Supreme Court's remarks “gratuitous,” say editors, civil society members

Leading editors, media groups and civil society members from across the country have signed a statement taking strong exception to the Supreme Court's observation that the killers of Graham Staines and his two minor children intended to teach the Australian missionary a lesson for preaching and practising conversion.

While upholding the life sentence awarded to Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh for the 1999 killings, a Bench said on Friday: “In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while they were 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.”

The Bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and B.S. Chauhan went on to add: “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. It strikes at the very root of the orderly society, which the founding fathers of our Constitution dreamt of.”

Arguing that the remarks were “gratuitous,” “unconstitutional” and went against the “freedom of faith” guaranteed by the Constitution, the signatories asked that they be expunged. “Did the SC [Supreme Court] ever take into consideration the report of the Wadhwa Commission which was set up to probe the murder of Graham Staines and which had observed, ‘There has been no extraordinary increase in the Christian population in Keonjhar district between 1991 and 1998. The population had increased by 595 during this period and this could have been caused by natural growth'. The SC ruling may in fact send the wrong signals to courts trying cases of religious violence in Kandhamal, for instance, and in other places. It also tends to pre-empt possible challenges to the black laws enacted by many States in the guise of Freedom of Religion Bills.”

The signatories said the Supreme Court and other judicial forums were secular India's last hope to preserve constitutional guarantees given to religious minorities and other marginalised groups. “Judgments such as this one” and the Ayodhya verdict delivered by the Allahabad High Court were disturbing because they could be interpreted as “supporting the bigoted point of view of right wing fundamentalists such as the Sangh Parivar.”

Further, “the state cannot abrogate its responsibilities” towards preserving the secular fabric of the country. “We expect the government to ask the SC to expunge the unnecessary, uncalled for and unconstitutional remarks.”

The statement was signed, among others, by editorial representatives from The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, The Hindu, The Pioneer and The Telegraph, besides the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, N. Ram, the Editor-in Chief of The Pioneer, Chandan Mitra, and over 50 journalists from the States, including from Jammu and Kashmir.