//The Staines Verdict :EPW Editorial

The Staines Verdict :EPW Editorial

The Economic and Political Weekly, January 29, 2011

Why the deep prejudice against Christians availing of the freedom granted by Article 25 of the Constitution?

On 21 January, the Supreme Court (SC) upheld the life sentence of Dara Singh, the main accused in the burning to death of the Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons on the night of 22 January 1999 in Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district of Orissa. The SC commented on the intention of the crime thus: “…the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity”. However, days later, on
25 January, the Court expunged its own comments on conversions. Staines had been working with leprosy patients in Keonjhar for nearly 34 years. While the brutal killing evoked reactions of shock and horror, the Hindutva forces had a pat explanation: the murders were a result of the tribals’ anger against the “forcible” conversions made by Staines. What was not explained was why this anger against Staines had not manifested itself for three decades until Hindutva outfits began their virulent anti-Christian propaganda in the region and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power at the centre. Dara Singh’s conviction notwithstanding, the impression assiduously cultivated by the Sangh Parivar that his anti-Muslim and anti-Christian activities were not backed by any of its affiliates, stands. So does the view that “popular anger” against “forcible” conversions by Christian missionaries like Staines are responsible for attacks on the minority community. The Supreme Court’s statement quoted above has only added to this impression.

The violence against Christian tribals in the Dang district of Gujarat in 1998, which continued unhindered for more than a fortnight, was also blamed by Hindutva leaders on the people’s anger against “forcible” conversions. There too, following a pattern, the area had become the target of a sustained hate campaign and deliberate provocation against Christians with official help for quite some time before the attacks began.

In Orissa too, the anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal district in 2008, which led to 38 deaths and destruction of nearly 50,000 homes, were not a flash in the pan. The “ghar vaapsi” programmes (converting Christian tribals to Hinduism) conducted by the Sangh Parivar outfits along with the continuing anti-Christian propaganda had raised tension to straining point. Predictably, the district administration, under the then BJP-Biju Janata Dal state government, turned a blind eye to the danger signals. The Maoists claimed responsibility for Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati’s killing but the Vishwa Hindu Parishad targeted Christians and its leader Pravin Togadia took out a procession with the swami’s body through the sensitive areas unhindered by the district administration. Thousands of Christians had fled their homes, living in government relief camps for well over a year. Despite these now being closed, there are reports that the Christian tribals still live in fear and insecurity.

Starting from the 1980s, Hindutva forces, emboldened by the BJP’s rise to power, began floating outfits like the Hindu Jagran Manch (responsible for the Dang attacks) and the Bajrang Dal with which Dara Singh was linked. In 1999, a Roman Catholic priest, Arul Doss was killed by a mob at Jamabani in Mayurbhanj district, while a Muslim trader, Sheikh Rehman, was killed in the same district on 26 August. The D P Wadhwa Commission’s (set up by the BJP government) report did not take into account the wider context of the steady creation of an anti-minority atmosphere or even the official complicity. It blamed the Staines’ murders on Dara Singh alone and the people he managed to incite, discounting the involvement of any organisation in the murder despite the evidence presented to it.

The tribals have as much right as any other Indian citizen to avail of the freedom granted by Article 25 of the Constitution. That is, to propagate one’s religion and to practise the religion of one’s choice. There is no evidence on record that Staines indulged in “forcible” conversions, but the SC bench, with its comments on conversions, later expunged, showed its deep prejudice against Christians availing of the freedom granted by Article 25. The crime was the fruit of sustained and ongoing hate and false propaganda campaigns unleashed by affiliates of the Sangh Parivar and which continue to this day.