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India Today issue dt September 20, 1999
Sept 20, 1999

Elections 99

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DARA SINGH
In the Land of Dara

Special Correspondent Ruben Banerjee spent a harrowing three days deep inside Mayurbhuj on the Dara Singh trail trying to understand why a fanatical murderer is being defied by the tribals.

At the best of times, Jamuboni isn't easy to reach. Nestling at the foothills of Simlipal amid dense sal and sesam forests, this scattered tribal hamlet tucked deep inside the wilderness of Orissa is at least 18 km from the last roadhead. A country boat first ferries you across a choppy, stomach-churning Salindi river. Then begins an arduous five-hour trek over unrelenting hillocks and hill streams in full spate. Muddy, soaked and exhausted, communion with nature is the last thing on my mind.

Gory Battle ground: The killings of Father Arul Doss and Sheikh Rehman have reinforced fears that Chief minister Gamang is incapable of checking orissa's plunge towards religious bigotry.The posse of policemen who made it to Jamuboni before us is equally weary. If our trek was difficult, theirs had been positively treacherous. On hearing that a Roman Catholic priest had been killed and a church burnt in one of the most inaccessible parts of the Keonjhar-Mayurbhanj border, they had set out in the dead of night in blinding rain. Like us they too had slipped and fallen repeatedly to finally stagger into Jamuboni. But unlike us they couldn't think of resting. Ever since Father Arul Doss was murdered on the night of September 1 the police hasn't had a moment's rest.

POLITICAL FOOTBALL TIME

The BJP had blamed the Orissa Government for the killing of Graham Staines last February. In turn, the ruling Congress held the Sangh Parivar responsible for the incident. A month later, the controversy has resurfaced and become an election issue.
Orissa Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang stirred a hornets' nest by suggesting that the Arul Doss murder was a direct consequence of the Wadhwa report. Party spokesman Kapil Sibal followed it up by repeating the charge that Dara was an RSS activist. The BJP retaliated by charging Gamang with undermining the judiciary. In Orissa, the controversy has taken a curious turn with the church demanding action against state Home Secretary A.K. Tripathy who criticised Catholic priests for "creating social tension" through conversions. The fugitive may be gloating that he is dictating the political agenda.

Rations exhausted, sleeping in the open and surviving only on maize and boiled green bananas, the police is learning the rules of the jungle. "This is worse than Kargil," said a tired constable of the Orissa Armed Police's 7th Battalion. There is no frontal war being fought. Only a tense vigil in search of a hidden enemy. In February, when Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two young sons were torched to death in Manoharpur village of Keonjhar district, it seemed like a horrible aberration. Now two successive killings in the same district in a week -- first of a Muslim trader Sheikh Rehman in Padiabeda and then of Father Doss in Jamuboni -- have reinforced the worst fear that poverty-ridden Orissa, besides being steeped in hunger, illiteracy and epidemics, is also firmly in the grip of religious bigots.

Even the 35-year-old Father Doss, a Tamil priest working with the Balasore Roman Catholic Church, was wrong. "Arul" in Tamil means blessed, and Father Doss believed he was. Since coming to Orissa, he had traversed miles to reach out to the largely illiterate tribals in the state's most inaccessible parts. There he tried to kindle hope, by holding their hands, patting them on the back, dispensing basic medicine and reading from the Bible. As a practising priest, he had learnt to love everyone. He expected others to love him as well.

His confidence was misplaced. As he slept inside a makeshift church, having arrived earlier in the day from his home in Sidhuria in Keonjhar, the hatred sweeping the region caught up with him. Assailants lurking in the adjacent forests stepped out after midnight. After chasing away a group of young revellers celebrating a festival, they set the church on fire. Then they went for Doss. As the priest attempted to flee, an arrow pierced his chest. Bleeding profusely, Doss ran a few paces and collapsed at the foot of a coconut tree.

It was only after two days that his lifeless body was retrieved and laid to rest. With him was also buried all hope of different communities in Orissa living together in friendship. The gutted church, with a poster of Jesus burnt around the edges still adorning a charred wall, is a cruel reminder of how things have gone wrong. The flames from the burning church have long been doused by the rains. But the anger persists. As Orissa's Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang arrived at Doss' funeral, he was heckled, booed and jostled. Then followed a game of political football between the Congress and the BJP over who was responsible. And whether or not the Bajrang Dal was involved.

It's truly a curious feeling wandering around the vast expanse along the Keonjhar-Mayurbhanj border. Behind the tinted windows of our Tata Sumo, we only get to see nondescript hamlets and faceless people, their lives in obscurity. Karanjia is a small subdivisional headquarter in Mayurbhanj with a population of just around 15,000, one cinema hall and no eateries worth the name. Thakurmunda, around 30 km away, is even smaller, boasting one badly maintained, waterlogged thoroughfare.

Like much of the rest of rural Orissa, the Keonjhar-Mayurbhanj outback is poor and underdeveloped. Block officials had last visited Jamuboni during the Pulse Polio vaccination drive early this year. Their monthly salary didn't justify the back-breaking return visits. It's a daunting tract. But just the type of place that appeals to missionaries out to secure the faith. A fertile ground for spreading the Good Word and extending small mercies among the tribals. A fertile ground equally for the sinister Dara Singh to play defender of the faith.

Charged by the Wadhwa Commission for organising the murder of the Staines and identified as an assailant of Rehman, Dara is now the prime suspect in the Doss killing. But despite the massive manhunt and a Rs 8 lakh price on his head, apprehending Dara is not going to be easy. "Searching for Dara is like searching for a needle in a haystack," admits an exasperated policeman.

On a rainy, windswept night last week we found that out too. Accompanying a police party on Dara's trail, we reached his supposed hideout, a tiny settlement on the banks of river Tel. Since surprise was essential, the police approached the village furtively. But no matter how hard the raiding party tried to tiptoe through the slush, there was no way the stillness of the night could muffle the thud of boots. By the time the village was encircled, there was no trace of Dara.

It's the police's misfortune that the terrain is tailor-made for concealment. There are forests and more forests on the faceless slopes of the undulating hills, and plugging the entire 250-km stretch is next to impossible. Monsoon rain makes the going tougher. The police have secured reinforcements -- at least 900 more men and fast-moving vehicles, with night-vision goggles and ultra-modern binoculars that can single out a man in the darkness. Yet, the force, led by a specially designated inspector-general, continues to grope in the dark. The police stations in the region are inadequately manned and hopelessly ill- equipped. Besides, the hunters are strangers to the jungle. By contrast, Dara knows the region intimately. The raids begin at dawn and continue well into the night. But it's been in vain and the strains are showing. Even Bhanu the sniffer dog has been laid low by a bout of amoebic dysentery.

Returning from the abortive raid at daybreak, we came across Pradeep Kapoor, the sp of Mayurbhanj, who too has returned from another futile raid. His eyes are bloodshot due to lack of sleep. "We can only sleep when we get Dara," he declares. "That we are trying is no comfort. We must get him." How long can Dara continue to hold the state to ransom? "He cannot stay out of our reach for long," maintains IGP Amarananda Patnaik. It's the entire state against a single man.

However, Dara's comfort is not merely the terrain but the tribal people too. Ever since he moved from Uttar Pradesh to Orissa about 10 years ago to spread his brand of fanaticism, Dara has pursued his goal. He began by changing his name from Rabindra Pal Singh to Dara Singh, after the legendary wrestler-turned-film-star, in order to project a tough-guy image. When he targeted Muslim traders supplying cattle to the slaughter houses, he made it a point to distribute the freed animals among the locals. A man of spartan habits -- his only known indulgence is the locally brewed handia and, occasionally, the company of a middle-aged tribal lady -- Dara would drop in at village homes for a quick meal. In return, he would always insist on performing chores, like tilling the land, for his host.

Over time the legend has grown. The tribals are in awe and have found in him a romantic hero. "It's possible that Dara is being viewed as an emotional means for escaping from their mundane lives," believes Rita Ray, professor of sociology at Utkal University. The bumpy road from Chaibeda to Manoharpur -- the place where the Staines were killed -- is locally called the Dara Singh road. A shoddily printed booklet Mono Ku Chhui Gola (He has touched our hearts) eulogises him as a modern-day Tarzan who plays with elephants and rides tigers. The failure of the police to arrest him has only enhanced his cult status. Local inhabitants whisper about his tantric powers to know in advance about police raids. And about how he can change into a snake at will and slither away. The longer Dara evades arrest, the more he becomes a cult figure.

Such beliefs correspond to legends of tribal heroes. "In a region from where sanity has been driven out, anything and everything goes," explains Dushashan Tripathy, a local contractor. However gruesome his crimes, a substantial section of tribals has deified Dara. "It certainly has something to do with their desperation," explains a district official. With zero industry, no jobs and no hope, the locals perceive themselves as the oppressed. The current impasse is therefore the victory of the underdog over the state. No wonder the police encountered fierce local resistance in Purnapani last Tuesday when it arrested Raju Mahanta, said to be an associate of Dara. A local bandh was also called against the police action.

Thus Dara is sheltered and harboured. Making matters easier for him has been the ferment in the tribal community. Comprising as much as 60 per cent of the region's population, tribes like Santhals, Kulhos, Mundaris and Sabars covet their traditions and customs. Conversions to Christianity, with the neo-converts refusing to abide by age-old customs, have angered the tribes. An instance is the festival of Rojo -- a period when the earth is supposed to be menstruating -- during which cultivation is prohibited. Neo-converts, reluctant to abide by such beliefs, continue to till their land during the festival, thereby inviting the wrath of the tribal community. It's the old "deculturalisation" controversy being played out in a different garb.

The chasm is evident in Sindhuria, the village that was home to Doss for the past few years. Grief hangs heavy over the small church as Christians gather on a Sunday morning to condole his death. But not far away, the village is swinging to the festive mood of Guru Diwas, a local Hindu festival, with joyous children stopping passing vehicles to extract donations. On the day of Doss' murder, Jamuboni's small Christian community -- only 15 of the village's 70 families had converted -- had been celebrating Nuakhai, a harvest festival well in advance of the tribal calendar. Retribution was tragically savage.

In distant Delhi, the debate on Dara has acquired a rarefied political dimension. Was the Wadhwa Commission right in suggesting that there "is no evidence that any authority or organisation was behind the gruesome killings" of the Staines'? Is Dara a loner, a self-appointed loose cannon flaunting a Hindu label? Or is he a closet extension of the Bajrang Dal?

Viewed from the jungles of Mayurbhanj, Dara appears a curious but fanatically dangerous oddball. His band is small -- not more than 12 at the most -- but he draws sustenance from the locals. With their help, he has struck repeatedly. He targeted Staines to scare away all foreign missionaries from the region. Doss was killed to check the influx of preachers from south India. In between, Rehman was killed to create terror among the minorities. Dark parallels are being drawn with Veerappan, but Dara is not a patch on the sandalwood smuggler. While Veerappan's gang is armed, has expertise in explosives and maintains links with the PWG and LTTE, Dara fights with bows, arrows, axes and sickles.

Doing our round of the Keonjhar-Mayurbhanj border, we see fresh police posts set up even in the interiors. Linked by wireless, information is being relayed faster and the police are quicker in reaching places on raids. The trick to getting Dara lies in a prompt response, and already response time has been halved. "We are closing in fast," says a police official before charging off to another raid. "With little luck, we are going to get Dara soon." The entire nation is praying for that to happen. Before he strikes again. Sours India's name in the world and vitiates the atmosphere. This time well beyond the backwoods of Mayurbhanj.

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