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January 25, 1999


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'The only difference between Stains and a tribal was that he had white skin'

Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

"Graham Stuart Stains's best friend was a Hindu brahmin called Satpathy. I asked Satpathy whether Stains ever tried to convert him to Christianity and Satpathy replied, 'Never! We never discussed or spoke about religion. Stains dedication was only to the cause of the tribals.' That is the kind of person he was," said Sailesh Mark, a long-time friend and colleague of the Australian-origin missionary who was so brutally burnt alive along with his two young children by a frenzied bunch of fanatics.

Stains was the de facto chief of the Evangelical Missionary Society in Mayurbhanj, a charity organisation formed in 1895-96. In 1995-96, the mission celebrated its 100 years, working among the tribals in districts often categorised as India's poorest and most backward. But it was not just tribals but persons who were twice dispossessed, the poor leprosy patients whom people shun and government forsakes, who were the beneficiaries of Stains's love and care.

Stains was no Johnny-come-lately, having been in India, or more precisely, Orissa's Mayurbhanj and Keorjhar districts, since 1965. "Stains would always say that he was born into the mission of serving the poor," said Richard Howell, chairman of the Evangelical Trust of North India, the holding body of the various Evangelical organisations in India and of which Staines was an executive member. "His father too was a missionary working in the same area, and Graham Staines just followed his father's footsteps," he added.

"Serving leprosy patients was his prime cause," said Howell. "He served the poor without any reservations, and would go out at midnight to help the needy," added Paul Samuel, a member of the Evangelical Trust of North India.

While violence against missionaries and various church organisations has occurred often in the recent past, the brutality of the latest incident has shocked everyone. "The missionaries in the tribal and backward areas in Orissa and elsewhere have been receiving threats of various kinds for the past three years," said Mark, "but they just ignored it because they never thought that anyone would be killed. They also did not inform the headquarters in Delhi and other major cities of the gravity of the threat."

Howell pointed out that missionaries have been under threat for the past three years, but it is only since 1998 that the attacks have taken on a pattern, leading him to believe that they are planned. "In 1996 there were 25 incidents all over India against the missionaries. The Christian community has never been a target of violence in India. But since last year, things have gone out of hand. Last year, a priest in Bihar was beheaded in broad daylight, and then we have the incidents in Gujarat" he said.

Howell said at a protest rally held by Christian groups on December 4, the Christian leaders had warned that they expected Orissa and Bihar to be next in line after Gujarat as far as attacks on Christians were concerned. "In Orissa, there has been tension between missionaries and other groups for quite a few years, but it was till now more akin to competition. We never thought that anyone would resort to such tactics of burning alive a person deeply respected in his area," he added.

Said Mark, "We are sceptical about the government machinery doing anything despite our warnings and the murders and attacks," he said.

Mark said the current attacks are not just a law and order problem (which is how the state and central governments see them) but an ideological campaign. "This is an ideology of hate that is being spread. How else can you explain the murder two small children and a man who spent 32 years serving the poor in just one area?" he asks.

Describing the travails of a place like Mayurbhanj where no one wants to go, Samuel asks, "Tell me, who else has gone there? Who has the courage to travel to areas reached after seven to eight hours of travel in a rickety bus, areas that are at least 14 hours from the nearest railway line, areas where life is miserable and difficult? Only a missionary minded person will. Only the RK Mission has shown some zeal, most of the other Hindu groups have gone to more accessible and more pleasant areas, where life is much easier."

Howell insisted that Stains was not involved in any forcible conversion activities, as alleged by certain Hindu groups. "Show me one case of forcible or induced conversion," he challenged, adding, "On the contrary, we have given it in writing to the governments of India and Orissa that when we undertake relief and development activities, we will not do any proselytising work. We never mix the two."

Stains had become a part of the tribal people with whom he stayed. "Even the food he ate was the same as that of the tribals. The only difference between him and a tribal was that he had white skin and spoke English differently. Otherwise, he was just one of them," said Mark.

Incidentally, Stains's wife Gladys, who has gallantly spoken of forgiving the murderers, has also spent many years in the Mayurbhanj area, serving poor tribals. The Stains's children were in a school in Udhagamandalam (they also have a daughter, Esther, aged 13).

The Evangelical Trust has insisted it will not seek to politicise the issue. "We believe in the message of Jesus Christ about forgiving our enemies' sins and we will do just that. Nor do we have any intention of retaliating in kind," said Howell.

He also felt various groups feared the Church because it sought to empower the poor tribals. "To give you an example, in the Dang district, a few months ago, the Church opened a milk chilling plant. Thus, the milk farmers could now store their milk and sell it at a convenient time, rather than immediately to the middlemen. This helped the poor milk producers but obviously did not go down too well with the middlemen who used to exploit the milk farmers," he said.

Mark concluded, "It is now up to secular Hindus to fight the cruel fanaticism that murders someone who devoted his life to uplifting India's tribals."

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