Four days after the Supreme Court ruled on Dara Singh’s conviction for burning alive Australian missionary Graham Staines and his minor sons in 1999, it expunged certain portions of the judgment that had caused a controversy.
The remarks pertained to Graham Staines’ work that the Court cited as a reason for not awarding Singh the death sentence. Among those who were critical of the judgment were Christian interest groups and leaders of the Congress party including Union Minister Vyalar Ravi. The ruling party said the Court had been too lenient to the accused, a Bajrang Dal activist. In its 76 page judgment, the court had observed that the crime was not ‘rarest of rare’ and instead upheld the life sentence awarded to Singh by the Orissa High Court.
It said: “Whether a case falls within the ‘rarest of rare case’ or not, has to be examined with reference to the facts and circumstances of each case, and the Court has to take note of the aggravating as well as mitigating circumstances and conclude whether there was something uncommon about the crime which renders the sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for death sentence. In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while they were sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities…” On 25 January, the two-judge bench of the court, comprising Justices P Sathasivam and Dr BS Chauhan, expunged the remarks it had made relating to conversion activities. The Court observed that the expunged remarks could be misinterpreted and so they were modified.
On 21 January, the bench had dismissed a plea by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for awarding a death sentence to Dara Singh for the barbaric triple murder, but upheld his conviction. On 19 May 2005, the Orissa High Court had commuted the death penalty awarded to Singh by the Sessions court to life imprisonment. In upholding the conviction, it concurred with the findings of the lower court and High Court that Dara Singh led a mob that burnt Staines and his sons Philip (10) and Timothy (6) alive in Orissa’s Keonjhar district. Staines had worked with leprosy patients in Orissa for nearly three decades. He and his sons were sleeping in his van parked outside the village church when the mob led by Singh set it on fire on the night of 22 January 1999.
The Court observed that such killings can damage the fabric of tolerance that holds India together. “In a country like ours where discrimination on the ground of caste or religion is taboo, taking lives of persons belonging to another caste or religion is bound to have a dangerous and reactive effect on society at large,” the Court said. “It strikes at the very root of the orderly society which the founding fathers of our Constitution dreamt of,” the bench added, upholding the conviction of Dara Singh and his accomplice Hembram. The CBI counsel had appealed that death be awarded to Singh because the murders warranted exemplary punishment.
Detailing the crime and upholding Singh’s conviction, the Court observed: “All the ocular witnesses have testified that after setting fire to vehicles and burning Graham Staines and his two sons alive, the miscreants raised slogans ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’ and ‘Dara Singh Zindabad’.” It also took note of the fact that Staines and his sons tried to escape the burning van. The mob prevented them, and a father and his two children watched each other burn alive. Those who had set them on fire showed no mercy. The Court ruled that murder was committed; it upheld Dara Singh’s conviction, yet stopped short of ruling that the dastardly triple murder qualifies as a ‘rarest of rare case’.
The Court has tried to set the record straight suo motu by removing the reference to religious conversion as a cause for the crime not being among rarest of rare cases. Yet, it still leaves doubts unaddressed about what ‘rarest of rare’ murders means. If burning three people, including two children, alive and watching them die does not, then what does?