A tribute to Graham Stuart Staines
“Only two things in life are certain: death and taxes.” This is a commonly used idiom, but I only first heard of it during my England years. I heard it in a Sunday sermon and as part of my General Practice Vocational Training. In both cases, it was used when the topic of death and the inevitability of our mortality and how we cope with it as Christians or as care-givers of patients came up.
Who coined the phrase? Benjamin Franklin famously used it in a letter in 1789: “Our new constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
But Daniel Defoe mentions “death and taxes” in ‘The Political History of the Devil’ (1726); and in 1716, Christopher Bullock writes in ‘The Cobbler of Preston’: “’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes”.
The phrase “death and taxes” stands out in the film ‘The Least of These’, billed as “the Graham Staines story.” In the film, the phrase is the last thing Staines says to journalist Manav Banerjee, before he drives off in his station wagon.
For the benefit of those who may not know: Graham Stuart Staines was an Australian missionary who, along with his two sons Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6), was burnt to death by a gang of Bajrang Dal fundamentalists while sleeping in his station wagon at Manoharpur village in Kendujhar district in Odisha, India on January 23, 1999. In 2003, a Bajrang Dal activist, Dara Singh, was convicted of leading the gang that murdered Graham Staines and his sons, and was sentenced to life in prison.
When I learnt through a WhatsApp message of the screening of ‘The Least of These’, I was intrigued. A film “based on true events that shocked the nation”, and being released in an election year, and just a week before an obsequious biopic on Narendra Modi seemed quite extraordinary. Although it was showing for a very short time, I made the time to go and see it.
The Graham Staines story truly shocked not just the nation, but the whole world, for its heinous, pre-meditated, remorseless, sadistic, savage cruelty. I was working in England at the time. The shocking news grabbed the attention of the world media, newspapers, radio, television, and was the subject of discussion at the workplace for a long time.
The US-based Human Rights Watch accused the then Indian Government of failing to prevent violence against Christians, and of exploiting sectarian tensions for political ends. Then-Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, condemned the “ghastly attack” and called for swift action to catch the killers.
In her affidavit before the Commission on the death of her husband and two sons, Gladys Staines stated: “The Lord God is always with me to guide me and help me to try to accomplish the work of Graham, but I sometimes wonder why Graham was killed and also what made his assassins behave in such a brutal manner on the night of January 22 and 23, 1999. It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband Graham and my two children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed.”
In later interviews she repeatedly confirmed that she and her daughter had forgiven the murderers.
This year 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of that sordid, gruesome incident, and it is fitting that it be commemorated by a film.
But ‘The Least of These’, for all its good intentions, disappoints a little, by playing a tad too safe. Perhaps this was necessary to appease the Censor Board? Or to avoid controversy? I’m not sure. Its billboard announces that the film is about “the Graham Staines story”. And so it is, but only up to a point. It depicts all the victims by name: Graham, Philip and Timothy Staines, as also Graham’s wife Gladys and daughter Esther. It correctly identifies Manoharpur, where the killings took place, and other locations as well. But it then stops short of mentioning the main accused, one Dara Singh, or naming the Bajrang Dal, even though both facts are a matter of public record, and identified as such several times in the Supreme Court of India’s proceedings of the investigation and judgment that followed.
Instead, we are given a “composite” character, identified simply as Mahendra. One of the accused killers was indeed of that name.
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, one of the accused killers, Mahendra Hembram, stated that the killers “were provoked by the ‘corruption of tribal culture’ by the missionaries, who they claimed fed villagers beef and gave women brassieres and sanitary towels”.
In the film, it is never made clear who is pulling Mahendra’s strings. The journalist Manav Banerjee (played by Sharman Joshi, who almost single-handedly carries the whole film) is depicted as a pawn in the hands of the editor of a local newspaper, but apart from dark hints at the editor’s political leanings we learn nothing more.
In the film, as in real life, much is made of the issue of “conversion”, with chapter and verse of the law on the subject being quoted verbatim more than once in ‘The Least of These’. But the film redeems itself at the end by stating: Yes, Graham Staines did convert: lepers into human beings, the ostracised into the loved, suffering into dignity, etc.
To that end, the film does the valuable work of reminding us, and never letting us forget, especially in an election year, what the horrendous outcome of hatred, of fanaticism, of fundamentalism can be. That the burning alive of three human beings can be “rationalised” in any way is a deeply worrying downslide into insanity, inhumanity and anarchy.
Leading editors, media groups and civil society members from across the country signed a statement taking strong exception to the Supreme Court’s observation that the killing of Graham Staines and his two minor children was intended to teach the Australian missionary a lesson for preaching and practising conversion.
It is this trend of wanting to “teach a lesson” to anyone, that is extremely disturbing. The self-appointed “teachers” can do this with impunity, with no fear of the supposed long arm of the law, and the perceived “crime” could be just about anything, including giving sanitary towels to women, going by the statement of killer Mahendra Hembram. The killers were apparently hailed by some section of society, locally and nationally, as “heroes”. Brutes, thugs, bullies and cowards celebrated as heroes! It is this downward descent into lawlessness, inhumanity and lack of compassion in our society that is so scary. If this is the “new India” that is being hyped so much lately, I want no part of it.