It is indeed a dark time when a death sentence comforts most. In the nearly five years which took the police and the courts to sentence Ravindra Kumar Pal, alias Dara Singh, to death, this petty criminal from Uttar Pradesh had come to stand for a brutality of almost unspeakable proportions. Dara Singh — and 12 others now sentenced to life imprisonment — had deliberately set fire, in 1999, to the vehicle in which the Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two children were sleeping. They then made sure that all three were burnt alive. Dara Singh is also accused of murdering a Catholic priest and a Muslim trader. This brutality is openly inspired by Singh’s hatred for Muslims and Christians. Murdering the Staines was his way of protecting tribal Hindus in Orissa from forced conversion into Christianity by “foreign” missionaries. This irrational hatred ignored the fact that Staines’s Christian mission, since 1965, was not to convert but to work in a local leprosy home.
What is particularly disturbing about Dara Singh’s career goes beyond his individual criminality. It resides in the fact that there is now a vibrantly popular context in India in which it is possible — by a sort of monstrous pseudo-logic — to condemn Singh’s “acts” while glorifying his ideological “convictions”. Apart from the murders, Dara Singh’s other credentials rested on his freeing cows that were being taken for slaughter, and robbing or beating up their transporters, usually from the minority community. Thus two laudable causes — preventing cow-slaughter and the spread of Christianity — had become part of the Dara Singh legend, particularly among the Kurmi Mahantas of Orissa. There is now even a Dara Sena which threatens to disrupt life in the area after the court sentence. But this apparently subaltern following was endorsed by the political powers in the region. The sangh parivar extremists (the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad), although cleared from complicity by the Wadhwa commission, have officially condemned the murders, while simultaneously talking of them as a “reaction”, going on to note in the same breath that the “issue of unchecked conversions in the tribal areas needs to be addressed”. This “reaction” theory was subsequently crucial to the parivar’s “Gujarat experiment”. The most spectacular public endorsement of Dara Singh’s status as a beleaguered defender of the faith was when Messrs Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore and Praveen Togadia publicly handed over Rs 25,000 to Dara Singh’s mother in jail. A recent ordinance banning religious conversion in Tamil Nadu and the sudden cabinet decision to promulgate a bill banning cow-slaughter point up the resonances between Dara Singh’s convictions and the values covertly upheld by the Indian state.
Dara Singh’s judge believes that “humanity is not yet fully civilized”. The Gujarat genocide has shown how Dara Singh could suddenly become a collective phenomenon in India. His death sentence makes it possible to hope for justice in the face of that brutal fact.