By John Dayal
Baripada, January 22, 2019: This night 20 years ago, 1999, as they slept in their jeep in a forested village of Manouharpur in Orissa, Australia-born leprosy worker Graham Stuart Staines (1941 – 23 January 1999) and his young sons Timothy (8) and Philip (10) were surrounded, their vehicle set afire, and as they woke up, they were beaten back into the inferno. The three died on 23 January 1999.
Their killer was Dara Singh, a member then of the Bajrang Dal and a self styled protector of cows who had earlier targeted a Muslim cow trader. Dara Singh was sentenced to death. The sentenced was reduced to a life term in prison on appeal. His appeal was not challenged by Gladys Staines, the widow, or by the Christian community.
The Supreme Court upheld the life term, but not before an honourable judge thought it fit to write that Dara Singh had killed the Staines family because the Australian was thought to be converting people.
The community and social activists protested, and the Supreme Court withdrew those offensive words which seemed to justify the gruesome murder.
Dara Singh remains in prison. Gladys set an example saying she had forgiven the killer of her husband and persons. Her serving daughter is now medical professional.
Staines had been working in Orissa 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 as they were unfounded. 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 Orissa, Eastern India.
In 2016, she received the Mother Teresa Memorial International Award for Social Justice!
Meanwhile, the U.S. based film maker, Aneesh Daniel, has directed the 112-minute film “The Least of These” based on the life and work of Staines. Skypass Entertainment will release its first film on February 1 in the US and in India in March and its Australian release is slated for April.
Since 199, Orissa has witnessed off and on several acts of religious persecution and has been volatile ever since. Among others, Orissa saw massive targeted violence against Christians again on Christmas Eve 2007, and then in the autumn of 2008.