The Week Magazine
Feb 7, 1999
THE PRODIGAL SON AND
A FORGIVING MOTHER

Missionary killings:
Rabindra Pal stopped his studies
and left home in UP to make a lot of money. But he
ended up in the tribal belt of Orissa with a rage that
has consumed missionary Graham Staines and his sons
.
Ajay Uprety/Kakor Bujurag, Lalit Pattajoshi/Baripada,
Debashish Mukerji/Delhi and E. Vijayalakshmi/Chennai

I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
Psalm 73:21

Dara SinghHis vacuous eyes flash no sinister intent. The demeanour is devoid of any hint of hate. Rabindra Kumar Pal is one of those millions of Indians you would probably ignore as you would a zephyr on a hectic morning. But unknown to those who crossed his path, the 34-year-old from Kakor Bujurag village in UP's Auriya district was silently stoking a rage within. When it erupted on the night of January 22 in the remote Manoharpur village of Orissa, the viciousness not only consumed missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons, it seared the conscience of the nation.

Killer crusader: An artist's sketch of prime accused Rabindra alias Dara Singh

Hindu zealot? Hired goon? Madman? What kind of a man could share Mahatma Gandhi's birthday and perpetrate an act which President K.R. Narayanan says belongs to the "world's inventory of black deeds? Rabindra's 75-year-old mother Ramrati has no clue. Her eyes clouded by anguish and shame, she wonders how her son has become India's most wanted man. "He never even killed an insect knowingly, she whispers at her house in Kakor Bujurag.

The Staines familyRabindra left the village years ago but residents recollect a disturbed childhood. The abject poverty of his parents had scarred the young man's mind. "I want to earn money rather than study further, he told his parents after dropping out of college.

Murder at midnight: Gladys Staines (right) has forgiven the killers of her husband, Graham (in pic). Also seen are daughter Esther and sons Timothy (6) and Philip (10). Staines giving alms to leprosy patients (below left).

One day, Rabindra, the eldest of labourer Milli Pal's six children, left home without telling anybody. He worked in a shoe factory in Delhi for a while before boarding the train to Orissa, says Rakesh Sharma, who teaches at the Kakor Inter College where Rabindra studied. "Once he left home he stopped visiting us. We were in the dark about his activities, says Milli Pal.

Villagers say he did not have a reputation of a hooligan; nor was he a member of the Bajrang Dal or the VHP. It was in Orissa that Rabindra quickly made his name: over the years he gathered nearly a dozen cases. Last February a case was filed against him at the Keonjhar police station for attempted murder; another murder case was filed at the Malida station in September. In the last three years Rabindra, now called Dara Singh by his supporters in the tribal belt, graduated to a die-hard crusader for his religion. He travelled to remote villages warning residents about the dangerous designs of the Christian missionaries. And he began flaunting his connections with the Bajrang Dal. During the last Lok Sabha polls his services were allegedly utilised by the local BJP leaders for canvassing among the tribals. Much of his time and energy, however, were devoted to counter the Christian missionaries

Staines giving alms to leprosy patientsA report with the Union home ministry indicates that the cases against Rabindra largely involved intimidation and criminal acts against members of the minority community. The simmering rage in Rabindra's heart reached flashpoint on January 20, when he learnt that some 30 tribals had converted to Christianity. Rabindra and a band of die-hards gathered at Tulsi Bani village to chalk out their plan. Then they proceeded towards Manoharpur to teach a lesson to Graham Staines.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.
Psalm 18: 2

Few can miss the poster that hangs on the wall of the Staines home in Baripada. After the mob attack the words on it have taken a deeper meaning for Gladys Staines. She has lost her husband and two sons, but she hasn't lost her faith in God. "He gives and takes," says the 49-year-old Australian who married Staines in 1983. Now she has only daughter Esther, 13, for support and consolation. Besides the Lord, her rock and fortress.

There are thousands in Baripada and beyond who wonder why Staines was killed. "He was a quiet, serious person, " says Siddhartha Sahu, a World Vision employee in Chennai. "In his 35 years of work in India, he must have enabled thousands to come out of poverty and illiteracy."

Before Staines set out for Manoharpur a few friends had gathered at his house in Baripada. Among them was Shantanu Satpathy, whom he had known since 1956. Both were born on the same day, January 18, and Gladys suggested that "we have some cake to celebrate the birthday jointly, recalls Satpathy. Shubhankar Ghosh, Reader in botany at Cuttack's Revenshaw College, was also present at the birthday celebration. "No one anticipated that it would be followed by one friend attending the funeral of another five days later," he says.

Staines used to attend the camp at Manoharpur every year. This time a 11-member group including sons Philip, 10, and Timothy, 6, had left for the hill district of Keonjhar for religious discourses that would last three days. While Staines and his sons slept in the vehicle, Ghosh and Gilbert Venz, a cousin of Staines, slept in the home of a villager.
According to Ghosh, they were woken up around midnight by screams and saw wild fire enveloping the jeeps. Around 1.30 a.m., somebody blew a whistle and the attackers fled the scene shouting jai Bajrang bali and jai Dara Singh. Though the villagers tried to extinguish the fire, everything had been reduced to ashes. "Somebody telephoned me at 4:30 in the morning to inform the jeep had been burnt, Gladys told The Week. "I did not know that my husband had been burnt too. She learnt the truth at 9 a.m."

Staines and son Timothy gift a dress to a tribal boyFriends in need: Staines and son Timothy gift a dress to a tribal boy

The Australian missionary came to Mayurbhanj in 1965 and took full charge of the leprosy home set up 100 years ago with the patronage of then ruler. It has a capacity for 100 inpatients; besides treating patients the home trains them in different vocations. Says Bhaduram Tudu, 35, who has been undergoing treatment for the last two years: "We called him dada (elder brother). I have never seen a man like him."

Gladys would agree. "No one can do the work he did, she says. But the trained nurse hopes to continue the work for the poor, especially at the leprosy home. She's clear where she wants to be. "I would like to stay in India. It is my land. "

Her sons, too, had a similar bonding with this country. "Philip identified himself totally with Indian culture, recalls Stanley Thomas, a teacher at the Hebron School in Ooty where the boy was a boarder. "Among the many things, he loved to wear the kurta pyjama, especially to church on Sundays."


The Bajrang Dal was not involved in the incident, but Staines was virtually asking for it. He had been engaged in proselytizing activities in the area for the past 18 years, which had infuriated the local population.

The Bajrang Dal had nothing to do with the killings. Staines was a dedicated social worker, whose motives were entirely honorable and actions wholly above board. His barbaric murder is a conspiracy to discredit and bring down the Vajpayee government.

The first is the view of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad shared by the RSS and many in the BJP as well. The second is the finding of the three-member ministerial team led by George Fernandes, formed at the behest of Prime Minister Vajpayee to investigate Staines' killing.

The killings at Manoharpur have thus turned into yet another point of conflict between Vajpayee and his supporters on the one hand, and the Sangh parivar, specially the VHP, on the other. Both agree on the Bajrang Dal's innocence and the likely involvement of Congressmen, given that Dara Singh was allegedly protected by a minister in the J.B. Patnaik government.

Yet even BJP spokesman J.P. Mathur asserted: "It is well known Staines was involved in conversions. He had recently converted 31 people to Christianity. VHP senior vice-president Giriraj Kishore was much stronger and more expansive. "There was not a single Christian in that area till 1980. Today more than 20 per cent of the families in the cluster of villages around Manoharpur are Christians. There has been social tension since 1981 as the local tribals did not like his proselytizing efforts. "

In stark contrast, George Fernandes insisted that there was no enmity between the Hindu and Christian tribals in Manoharpur, because not a single conversion had been carried out by coercion. "Staines had no background of conversions," insisted Fernandes. "In any case he spent only four days in a year at Manoharpur when he held the annual jungle mela."

Kishore maintained that the Leprosy Mission Staines had set up was a sham, since there were no leprosy cases in Baripada! He also alleged that on the fateful night, Staines, having seen the mob coming, whipped out a pistol and threatened to shoot, infuriating the crowd into torching him.

The inquiry ordered by the Central government will hopefully get to the bottom of the shameful episode but Bajrang Dal national co-convenor Jagdish Sharma insists his outfit has nothing to do with the killings. "We have units in 544 of the 700 districts in India," he says. "Keonjhar in Orissa is not one of them. Unlike the tightly structured, disciplined RSS, the Bajrang Dal has always had a loose, informal air about it, leading its critics to characterise its members as "mostly lumpen." Sharma puts it in another way: "Young people are generally rather aggressive, very dynamic. So it is possible some of our people may have reacted strongly to provocation. But we never start the violence, even if we may sometimes react to it."

He never even killed an insect knowingly," says Rabindra's mother Ramrati (above with her husband), at her house in Kakor Bujurag in UP.

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