THIS is the story of a manhunt. Dara Singh, the prime accused in the Man-oharpur killings, is one of the most wanted men in the country today. The CBI, which took over the case in February, the Orissa Crime Branch and the state police have launched a search for the elusive killer who carries a reward of Rs 1 lakh on his head. After the gruesome murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons, Dara has gone into hiding and despite all efforts, the police have failed to nab him. This despite four squads being specially constituted to comb the area where Dara has his hideout.
However, the surfacing of a video interview of Dara by a local freelance journalist, Binay Bhusan Patnaik, has blown apart the facade of a probe and caught the investigating agencies and the government on the wrong foot. The three-minute interview, in which he defends himself, is a stint in PR by the wanted man. But it has succeeded in fielding more posers than finding answers.
Patnaik claims he came across Dara on March 12 while shooting a video film on the elephant menace in the adjacent Judia hills. Dara accosted him and agreed to the interview after he was convinced of the "good intentions" of the video journalist. The conversation convinced Patnaik that Dara was innocent and "could never burn any child alive". Dara comes across as an "emotional" person being unjustly hounded by the police and the media.
Whether Dara is a Robin Hood or a criminal is not the point. It is clear that he has friends in the right places and that there is an effort to whitewash him. Dara has sent feelers for surrender, admits director-general of Orissa Police, Dilip Mohapatra. A few days ago, he is believed to have approached Keonjhar district magistrate Saurav Garg through an intermediary, Sushil Agarwal. Dara was reportedly told to come a few days later as the administration was "busy". Garg is tight-lipped about the incident.
Patnaik says Dara is willing to surrender before the Wadhwa Commission, instituted to probe the Staines murder. He feels the judge will do him justice and clear his name. If Dara's whereabouts are known and he is negotiating for surrender, what are the police and the CBI doing about it? Not much, it seems. Minister of state for Home Prasad Harichandan told the Orissa House that Dara had several close shaves, the last being on March 1 when his belongings were seized.
Sources say the police have been soft-pedalling the case. For one, police officials are bitter that of the 53 people arrested, 45 have been released by the High Court. They are also stumped by the local support for Dara, who is reportedly accompanied by armed supporters. Patnaik claims around 50 people carrying automatic weapons were with Dara during the interview.
The government claims there is no evidence to prove that the person in the cassette is Dara. But over a week after the interview, there has been no attempt by the police or the CBI to quiz Patnaik. He has not been asked to hand over the cassette. Patnaik, who works as a stringer for Bhuba-neshwar-based media agency Associated Media Foundation, submitted the tape to the agency, which passed it on to Star TV.
Meanwhile, Patnaik has taken strong exception to Independent MLA Arun Dey's demand for his arrest. "Neither am I absconding from the law, nor have I refused to disclose information. On what grounds can they arrest me?" he asks. Reacting to reports of a warrant for his arrest, the Keonjhar Press Council has issued a statement against attempts to intimidate media persons. "They are punishing us for doing what they have failed to do," adds Patnaik.
BJP spokesman Shyamanda Mohapatra blames the Congress for the bungling. He said in Bhubaneswar, "We are not making a case for anyone but the government is in a fix because of a politically motivated probe." He feels the police got off on the wrong foot when they gave the killings a political flavour. "It was an attempt to divert attention from the Anjana Mishra row which was at its height." This, he says, is evident from the fact that 45 people were picked up on suspicion of being associated with the Bajrang Dal. They included students and teachers of Sishu Mandir.
But Congress spokesman Kailash Acharya denies the charge. "It was plain ineptness of the police", he says and ticks off the CBI. "They have not even looked up the case records of Dara till date." Much to the government's discomfiture, BJD legislator Bijay Mohapatra added fat to the fire when he announced in the House that he had proof that Dara had recently stayed under a false name in the state guest house at Bhubaneswar. While the political parties and investigating agencies trade charges, the real culprit sits safely ensconced in his hideout like Orissa's own Veerappan. It seems it will be a long time before the spirit of the murdered Staines is laid to rest.