The 1999 murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in India’s eastern state of Odisha was used by a senior member of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a justification for the passing of a bill related to foreign funding of NGOs in the country.
Satyapal Singh, a leading BJP member, evoked the incident while debating the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2020, passed Sept. 21, which makes it mandatory for NGOs to provide certain information to government and make funding details public.
“There was uproar over Graham Staines. What happened to him and his two children was wrong,” Singh said on the floor of the country’s parliament house. “But the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Odisha Crime Branch and the Justice DP Wadhwa Commission probe concluded that the tribals were being converted there,” he said.
Staines and his sons Philip, 10, Timothy, 6, were burnt to death by a Hindu extremist group ‘Bajrang Dal’ while they were sleeping in a station wagon near a church on Jan. 22, 1999. Bajrang Dal accused Staines of converting Hindus to Christianity.
After the killings, a government-appointed commission of enquiry found that no forced conversions were carried out by Staines as alleged by some hard-line Hindu groups.
Staines started working as a missionary in Orissa in 1965 and during his time as an evangelical missionary he established rehabilitation homes for lepers in far flung tribal areas of the state.
A local court convicted Dara Singh, the ringleader of the mob, to death by hanging for the killings. Later in 2005, Odissa state’s high court commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Singh’s comments about the killing of Staines and his two children have been perceived by some as blaming the victims for what occurred. Others have said that it’s another attempt to legitimize anti-Christian sentiment in the country.
Willian Brooks, a Christian activist from Indian capital New Delhi, said Singh’s statement is dangerous. “Through his remarks he has given greenlight to all the fanatic groups who keep vandalizing churches, attack believers and murder priests,” Brooks said. “A simple justification for murdering a Christian in India is now going to be that he was converting Hindus to Christianity,” he said.
Sunita Massi, a Christian activist from Mumbai, agreed. “We need not to defend Staines here. His humanitarian work is ample proof of his character,” Massi said. Hard-line Hindus are waging a smear campaign against Christian missionaries which is putting the lives of poor Christians in danger, she said.
Christian advocate and former member of Delhi Minorities Commission A.C Michael said the comments need to be addressed. “It would be the right thing to do if these unconstitutional comments are expunged by the parliament speaker on his own or members of the parliament move a motion,” said Michael.
Rev. Viajayesh Lal, general secretary of Evangelical Fellowship of India, has asked the parliament speaker to direct Singh to provide evidence for what he said about Staines. “We find Satyapal Singh’s comments outrageous and an abuse of parliamentary democracy. These remarks besmirch a deceased man’s outstanding life of social service, 21 years after his death, with hearsay and innuendo,” Lal said.
Christian persecution in India has been on the rise ever since pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power at a national level since 2014.
A report by Alliance Defending Freedom shows that at least 328 incidents of targeted violence against Christians in India, including 230 mob attacks and two murders, were recorded in the country last year. Out of these, 131 incidents involved dereliction of duty by law enforcement authorities.
There are 966 million Hindus among India’s population of 1.3 billion. Muslims account for 172 million while there are 29 million Christians.