Even in death they were inseparable. Charred beyond recognition and reduced to fragile frames of ashes, the three bodies lay clinging to each other in what must have been a vain attempt to protect each other and escape the mob. But on the fateful night of January 22-23 in the wilderness of Manoharpur village in the sleepy rural outback of Orissa’s Keonjhar district, nothing worked for the hapless father and his two sons. Having surrounded them from all sides, a murderous crowd set on fire the old four-wheel drive Willy’s station wagon in which the three had retired for the night.

The beastly act done, Australian-born Christian missionary Graham Stewart Staines, 58, and his two sons, Phillip, 10, and Timothy, 7, were put to sleep forever. No sooner had its macabre mission been completed than the mob melted away in the darkness as the flames that had leapt skywards simmered. But the heat generated by the senseless killings and the outrage stoked are far from ebbing days after the incident.

With the campaign against Christians, so far confined to Gujarat, making its ugliest appearance in Orissa, the nation went numb with horror. Even as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee hung his head in shame, his Government was rattled by the wave of condemnation. President K.R. Narayanan spoke for everyone when he described the murder as “a monumental aberration of time-tested tolerance and harmony. The killings belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds”. Confronted with the charge that the Bajrang Dal — a militant Hindu outfit attached to the VHP and with links to the RSS — was guilty of the horrific murder, the prime minister despatched a three-member cabinet team to Manoharpur and announced a judicial inquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge.

But not even the harshest words could measure up to the indignation felt in Baripada, the headquarters of Orissa’s predominantly tribal district of Mayurbhanj, which Staines had made his home. “It’s as if we all have had a personal bereavement,” said District Collector R. Balakrishnan. For the past 35 years, dressed in casuals, sporting his trademark hat and wheeling his rickety bicycle, Saibo — as he was popularly called — was a fixture in Baripada where he did “God’s work”, tending and nursing leprosy patients in a specially run home on the town’s outskirts.

Born in Brisbane, as a young boy the Australian became a pen friend of one Santanu Satpathy of Baripada with whom he shared his birthday. The long-distance friendship bloomed and Staines visited Baripada to call on his friend. That was in 1965 and he never returned. Besides the idyllic landscape of the region, what touched him was the Leprosy Home run since the last century with help from the Leprosy Mission of Australia. Having barely finished school, Staines finally found his mission in life. He devoted himself to the Home — eventually becoming its superintendent — and also immersed himself in preaching the Bible by virtue of also being the convener and treasurer of the Evangelical Missionaries Society.

His dedicated service won him many hearts. Fluent in Oriya and the local Santhali dialect, Staines and his wife Glades, whom he married in the ’80s, were pillars of the local society. Three years ago, a devastating fire in Baripada left at least a 100 dead and scores horribly burnt. The local hospital failed to cope and the Staines couple — Glades is a trained nurse — spent nights nursing the injured. Elected president-designate of the local Rotary chapter for 2001, Staines was a leading light in last month’s Pulse Polio immunisation drive. He distributed leaflets enthusiastically while Glades drove the jeep that led the procession for creating awareness in Baripada.

But it was his role as a Christian preacher that contributed to his grisly end. Overwhelmed by epidemics, malnutrition and illiteracy, Orissa is low on general expectations but high on religious fervour. Roads may be non-existent and starvation deaths not uncommon, but Orissa has become the battleground involving Christian and Hindu missionaries in a war for the hearts and minds of the tribals. Last year witnessed at least 30 Hindu-Christian clashes in 10 of the state’s 30 districts. According to Defence Minister George Fernandes, who was part of the cabinet team to Manoharpur, there were at least 60 attacks on churches in Orissa between 1986 and 1998, “the highest number in any state”.

In organising another four-day jungle camp in Manoharpur last month, Staines was courting trouble. For the past 14 years, he visited the village during the annual jungle camps instructing tribals on a range of subjects from public hygiene to the Bible. Says Reverend Pradeep Kumar Das of the Orissa Church of God Association: “Jungle camps are one big step towards development, including emotional upliftment … Our commandment lays it down for us to preach the Bible and we preach it.” A dusty inaccessible village of 150-odd Santhal families, Manoharpur too had been afflicted by the distrust sweeping the rest of the state. With 22 families having converted to Christianity over the years, the village stood clearly divided on religious lines when Staines arrived on January 20 with some fellow preachers and his two sons.

“Graham was never into conversions. All he did was to spread the message of the Lord,” insists widow Glades. Others, however, believe that his preaching often led to conversions. “He was killed because he was proselytising. People might have killed him in a fit of rage,” says state Hindu Jagran Samukhya convener Subhash Chauhan. “Tempers have been frayed for long,” admits local sarpanch Thakurdas Murmu. Yet, contrary to what has been claimed, conversion was not the immediate provocation. The last conversion in Manoharpur took place a year ago. Tension was brewing over traditional tribal customs between the converts and other Santhals in recent months. In June last year, during the Raja festival — the earth is said to be menstruating then — the converts violated local custom by continuing to till the land. This led to heated exchanges between the converts and traditional Santhals. Things hotted up again early January when conservative tribesmen objected to Santhali Christian carols being played at a Christian marriage in the village.

Known for guarding their customs zealously, the Santhals were incensed by this cultural separation. Only some had land to grow paddy once a year. The rest foraged in nearby forests to retrieve sal leaves and stitch plates out of them for a living. But all had plenty of time to brood and get angry. Staines’ arrival in the village gave them a chance to get even with those who dared to go against the traditional customs. Help came readily from Dara Singh, a Hindu fanatic from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh who was active along the Mayurbhanj-Keonjhar border since 1980. While Staines and his sons slept in the car parked outside the village prayer hall — his companions were sleeping inside — the mob descended on them. About 100 m away, young Santhal boys and girls were celebrating their attainment of adolescence by dancing the traditional Dhangri to the beat of drums. They witnessed everything but chose to do nothing. Says a senior police official, “The gruesome act seemingly had the collective consent of the Santhals.” Adds Utkal University sociologist Rita Ray, “The tribal community is in a state of turmoil. That turbulence makes it easy to fish in troubled waters.”

On the face of it, there was little cause for tension. Contrary to general perceptions, conversions number around 5,000 a year and the Christian population has grown marginally from 1.98 per cent in 1981 to 2.9 per cent in 1991. By that yardstick, the religious map of Orissa has not changed. The trouble starts when a handful of converts defy age-old traditions and customs. As missionaries target the farthest and the most inaccessible areas, the violation of tribal customs have ranged the non-converts against the converts. In recent months, Hindus and Christians have clashed violently in Serang, Gajapati district. In Bolangir, Christians stopped visiting the local hospitals suspecting a selective sterilisation programme. In Bargarh, Hindus stopped drawing water from the village well on the suspicion that it was poisoned. And in Kathiguda, Nowrangpur district, 38 Adivasis complained to the police that they were duped into converting on the false promises of jobs. In such a vitiated atmosphere, the work is cut out for the likes of Dara Singh.

With substantial support from Santhals, Kulhos and Bathurias, Singh has been steadily fomenting trouble in the Keonjhar-Mayurbhanj belt since 1996, when the first police case was lodged against him. On June 28 last year, he and his stormtroopers attacked a truck carrying cattle — meant for slaughter houses in Calcutta — and set the vehicle on fire after beating up the driver and helper. He repeated his feat on August 16, this time beating up seven Muslims who were in the vehicle. One later succumbed to his injuries. According to a petition presented by 11 citizens of Thakurmunda to the cabinet team last Wednesday, one of the raiding teams flaunted the banner of the Bajrang Dal.

With at least nine cases registered against him, Singh was no stranger to the police. Whenever communal violence took place in the region — including the attack on a church in nearby Kesidiha last January — Singh’s name invariably showed up in police records. “Dara Singh could be just a zealot working on his own. He was never our primary member,” claims Pratap Sarangi, convener of the state Bajrang Dal. But the police tell a different story. Intelligence reports over the past year identified Singh as the kingpin and described him as a member of the Bajrang Dal. “He must be one,” insists a senior police official. “The earlier crimes were petty and we didn’t have any motives then to fix responsibility on any particular group.”

Though the RSS has 1,500 shakhas (units) throughout Orissa, Manoharpur is too inconsequential to have one. The nearest town with an RSS unit is Thakurmunda, a backbreaking ride of over one and a half hours. But here again, the Bajrang Dal is absent. It is, however, present in Anandpur, another bustling town almost 60 km from Manoharpur. Sangh leaders claim they simply lacked any striking power in a place like Manoharpur. With the Sangh Parivar strenuously denying any links with Singh, one possibility is that he was a freelance fanatic who conducted what he thought was a dharmyudh (holy war) on behalf of Hindus.

Curiously, the J.B. Patnaik Government turned a blind eye to Singh’s activities despite appeals to the chief minister, home secretary and local MLAs by anxious residents. Worse, the district was rudderless when the Staines’ killing occurred. There was no SP for the past three months — intra-Congress rivalries prevented an appointment — the additional SP was on leave and the whole area was managed by a DSP. The team of cabinet ministers was also told by some Manoharpur residents about Singh’s proximity to state minister and local Congress MLA Jaideva Jena. Naturally, Jena denies the charge. “It’s shameful to settle political scores over macabre deaths.”

That is undeniable but already the monumental tragedy of the Staines’ killing has become an occasion for political one-upmanship. If Chief Minister Patnaik has used the national outrage against the Sangh Parivar to divert attention from the Anjana Mishra gang rape case and secure a fresh lease of life, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani didn’t wait for a full inquiry before issuing a clean chit to the Bajrang Dal. Responding to Congress General Secretary Madhavrao Scindia’s outburst that it was time for Vajpayee and Advani to pack their bags, Fernandes hinted at an evil conspiracy. “After Pokhran there are many forces that don’t want this Government to remain,” he said, adding “Someone had decided at some point of time that Staines had to be killed. As of now we have not been able to figure out any motive.” But the Government has begged the more complex question as to whether the BJP is now a victim of the forces it had helped unleash.

As the country waits for the harsh truth to emerge, it can only rue the fact that political and sectarian differences can be resolved by roasting a man and his two children to death. The Staines’ murder will remain a collective blot on the conscience of India for a long time to come. It has made a great country look small. And ugly.

This story first appeared on the cover of India Today magazine in February 1999.