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Statement by George Fernandes, Minister of Defence after visiting Orissa

January 28, 1999

Statement by George Fernandes, Minister of Defence after visiting Orissa

As directed by the Prime Minister, the Minister of Human Resource Development, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, the Minister of Steel and Mines, Shri Naveen Patnaik, and I visited Manoharpur in Keonjhar District of Orissa on January 27, 1999. We were in the village for about an hour.

Manoharpur has a population of nearly 800 - all tribals, of whom 18 families with approximately 100 members are Christians. The Christian community has been there for two decades. The Christians use a house owned by one of their elders for purposes of worship, Bible classes and other functions.

Each year from January 20 to 24, the Christian community observes a Junglee Mela in which, apart from the 18 families of Manoharpur, 20 families from Tulsipani which is a short distance away from Manoharpur and five families from neighbouring villages participate. The Mela is a community get-together during which there are morning prayers, day-long Bible classes and evening audio visual shows. All these are conducted in the house which is used as a prayer hall.

Graham Steins who was burnt to death along with his sons visited Manoharpur for this Annual Mela since many years. According to the District Magistrate and the local community, this used to be his only visit during the year. His work among the lepers was in Baripada in the neighbouring Mayurbhanj district where he lived.

As in previous years, Graham Steins had come to the Mela on 20th January accompanied by his two sons. The day's function over, he and his sons slept in their van, which is what he usually did. The van was set on fire a little after midnight.

None of those we spoke to in the village seemed to have identified any one person in the mob which set the van on fire though some of them said that there were people in the mob who were armed with lethal weapons including pistols which they brandished to threaten and prevent the local people from coming out of their houses. A lady, Durgi Marandi, was woken up by the driver of the vehicle who told her that the vehicle had been set on fire. She said that along with the driver she went to the Pradhan to secure his help. The Pradhan refused to come saying that there is nothing he could do. By the time she and the driver returned, the vehicle was completely burnt.

The District Magistrate told us that an FIR has been filed against six persons including the main suspect Dara Singh. He could not remember the names of other five. He also said that 41 persons had been arrested so far.

To a question whether there had been any threat held out to Stein's life and whether there was any information with the administration about such threat, he emphatically replied in negative. When questioned about the motive for the heinous crime, the DM's response was: There is nothing that is evident. There was some talk of 37 new conversions but there is no evidence. It was checked with those whose names were mentioned. They denied it.

We were told by everyone that relations between Christians and non-Christian tribals in Manoharpur have been generally cordial. In 1984 and 1993 there was some misunderstanding over ploughing the fields. It seems that traditionally ploughing begins after the Rajjia festival. The Christian tribals chose to plough two days before the festival; this was objected to by other tribals. On both occasions, the matter was resolved without any breakdown in the relations between the two groups. One other incident was on 5th January this year. A music cassette with a tribal Santhali Christian song was being played at the bride's house on wedding day. A group of persons objected to the playing of this song. The matter was resolved amicably.

As we were leaving the village, we received a photocopy of a five-page document signed by several persons. The thrust of that note is that the State Government has not taken action against Dara Singh and his associates, despite there being many FIRs lodged against him.

A point made by some people in Manoharpur is that Dara Singh has been close to the local MLA, Jaidev Jena, who is also a Minister in the State Government.