Hate-mongering is hanging in the air; the language of animosity is gaining momentum; a stirring narrative on communal lines is spreading; the act of forgiveness is becoming a rarity. With the general elections knocking on the door, the atmosphere is getting vitiated day by day. There was no better time for the release of the film The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story than these days of fanatics and politicians spewing communal venom.
It is 20 years since the burning alive of Graham Staines and his sons Timothy and Phillip took place in Manoharpur village of Odisha. The gruesome act was committed by a fanatically motivated mob, led by Dara Singh, a self-confessed radical right-wing activist belonging to Bajrang Dal. They had poured gasoline on the vehicle in which the hapless three were sleeping before setting it afire in the early hours of January 23, 1999. Times have worsened with right wing forces unleashing a reign of terror on certain sections of society. It has become all the more necessary to sow the seeds of peace and harmony.
The film brings out the brutal and barbaric repercussions of hate crime. It helps to remove many cobwebs of doubts about the real works of missionaries. The storyline weaves around a journalist’s investigation into the work of Graham Staines among leprosy patients and allegations of his illegal proselytization leading to the gruesome death of the three. The sceptic journalist, who wants to impress upon his editor, works along the belief perpetuated by Sangh Parivar activists that missionaries use social work as a ruse to illegally convert people into Christianity. In the end, despite pressure to pin down Staines on the charge of illegal conversions, the journalist gives a clean chit to the missionary. He comes out -- at a great cost as a character in the film says -- as a hero who wins hearts by love and compassion. The film tells the world that the missionary was not converting Hindus to Christianity. But, yes, “He converted. For 35 years, he converted lepers to human beings”.
Equally important is the message of forgiveness one learns, with moist eyes, from Gladys Staines. She tells that she had forgiven the murderers and holds nothing against them. No ordinary woman can say “iForgive” after her husband and two sons had been done to death in the most barbaric way. But Gladys did exactly that. At a time when the country witnesses intolerance in religious, political and cultural realms, the film, which has bagged ratings of three to four stars by reviewers, should open the eyes of hate-mongers. They should learn a lesson or two from the Staines.
The celluloid portrayal of the saga of Staines sends out the message of futility of pitting one religion against another. It depicts the dangers of misrepresenting facts. It has helped to unravel some of the untruths tossed around as truths by right wing propagandists. It throws more light into one of the darkest days of post-independence India which former President K. R. Narayanan described as a “monumental aberration of time-tested tolerance and harmony and belong to the world’s inventory of black deeds.”(Published on 8th April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 15)