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Scare stalks Staines spot

Manoharpur, Sept. 24: Pastor Timothy Murmu looks warily at his Hindu neighbours as he unmindfully waves a stick at the herd of cows near his house in Manoharpur village.

Since Monday, when a designated CBI court sentenced Dara Singh to death and 12 others to life imprisonment for the Staines killings, the pastor of Manoharpur church has been a worried man.

A shroud of fear and uneasy calm has enveloped this sleepy outback, where Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burnt alive as they slept in their station wagon in January 1999.

With the judgment cleaving the 200-odd households in the village on religious lines, Christians like Timothy are feeling the heat of the anger brewing in the 170 Hindu families.

“We feel threatened despite police presence,” said Murmu. “We have heard that the supporters of Dara Sena may attack us. We feel that the families of the convicts are holding us responsible for the incarceration of their near and dear ones.”

Although two sections of Orissa police, armed with gun and sticks, guard the Manoharpur church and the Christian homes, the undercurrent of sympathy among the Hindu families for death-row convict Dara Singh and four village youths sentenced to life has been giving Timothy and other Christians sleepless nights.

“Dara should not be hanged. My brother should be released because he is innocent,” said Devraj Hembram, a cousin of 30-year-old Renta Hembram.

Renta’s brothers, sister-in-law and other family members have found it hard to accept the order, which they heard on radio.

Jhani Hembram, whose son Mahendra was also sentenced, is bewildered and angry. Trying hard to make both ends meet on her meagre earnings from sewing sal leaves foraged from a nearby forest into plates, Jhani, who has two grown-up daughters, pleads: “Please release my son.”

Other tribals like Ratan Majhi agree that gross injustice has been done to the village boys and Dara.

In the area of the village where 14 of the 28 Christian families live, the fear is palpable. Though 22 policemen have been stationed near the church where the Staines were burnt, the minority community is hardly reassured. The Christians look the other way and act like they have not heard of the judgment or Dara Singh.

With no electricity in the village, even the policemen confess they can do little if Hindu tribals attack with bows and arrows. “The lantern is our only source of light in the night. Even if I bark at the high-frequency set for help, reinforcements from Anandapur police station would take hours to arrive,” said a policeman. The current police deployments in the village and nearby areas will continue only till the end of this month, they said.

Police officials said that after the massacre in 1999, there have been no conversions among the tribals. Though about 100 people from the village and nearby areas attend the Sunday mass at the Manoharpur church, the tension is evident.

The annual jungle camps are held at the church without the usual fervour. “Earlier, we used to visit the jungle camps in our village though we had not converted. But after 1999, we don’t even look at that way,” said Majhi.

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