Editorial: April 2011
While upholding the life sentence awarded to Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh for the brutal crime of torching Graham Staines and his two minor children, Philip and Timothy, in 1999, a Bench of the Supreme Court recently said, "In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death, while they were sleeping in a station wagon in Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity." The Bench rejected the plea of the CBI for enhancement of sentence to death. It held that this was not one of the rarest of rare cases in which the death sentence should be awarded to the accused. The reason given for not enhancing the sentence was that the intention of the murderers "was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely converting poor tribals to Christianity"; this was unwarranted.
The Bench's illogical reliance, on the unjustified delay of 12 years in the conclusion of the case as a mitigating factor in favour of the commutation of the death sentence, is surprising. The long passage of time cannot prevent the crime being considered a rarest of rare case.
There was no finding that Staines was indulging in conversions. A civil society group headed by Swami Agnivesh reported after visiting Manoharpur that they did not come across a single person whom Staines had converted.
While condemning killings in the name of religion, the Bench has expressed its disapproval of conversion. The court warned against looming caste and religious violence and said, "taking lives of persons belonging to another caste or religion is bound to have a dangerous and reactive effect on the society at large." It also said that there was no justification for interfering in someone's belief by way of use of force, provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion was better than the other. This remark of the Supreme Court contradicts the freedom provided in our Constitution to practise and propagate different religions. The civil society took exception to the court's unwarranted observations, given the facts and circumstances of the case.
In a rare instance of the Supreme Court acting suo moto to amend its own judgement, the Bench expunged some of the remarks it made in this case. It had said that the intention of Dara Singh to commit the triple murder "was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities." It is now replaced by "There is no justification for interfering in someone's religious belief by any means." The sentence could be misconstrued and used out of context. Is not the cold blooded murder of one who worked for 30 years among lepers the rarest of rare cases? The conversion charge is a well-planned misinformation and excuse for the diabolic attacks on Christians. This leaves one numb with disbelief. How can one teach another a lesson by murdering him?
When Graham Staines was torched to death, Gladys, his wife, stunned the world by forgiving the murderers of her husband and two sons. She said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing. I am not bitter. Neither am I angry. I can forgive their deeds... Let us burn hatred and spread the flame of Christ's love." K. R. Narayanan, the then President of India, had described the murder as "one belonging to the inventory of black deeds of history" and "a monumental aberration from the tradition of tolerance and humanity for which India is known."
The Wadhwa Commission, set up to probe the triple murder of Staines observed, "There has been no extraordinary increase in the Christian population in Keonjhar district between 1991 and 1998. The population had increased by 595 during this period and this could have been caused by natural growth." This clearly speaks volumes. The Staines family had worked with leprosy patients in Orissa for 30 years. One is yet to receive concrete proof of Christians forcefully or by inducement converting another to their faith. The triple murder of Staines was one of the rarest of rare cases, especially because the Staines family was serving the poorest of the poor in Orissa.
Justice Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry which probed the attacks on churches in Karnataka during 2008 gave a clean chit after 28 months and 9 extensions to the Yeddyurappa government and the Sangh Parivar, and called the attacks "disparate, atypical of each other." The Commission absolved the government and put the blame on "misguided fundamentalist miscreants of defined or undefined groups or organisations against Christians and Christianity." After the interim report of the Commission pointed out to elements of various Hindutva outfits, the State government sought to wind up the Commission. However, the government rescinded the order following Somasekhara's protests. The report now says, "The events leading to attacks were many-fundamentalism, local groupism, personal competition in trade, education and political activities." The Commission has upheld the age-old allegations of right-wing groups that evangelistic groups convert poor people to Christianity by inducements and as a commercial bargain using unaccounted local and foreign funds. It also added that the allegation, that some persons involved in conversions were getting funds from foreign countries and misused it for mass conversions of hapless people belonging to weaker sections, was true. However, the Commission admits, "The government and the administration did not treat the Christian protestors sympathetically. The compensation is too meagre and contemptuous."
The report blamed the Christian community's leaders and their missionary activities for the violence. The report says, "The violence was sparked by the distribution of material with insulting attitude which made derogatory references to Hindus and their conversion to Christianity." It denied any collusion between the administration and the attackers. The report says there were conversions by "a few organisations and self-styled pastors" which were "not necessarily by compulsion or fraud or coercion, but definitely by inducements." This only rubs salt into the wounds and is an exercise to whitewash the culpability of those involved. The report also says that the demand for bringing Christian places of worship under some legislation is well-founded. An independent enquiry by Retired High Court Judge Michael Saldanha and civil society fact-finding teams reached diametrically opposite conclusions.
The Somasekhara Commission has failed to nail the true culprits. Instead, it shields and seeks to protect the perpetrators. Even in cases where the Commission has found the guilty, it has carefully stopped short and did not identify them or call for action against the culprits. However, it says, "Organisations like the Bajrang Dal need identification, registration and legal control."
The interim report, submitted by the Commission in February 2010, said, "A strong impression is created that the members belonging to Bajrang Dal, Sri Rama Sene and the VHP etc are mainly responsible for the attacks." In its final report, the Commission exonerated these very groups.
It appears there is a devious ploy in exonerating the Catholic Church on the issue of conversion and blaming the other denominations. This is a divide and rule policy, to divide Christians and target them selectively.
Article 25 of our Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of religion. It states, "Subject to public order, morality and health..., all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion." Propagation is concerned with the right to communicate beliefs to another person or to expound the tenets of one's religion, but does not include the right to forcible conversion.
The debates in our Constituent Assembly clearly indicate that our founding fathers recognised that conversion was implicit in the propagation of religion. The word 'propagate' was deliberately incorporated in Article 25 because conversion is a fundamental characteristic of Christianity. Our founding fathers were not narrow minded and prejudiced against the religious minority. They understood the Biblical mandate for every Christian. They displayed broad-mindedness and tolerance, in line with the Indian tradition. Genuine conversion is permissible and constitutionally guaranteed. The need of the hour is to create mutual trust and understanding among the different communities in this nation with several religions, instead of spewing venom and hatred.
In another decision during January 2011 the Supreme Court made a powerful symbolic statement in a case which highlighted atrocities committed against tribal women. The Court said that tribal people in India should be entitled to "equal respect." They are entitled to equal rights, but cannot decide whether they can convert to a different religion!
Arun Shourie in his book Courts And Their Judgments has carefully analysed a number of judgements delivered by the courts. He says, "the judges consider each issue as an issue in itself - isolated from the context of society, often independently of the consequences that will follow from it." Shourie has regretted the inconsistencies in the decisions of the courts.
The Gospel does not coerce anyone to accept Christ as Lord and Master. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom.10:9). Christians are to share this message and to project the love and forgiveness of Christ to lead people to repent of their sins. Christians cannot buy souls by allurement, force or fraud. Real Christian faith is a matter of personal decision. Any religious conversion by force, fraud or inducement is no conversion. A person opts voluntarily for Christ with the freedom basic to humankind. Real Christian faith is a matter of personal decision. An honest admission of sin in their lives, decision to turn away from sin and do the will of God are essential. This is permitted by our Constitution and should not be prevented by any one.