The new minister, Pratap Chandra Sarangi, has become an unlikely social media hit in India 

On January 25, 1999 Australian Christian missionary 58-year-old Graham Staines and his two young sons, 10-year-old Philip and 8-year-old Timothy were burned alive by a mob of right-wing Hindus while they were sleeping in his jeep.

A film inspired by these events, The Least of These, stars Stephen Baldwin, who also appeared in Born on the Fourth of July and in The Usual Suspects, and Indian actor Sharman Joshi, has just been released. It seems to do a good job of portraying the selflessness and generosity of Staines. However, it’s also a bit weak on the political background – which needs to be told.   

A few weeks ago Pratap Chandra Sarangi, assumed office in the Modi government as Minister of State for Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. Dressed in white cotton traditional kurta-pyjamas and sporting his typical unkempt hair and beard, 64-year-old Sarangi walked on stage to take his oath of office and secrecy amidst a thunderous applause.

Sarangi had become a social media hero as pictures of him leaving his mud and bamboo house thatched house went viral. In a country where politicians wear power and privilege on their sleeves, Sarangi is an anomaly.

Despite being elected twice to the legislative assembly in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, he continues to live a simple life, riding his bicycle to commute and eating at roadside stalls. Stories of his life and rise started trending soon after his choice as a minister became known. Some called him Odisha’s Modi, comparing his austere life to that of Prime Minister Modi’s humble origins.  

Sarangi originally had his heart set on becoming a sanyasi (monk) and went to the Ramakrishna Mutt in Calcutta. However, because his widowed mother was alive, they insisted that he return home to serve her. It is then that he got involved in social services and eventually into politics. Calling himself as the foot-soldier of Prime Minister Modi, Sarangi attributed his success to “commitment, integrity and simplicity.”

Like Modi, Sarangi has a chequered past. Along with pictures of his modest dwelling came news of his alleged involvement in the Staines killing.

Staines had been in Odisha since 1965 as part of an evangelical missionary organization, working among leprosy patients and poor tribals. With his wife Gladys he ran a free hospital. Radical Hindu groups in the region alleged that Staines had forcibly converted many tribals into the Christian faith.

There was a global uproar following his gruesome murder. Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said: “Mr Staines devoted his life to serving others, and it is unconscionable that he and his sons should have been killed in this way.” Then-Prime Minister Vajpayee called for swift action to catch the killers.

Recalling that fateful night, Gladys said, “My husband and sons tried to get out of the burning vehicle … but were prevented by the attackers. More than 100 people attacked the car when they were fast asleep.” Although denying that her husband was involved in conversions, she accepted that her husband faced strong opposition from some locals for his religious and social work. She also added: “I am terribly upset, but not angry. My husband loved Jesus Christ who has taught us to forgive our enemies.”   

Crowds involved in the killing were heard chanting slogans like “Bajrang Dal Zindabad!” (Long live Bajrang Dal) the finger of suspicion pointed to Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu group. Sarangi was the Odisha head of the Bajrang Dal at the time and had repeatedly spoken against what he terms as the “evil designs” of Christian missionaries “bent on converting the whole of India.”

A couple of weeks after the murders, in an interview given to The Rediff, Sarangi blamed Christian missionaries for spreading falsehoods about the Hindu religion and termed their social service as a myth. But he condemned the murders and denied that his organization was involved.   

After a long trial, Dara Singh, who was linked to the Bajrang Dal, and 12 others were found guilty in 2003. The High Court in Odisha commuted Singh’ death sentence two years later and freed 11 others who had been given life terms in prison, saying there was not enough evidence.

Despite denying any association with Dara Singh, Sarangi insisted that the investigation had not been done properly. “The investigation must start from scratch and take into account circumstantial evidence. But what is happening, in this case, is that the investigators have already decided that Dara Singh has committed this crime and he is a Bajrang Dal member,” Sarangi said in his interview.

Immediately after the incident, the then Vajpayee government Supreme Court Justice D.P. Wadhwa to inquire into the killings. He submitted his report in June 1999 and ruled out the involvement of any organization in the killings.

A 2003 report in Frontline magazine titled, “The Staines case verdict” highlights a glaring anomaly in the findings of the Wadhwa Commission. “The Commission had justified its non-examination of the role of the Bajrang Dal on the ground that it was not an illegal organization, suggesting thereby that legal organizations cannot plan and execute such awful crimes. It simply accepted the testimony of the State coordinator of the Bajrang Dal, Pratap Chandra Sarangi, in which he denied any Bajrang Dal role in the killings, without cross-examining him.”

Following the death of her husband and sons, Gladys carried on until 2004 when she returned home to Australia. In 2005, the Indian government awarded her the Padma Shree, the fourth highest civilian honour, in recognition for her work in Odisha. In 2016, she was also awarded the Mother Teresa Memorial International Award for Social Justice.

Meantime, Sarangi worked his way up the political ladder as a Hindu right-wing leader and social worker. He is credited with having started many Ekal Vidyalayas, single-teacher village primary schools, in Odisha. A firebrand leader and orator, he has been at the forefront of campaigns against liquor, corruption, social injustice, police action, along with promoting Hindu nationalism.

In March 2002 Sarangi was arrested along with 66 others on charges of rioting, arson, assault and damaging government property after a 500-strong mob of activists stormed the Odisha Assembly building. The protesters were demanding the construction of a Hindu temple. But he was still elected to the Odisha Legislative Assembly in 2004 and 2009. In 2014 he unsuccessfully contested the national elections. But earlier this year Sarangi won in a tight three-way contest against two rich and high-profile candidates.

Speaking recently to The Telegraph after assuming his duties as a minister, Sarangi has again denied any link to the Staines murder. “I was not involved in any way in the case. The allegations (being made now) are false and fabricated,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. Despite the applause, he received at the oath-taking ceremony for the simplicity of his life, and the vehement denials he has offered, Sarangi’s suspicious role in the gruesome killing of Staines and his sons will continue to define India’s deep religious divide.  

Sunny Peter is a writer and freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

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Sunny Peter is a writer and freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. He writes on international affairs, diplomacy, terrorism, ethnicity, social integration, religion and culture. His articles have...