Dara Singh's luck has not run out. Even now, it seems. If the country's most dreaded fugitive managed to elude the police for over a year in Orissa's Manoharpur forests, he is proving to be equally slippery while cooling off in Baripada jail. This, largely because of the lower judiciary who have for some reason or other refused to hand him over to the CBI for interrogation in the Staines killing. Having revelled in the pre-poll arrest on January 31 this year, the police and CBI are painfully realising that Dara has unexpected backers in the most unexpected quarters. "It is absolutely frustrating. It seems as if there are vested interests at play to ensure that Dara is not questioned," says a top CBI official involved in the investigations.
Having been given the run around for nearly one and a half months, the CBI has finally moved the Orissa High Court this week seeking his production. In a hard-hitting application before the court, the CBI has "assailed the inaction and refusal" of the Baripada sessions judge, M.C. Rath, and the sub-divisional judicial magistrate (SDJM), Pramod Kumar Jena, in Karanjia. The nine-page application addressed to the chief justice, B.N. Aggarwal, mentions that the subordinate courts' refusal to hand him over was "illegal, unreasonable and comes because of non-application of mind". "We are keeping our fingers crossed, hoping Dara will be with us soon," says CBI counsel K. Sudhakar.
Rabindra Pal Singh-better known to the outside world as Dara Singh-is wanted by the CBI for allegedly leading a mob that torched the Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, at Manoharpur village on January 22 last year. In its chargesheet, submitted in June 1999, 18 persons including Dara Singh have been named. "His presence is absolutely vital to reveal the conspiracy and events that led to the brutal killing," says Sudhakar. More importantly, the CBI is keen to establish his reported links with the VHP or the Bajrang Dal or even the BJP.
While the Staines killing is undoubtedly the focus of attention, Dara Singh is also wanted by the state police for 12 other cases registered against him. This includes the sensational murder of a Roman Catholic priest, Father Arul Doss, in Jambani and the slaying of a Muslim trader, S.K. Rehman, in Padiabeda. Rehman was allegedly chased and attacked by Dara in a bustling local market. His hands were chopped off with a cleaver before he was set ablaze in full view of the villagers who had come to the weekly bazaar.
Even here, the state police was led through the judiciary's technical maze and it ultimately managed to secure his presence for a mere three days on the high court's intervention. Says the additional director general (crime), Janardhan Singh, "The high court has vindicated our stand that interrogation in police custody is necessary." He, however, felt that granting Dara police custody for only three days would not be in accordance with earlier Supreme Court judgements. Inspector general (law and order) A. Patnaik, who headed the special task force, feels Jena's stand was a "disputed area".
The CBI's travails began soon after a production warrant was issued by the designate court of R.C. Sahu on February 2 in Bhubaneshwar. "He was to be produced three days later," says a CBI officer. Realising the gravity of the case and the "international ramifications", the CBI was certain that Dara would be in their custody.
But SDJM Jena rejected the petition on the grounds that since other cases were pending against Dara, sparing him for the CBI could hamper the investigations. Sudhakar claims the appeal was turned down in a fit of "judicial pique".
Left with little option, the CBI went through the drill again. On February 19, the CBI designate court issued another production warrant, returnable on February 29. But Jena went on leave and his substitute, P. Sanu, preferred not to pronounce a verdict. "By the time Jena returned from leave on March 1, the warrant had expired," says an official.
Yet again, a third production warrant was issued by Sahu, valid till March 15 this time. The copy of the warrant was served on the superintendent of Baripada jail as well as before the SDJM, with fresh documents. However, Jena ruled that permission to release Dara into CBI custody would need the approval from the sessions judge in Baripada. "We had to rush there from Karanjia which is a good four hours," says an official. But when the CBI applied before the district and sessions judge Rath, he set the date for hearing on March 16, a day after the expiry of the warrant.
Senior officials in the investigating agency are veering around to the view that the lower courts have been taking shelter in technicalities to protect Dara and consequently delay the CBI probe. "It is clear that feeling for Dara Singh and what he stands for runs high in several quarters, including the judiciary," says a CBI official.
This has been evidenced by the large-scale circulation of a 16-page pamphlet, Mu Dara Singh Kahucchi (I am Dara Singh speaking), in the Keonjhar-Mayurbhanj belt. Glorifying the acts of Dara, this pamphlet has been doing the rounds and is available easily. "It was brought out shortly after his arrest and circulation was limited then. But now it is everywhere," says a police official. It propagates Dara's views and literally justifies his crimes as well.
The main challenge now before the CBI and the police is to prove Dara's guilt in a court of law. Given the nature of evidence against the accused, the CBI is confident that it will be able to secure a conviction. "But first of all, let us question the man which is absolutely vital," says a senior CBI official.
While on the run, Dara seemed to have the popular backing of the milieu that he worked in. The nation has yet to shake off that ghastly incident on the night of January 22. Ironically, a year down the line, he seems to be enjoying a similar scale of patronage. That too in jail.