The Supreme Court on Friday upheld an Orissa High Court judgment that commuted the death sentence a trial court awarded to Dara Singh to life term. He burnt to death Australian Christian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his minor sons Philip Staines and Timothy Staines on the night of January 22, 1999 at Manoharpur.
Dismissing the Central Bureau of Investigation's plea to enhance the life sentence, a Bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and B.S. Chauhan held that this was not one of the rarest of rare cases in which the death sentence should be awarded to the accused.
The Bench dismissed Dara Singh's appeal also against the life sentence, and confirmed the High Court judgment awarding life term to co-accused Mahendra Hembram and acquitting 11 others for want of evidence.
Writing the judgment, Justice Sathasivam said: “It is clear from various earlier decisions that on conviction under Section 302 of the IPC, the normal rule is to award the punishment of life imprisonment, and the punishment of death should be resorted to only in the rarest of rare cases. In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity. All these aspects have been correctly appreciated by the High Court, which modified the sentence of death to life imprisonment, with which we concur.”
Expressing anguish at intolerance of other religions, the Bench said: “In a country like ours, where discrimination on the grounds of caste or religion is taboo, taking the lives of persons belonging to another caste or religion is bound to have a dangerous and reactive effect on society at large. It strikes at the very root of the orderly society which the founding fathers of our Constitution dreamt of. Our concept of secularism is that the state will have no religion. The state shall treat all religions and religious groups equally and with equal respect, without, in any manner, interfering on their individual right of religion, faith and worship.”
The Bench noted: “The then President of India, Shri K.R. Narayanan, once said in his address that ‘Indian unity was based on a tradition of tolerance, which is at once a pragmatic concept for living together and a philosophical concept of finding truth and goodness in every religion'.”
The Bench hoped that Mahatma Gandhi's vision of religion playing a positive role in bringing the numerous religions and communities into an integrated prosperous nation could be realised by way of equal respect for all religions.
At the same time, it said: “It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone's belief by way of ‘use of force,' provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other.”
“The analysis of the entire materials clearly shows that the High Court is right in arriving at its conclusion. In the case on hand, there is no material to prove the conspiracy charge against any of the accused,” it said.
Noting the weaknesses and infirmities of the prosecution case insofar as the acquitted accused — all poor tribals — were concerned, the Bench said: “In the absence of a definite assertion from the prosecution side of their specific role and involvement, as rightly observed by the High Court, it is not safe to convict them.”