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A legacy stained in 1999

Minati Singha, April 5, 2019: The Times of India

Two churches, one in the midst of mud houses, another in an open field, were locked on the day the reporter visited the village
From: Minati Singha, April 5, 2019: The Times of India

Twenty years after Graham Stuart Staines, his sons Philip (10) and Timothy (six) were burnt to death by a rabid bunch that claimed he was converting people in the name of missionary activity, Manoharpur, a nondescript tribal village about 250 km from the state capital of Bhubaneswar, still mourns the man they called Sahibo.

"There's a film now out that talks about his death, but here he's still alive here. Sahibo was warm-hearted and friendly. He would speak to us in Santhali and also in Odia, Hindi and English. He used to eat and sleep with us. The children were also very nice,” said Bikram Marandi, a 75-year-old villager, tears filling his eyes as he remembered the night Staines and his children were lynched. The vehicle in which the missionary and his sons were sleeping had been parked in front of Marandi’s house that night.

Our rooms were locked from the outside and I could not save them. I don’t know how it happened. We don’t know the people who did this. I can never forget that night in my life

Bikram Marandi, 75-year-old villager, Staines vehicle was burnt in front of his house

Manoharpur, a remote village in Keonjhar district, grabbed the attention of the world on January 22, 1999, when Staines, an Australian, along with his two little sons, was burnt to death by a group of men who suspected him of carrying out forced conversions.

Twenty years after the ghastly incident which shocked the nation’s conscience and brought down international condemnation on the state government, a film on the life and times of Staines has been made, bringing back focus on Manoharpur and its people.

“Our rooms were locked from the outside and I could not save them. I don’t know how it happened. We don’t know the people who did this. I can never forget that night in my life,” Marandi said, crying out aloud, as he might have many years ago.

The village itself hasn't changed much since the time Staines walked its roads. Just at the point Manoharpur starts, there's a faded board on a dilapidated house with a broken boundary wall. It reads 'Primary Health Centre, Manoharpur'. A few steps away, there is a post office that's locked despite it being a working day. There are two churches -- one of them is crammed amid small but neatly built mud houses and the other is on an open field. Both are locked, like the post office. A narrow road divides the picturesque, forest-encircled village of around 700 households. Villagers here belong to the Santhal, Munda and Kolha tribal communities and depend on farming and forest produce for a livelihood.

“The people live here in acute poverty," said Rodia Soren, who was closely associated with Staines. "If someone promises food and education for children and healthcare for the ailing, they will listen to that person. What’s wrong in this? Few from here who are earning good money are doing so because they got education. What does it matter if they are also Christian?”

Since 1999, Manoharpur’s only visible nod to time and progress is a tarred road that has replaced the kutcha one, and some mobile towers. There is a high school but it lacks teachers; the health centre rarely sees a doctor. The biggest change that has happened since that fateful night is actually invisible – villagers have become alert. They mistrust outsiders and inform police on the slightest hint of a provocation or conflict, which is against Santhali culture. “Earlier, we used to solve our problems among ourselves. Now we go to the police,” said a villager.

“Lack of education, basic facilities and development is the root cause of what happened that day. Netas will come to the village once in five years before elections and then forget all about it. Everyone tries to avoid the real problem: illiteracy and poverty,” said Umakanta Bhoi, an accused in the case who was later acquitted by the high court. Staines’ memory lives on here, more so in the hearts of leprosy patients who have been helped by the institute he set up for them. Many affected by the disease have benefited from treatment at the home Staines established in Baripada in Mayurbhanj district. “People ostracised my family and me because of my disease. It was Sahibo who took me to Baripada. I was cured and returned to my village,” said Moti Soren, a 65-year-old woman.

The Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home (MLH) was set up in Baripada in 1892 by the Evangelical Missionary Society of Mayurbhanj. In 1965, Staines, who was 24 years old then, came to Baripada and settled there.

MLH is spread across 36 acres at Murgabadi in Baripada town. Currently there are 50 leprosy patients. The capacity of the home is 100. Over 50,000 from Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand have been treated so far. Besides, there are 20 families at a rehabilitation centre at Rajabasa, around 15 km from the town. After the murder of Staines, his wife Gladys took over charge of MLH and set up the 15-bedded Graham Staines Memorial Hospital in 2005. The hospital has one part-time doctor and eight para-medical staff. Every day at least 20 outdoor patients visit. The doctor, staff and visiting medical faculty also oversee dressing of wounds of patients at MLH.

Although Staines' wife Gladys has periodically visited India, both her daughter Esther and she are now in Australia. They have no plans to visit India this year, according to sources. TOI was unable to contact them for this story. An English daily had some years ago reported that Esther was a medical student in Australia and expected to graduate in 2012. But, the paper said, when asked if they would want to return to India, Gladys left the question unanswered.

Every year Manoharpur observes the death anniversary of Staines and his children. People from different countries participate, too, in events of the day. “We hold prayers and talk about Sahibo and his work. Those who come from outside request us to continue his mission for leprosy patients and tribals,” said Soren.

The maker of the film on Staines, which is narrated by the fictitious character of Manav, a journalist played by actor Sharman Joshi, said it is about that essential Christian value – forgiveness. “Our film is about hope and compassion too. I feel Staines was a victim of fake news, at a time when the term wasn’t even in currency. Some people suspected him of doing something and planned to teach him a lesson without verifying the truth. The most important thing in the film is how Gladys, Staines’s widow, forgives his killers,” said director Aneesh Daniel.

The whole story

Graham Stuart Staines, an Australian missionary, and his two sons Philip (10) and Timoty (six) were burnt to death by a gang of Bajrang Dal activists led by Dara Singh in 1999. Staines was sleeping in his van with his children in Kendujhar, Odisha, when it was set on fire. The missionary had been working with poor tribals and lepers since 1965. The main accused Dara Singh was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011. Staines is survived by his wife and daughter.

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