| (From left) Mother, sister and wife of an accused, Mahendra in Manoharpur. Picture by Sanjaib Mukherjee
Manoharpur, Sept. 14: As Manoharpur gears up for tomorrow’s court verdict in the Graham Staines murder case, its people’s verdict appears heavily tilted in favour of the 15 accused.
“He is such an innocent boy that we could never think of his involvement in the case. He was interested in studies,” says Bhaguna Hembram, elder brother of Renta, a 25-year-old accused who is a Santhal.
His sister-in-law echoes the opinion of the families of the other accused. “He (Renta) has been framed by the CBI. The judge will acquit him,” she said.
Of the accused on trial, three are from this dustbowl of Manoharpur — Renta, Ojen Hansdah and Mahendra Hembram.
As India awaits the verdict on the burning of the Australian missionary and his two minor sons on the night of January 22, 1999, Mahendra’s mother is sure her son never committed the crime. She wants him back home as she can barely fend for her two daughters by sewing plates of sal leaf. Sister Gulapi said: “Where will we go if my brother is not acquitted' The judge has to acquit him.”
Like Mahendra’s family, most other poor tribals in this village would not hear of the conviction of Chenchu Hansdah, another local boy and accused. He has already been sentenced to a juvenile jail in Berhampur.
Ojen’s three daughters and a son are eagerly awaiting his return. “Ojen will come back tomorrow,” his sister Champa said.
The undercurrent of sympathy is more pronounced for Dara Singh, the main accused who appears to have achieved cult status among the tribals.
Life in this village in Keonjhar district appears normal, but concealed are the murmurs of admiration for Dara, who is lodged in Choudwar jail along with Renta, Mahendra and Ojen.
“If Dara and the others are punished by the court, it would be sheer injustice,” farmer Ramesh Murmu said. “Some say that Dara has done it. But we have never seen him in our village.”
A few kilometres away at Panasdiha, Balaram Mahanta wants to see Dara set free as he had helped free cattle from slaughterhouses. Palei, another villager, said: “Though we have never seen him face-to-face, he seemed to be doing good work.”
In the contiguous Bhalughara village, residents say Dara used to drop in for a quick meal and insist on performing chores for the host such as ploughing the land.
The voices of dissent, among the neo-Christians of Manoharpur, are too few and feeble to be clearly heard. Damodar Majhi said: “How can you kill the kids' He (Dara) should not be spared.”
But Ramachandra Soren, anxious over a police team patrolling the murder site, said: “I have not heard about him.”