to challenge the judgment in the High Court.

Dara Singh and the other accused were charged with setting fire to the station wagon in which Staines and his two sons were sleeping at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar after attending a jungle camp, an annual gathering of Christians of the area to strengthen fellowship and for teaching. The killings led to a nation-wide uproar, with the needle of suspicion pointing to the involvement of the Bajrang Dal, a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) affiliate. Its campaign against Christian missionaries for the alleged conversion of tribal people in the region apparently influenced Dara Singh and the other accused.

The Centre appointed a Commission headed by Justice D.P. Wadhwa of the Supreme Court to inquire into the incident. The Wadhwa Commission, in its report submitted in June 1999, ruled out the involvement of any organisation in the killings, even though its counsel, Gopal Subramaniam, had cautioned it against giving a clean chit to any organisation suspected of involvement in the killings. He had said: "It appears even in order to rule out the involvement of any organisation, it is appropriate that a thorough investigation is undertaken by the CBI." The Commission's investigating team had also given a similar advice. But Justice Wadhwa rejected both.

Gopal Subramaniam had told the Commission: "Though evidence clearly indicates prima facie involvement of Dara Singh in the killing and also his association with various organisations like the Bajrang Dal and the RSS, whether any organisation is involved in the case can be brought out only after he is arrested and interrogated. We can't draw a conclusive inference. We can only draw tentative inference as far as involvement of any organisation is concerned."

The Commission, however, ruled out the involvement of the Bajrang Dal in the planning and execution of the crime as there was no evidence to suggest that any of the persons involved in the crime was a member of either the Bajrang Dal or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or any organisation, even though there was evidence to show that Dara Singh and his associates were active sympathisers of the two organisations. The Commission itself had acknowledged the fact that he was involved in the cow protection movement and had earlier targeted Muslim cattle traders.

The Commission had justified its non-examination of the role of the Bajrang Dal on the ground that it was not an illegal organisation, suggesting thereby that legal organisations cannot plan and execute such awful crimes. It simply accepted the testimony of the State coordinator of the Bajrang Dal, Pratap Chandra Sarangi, in which he denied any Bajrang Dal role in the killings, without cross-examining him. The Commission concluded that the motive for the crime was to express one's anger against the conversions of poor and illiterate tribal people to Christianity. But its finding that these conversions were not necessarily inspired by Staines caused doubts about the validity of this factor as the possible motive.

Moreover, the statistics produced by the Commission itself clearly showed that there was no extraordinary increase in the Christian population in Keonjhar district between 1991 and 1998 that could be attributed to conversions. The number of Christians in the district had increased by a mere 595 during these seven years, and it is reasonable to suggest that the increase could have been caused by a natural growth in the population, rather than by conversions.

The Commission's focus on conversions as the motive for the killings, therefore, led to misgivings whether it was digressing from the seriousness of the crime. The Commission also blamed the non-enforcement of the Freedom of Religion Act of Orissa, which prohibits conversion from one religion to another under certain conditions. The assumption was that Staines indulged in illegal conversions, and the failure to check this through the legal process led to his killing by Dara Singh. This is contrary to its own findings that the conversions at jungle camps were not caused by any threat or inducement. If Dara Singh and his accomplices were influenced by any anti-conversion propaganda elsewhere in the country, the Commission failed to examine this factor and its ramifications.

The CBI and the trial court, however, seem to have accepted this flawed premise to reach their conclusions about the guilt of the convicts. The CBI's case, as given in brief in the judgment, is this: "Graham Staines' missionary activities did lead to conversion of tribal people belonging to Ho and Santal tribes to Christianity. The tribals converted to Christianity distanced themselves from the non-Christian tribals and adopted anti-tribal customary practice of eating beef and ploughing land during Raja festival (when, according to the tribal custom, the land was to be kept fallow). They also played Christian audio cassettes in marriage functions to the chagrin of tribal people. Tension was brewing between Christian and non-Christian communities because of the spread of Christianity. Some of the non-Christian tribals of Manoharpur and nearby villages, seething at the behaviour of tribal converts in shunning tribal traditions, found a Messiah in Dara Singh. Dara Singh held Staines responsible for spread of Christianity and hatched a criminal conspiracy with them to physically liquidate Staines to arrest conversion."

The CBI, however, did not substantiate its claim that Staines' missionary activities led to the conversion of tribal people. Nor did it explain how Dara Singh held Staines responsible for the spread of Christianity in the region. The trial court seems to have uncritically accepted this claim as is clear from its judgment, which says: "The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, prohibits conversion from one religion to another by use of force or inducement or by fraudulent means. Even any such abatement of conversion has been made an offence. If these provisions of law are strictly followed, no one can have any grievance to contend that the gullible and innocent tribals are being converted."

The inference is inescapable that Dara Singh was motivated to kill Staines and his two sons because of this legitimate grievance. Even if this were true, should the trial court have alluded to this inference, without examining the facts regarding conversions in that area?

What pains the observer is the trial court's inadvertent attempt to equate Staines with Dara Singh, as two outsiders, who sought to influence the gullible and innocent tribals for their seemingly narrow ends. No distinction is apparently drawn between Staines, who faced insinuations that he violated the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, and against whom no allegations that he abetted conversions have been proved, and Dara Singh, who now stands convicted for gruesome killings. The trial court awarded the death sentence to Dara Singh, considering that it is one of the "rarest of rare cases", a test laid down by the Supreme Court for awarding the extreme punishment.

In arriving at a decision whether a case falls within the "rarest of rare" cases, the court has to take note of the aggravating as well as the mitigating circumstances and conclude whether there was something uncommon about the crime, which renders the sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for the death sentence. The court is also expected to consider whether the circumstances of the crime are such that there is no alternative but to impose the death sentence after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offender. The magistrate concluded that even after drawing a balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, the case falls within the "rarest of rare" cases. Therefore, the court ruled that Dara Singh deserved death and the other 12 accused, being gullible tribal people, deserved justice tempered with mercy. "The Manoharpur massacre speaks loudly that humanity is not yet fully civilised," said the judgment.

Irrespective of the merits of the death sentence even in the rarest of rare cases, the punishment meted out to Dara Singh - without the CBI probing his possible links with the Bajrang Dal and other organisations - involves the danger of burying forever the truth regarding the role of communal organisations in the gruesome killings.

The widow of Staines, Gladys Staines, said she had forgiven the killers of her husband and two children and had no bitterness for them. "Forgiveness brings healing and our land needs healing from hatred and violence. Forgiveness and the consequences of the crime should not be mixed up," she said in a carefully drawn reaction to the judgment, from her residence in Baripada town of Mayurbhanj district.

John Staines, elder brother of Graham Staines, said in Melbourne, Australia, that he did not want Dara Singh put to death, and demanded mercy for all the convicts. The Bajrang Dal has said that Dara Singh and other convicts could appeal against the order. But there has been no attempt to distance the Bajrang Dal from the misguided propaganda against conversion by missionaries, which seemingly influenced the accused.

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