(This article has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the anniversary of the murders of Graham Staines and his sons. It was first published on 22 January 2016.)
In 1965, there was no internet. A young Australian named Graham Staines though had a close friendship with Santanu Satpathy all the way in Baripada in Odisha. They had been pen pals since childhood and Graham came to Baripada to visit his friend. He never left.
You can listen to his story below.
For nearly 35 years, Graham Staines lived and worked with some of the poorest Adivasi communities in Odisha. On 22 January 1999, he was burnt alive along with his sons Philip and Timothy by right-wing activists, including Dara Singh who was a member of the Bajrang Dal. They were sleeping in their car, an old Willy’s four-wheel drive.
Graham was 58 years old at the time, Philip was 10 and Timothy was nine years old. Graham was a Christian missionary and had spent his time in India working with leprosy patients in Baripada. He learnt Odia and was fluent in the local dialect, Santhali. Graham Staines was also a preacher.
The men who killed him did so because they thought he was converting Adivasis to Christianity. The charge, if that’s what it is, was denied by Graham’s widow, Gladys, repeatedly.
The mob that committed the gruesome murders was led by Dara Singh, a member of the Bajrang Dal. Dara Singh was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
For the people who knew Graham, his death was more than a tragedy. It was a deep personal loss. Here’s what an India Today report in January 1999 had to say.
“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.”
Gladys Staines continued to stay in Odisha with her daughter Esther. In 2005, she was awarded the Padma Shri by the President of India for her work with people suffering from leprosy.