|Graham Stuart Staines|
Palmwoods, Queensland, Australia
|Died||January 23, 1999
Keonjhar district in Odisha
Graham Stuart Staines (1941 – 23 January 1999) was an Australian Christian missionary who, along with his two sons Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6), was burnt to death by a gang of Bajrang Dal fundamentalist while sleeping in his station wagon at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district in Odisha, India on 23 January 1999. In 2003, a Bajrang Dal activist, Dara Singh, was convicted of leading the gang that murdered Graham Staines and his sons, and was sentenced to life in prison.
He had been working in Odisha among the tribal poor and lepers since 1965. Some Hindu groups alleged that Staines had forcibly converted or lured many Hindus into Christianity; Staines' widow Gladys denied these allegations. She continued to live in India caring for leprosy patients until she returned to Australia in 2004. In 2005 she was awarded the fourth highest civilian honor in India, Padma Shree, in recognition for her work with leprosy patients in Odisha. In 2016, she received the Mother Teresa Memorial International Award for Social Justice.
Early life and early career
Staines was born in 1941 at Palmwoods, Queensland. He visited India in 1965 for the first time and joined Evangelical Missionary Society of Mayurbhanj (EMSM), working in this remote tribal area, with a long history of missionary activity. He took over the management of the Mission at Baripada in 1983. He helped establish the Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home as a registered society in 1982.
He met Gladys June in 1981 while working for leprosy patients, and they married in 1983 and had worked together since then. They had three children, a daughter (Esther) and two sons (Philip and Timothy). Staines assisted in translating a part of the Bible into the Ho language of India, including proofreading the entire New Testament manuscript, though his focus was on a ministry to lepers. He reportedly spoke fluent Odia and was popular among the patients whom he used to help after they were cured. He used to teach how to make mats out of rope and basket from Sabi grass and trees leaves.
Death and reaction
On the night of 22 January 1999, he attended a jungle camp in Manoharpur, an annual gathering of Christians of the area for religious and social discourse. The village is situated on the border of the tribal-dominated Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar districts of Odisha. He was on his way to Keonjhar with his sons, who had come back on holiday from their school at Ooty. They broke the journey for the camp and decided to spend the night in Manoharpur. After that, they slept in the vehicle because of the severe cold. His wife and daughter had remained in Baripada.
According to reports, a mob of about 50 people, armed with axes and other implements, attacked the vehicle while Staines and the children were fast asleep and his station wagon where he was sleeping was set alight by the mob. Graham, Philip and Timothy Staines were burnt alive. Staines and his sons apparently tried to escape, but were allegedly prevented by a mob.
The murders were widely condemned by religious and civic leaders, politicians, and journalists. The US-based Human Rights Watch accused the then Indian Government of failing to prevent violence against Christians, and of exploiting sectarian tensions for political ends. The organisation said attacks against Christians increased "significantly" since the "Hindu Nationalist" BJP came to power. Then-Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, a leader of BJP, condemned the "ghastly attack" and called for swift action to catch the killers. Published reports stated that church leaders alleged the attacks were carried out at the behest of hardline Hindu organisations. Hindu hardliners accused Christian missionaries of forcibly converting poor and low-caste Hindus and tribals. The convicted killer Dara Singh was treated as a hero by hardline Hindus and reportedly protected by some villagers. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, one of the accused killers, Mahendra Hembram, stated that the killers "were provoked by the "corruption of tribal culture" by the missionaries, who they claimed fed villagers beef and gave women brassieres and sanitary towels."
In her affidavit before the Commission on the death of her husband and two sons, Gladys Staines stated:
"The Lord God is always with me to guide me and help me to try to accomplish the work of Graham, but I sometimes wonder why Graham was killed and also what made his assassins behave in such a brutal manner on the night of 22nd/23rd January 1999. It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband Graham and my two children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed."
Supreme Court of India judgement
A trial (sessions) court in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha, sentenced the convicted ring leader Dara Singh of the mob to death by hanging for killing Staines and his two sons. In 2005, the Orissa High Court commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court upheld the High Court decision on 21 January 2011.
"In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while they were sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity," the court said. The Court stated "Our concept of secularism is that the State will have no religion. The State shall treat all religions and religious groups equally and with equal respect without in any manner interfering with their individual right of religion, faith and worship." Yet, while condemning (even voluntary) religious conversions, the Court also said "It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone`s belief by way of `use of force`, provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other". Dismissing the Central Bureau of Investigation's plea for death penalty to Singh, a Bench of Mr Justice P Sathasivam and Mr Justice BS Chauhan endorsed the Orissa High Court's finding that his crime did not fall under the rarest of rare category. In its 76-page judgement, the court came out strongly against the practice of conversion.
However, four days later, on 25 January 2011, the Supreme Court of India in a rare move expunged its own comments with regards to conversions from its Verdict. This was perhaps done due to severe criticism from the media. Leading editors, media groups and civil society members from across the country signed a statement taking strong exception to the Supreme Court's observation that the killing of Graham Staines and his two minor children was intended to teach the Australian missionary a lesson for preaching and practising conversion.
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