He is being hailed by some as Odisha's Modi for his austere lifestyle. Others at the same time are deriding him as no better than an accomplice in a heinous murder that shook the nation's conscience way back in 1999.
The debate and divergent opinions on Pratap Sarangi, a newly elected MP from Odisha who has been inducted as a union minister by Prime minister Narendra Modi, exemplifies the divisive times we live in.
The divide over Sarangi is deep and vicious with social media particularly exploding with charges and counter-charges.
But, what is the truth? Is Sarangi a saint or Satan?
The first-time BJP MP, who was a legislator earlier in the Odisha assembly, is known to live a simple life and has often been photographed taking a roadside bath or cycling around. With a free-flowing beard and unkempt hair, many have judged him to be a hermit.
But ever since he became a minister, a sizeable section has come out to allege that he had a sinister past hidden behind his perceived simplicity. They say he led the RSS- linked Bajrang Dal in Odisha when the Australian missionary Graham Staines was burnt alive along with his two children Phillip and Timothy by a murderous mob in Manoharpur of Odisha's Mayurbhanj district in 1999. The obvious implication is that the mob belonged to Bajrang Dal and hence Sarangi was complicit in the killings.
I don't know Sarangi. But having spent years in Odisha, and having even reported extensively on the Staines' killings, I perhaps know a little bit more than many of those on both sides of the vicious argument over Sarangi.
The Staines were killed at the time of simmering religious tensions in Odisha's rural hinterland. While Staines and his wife Gladys ran a hospital for leprosy patients and enjoyed a huge following among the poor, many Hindus suspected them to be poisoning tribals and proselytising. A native of Uttar Pradesh, Dara Singh, was one of them. Having settled down in Odisha, he worked to prevent cow smuggling and conversions into Christianity. One night, he led a gang to attack the Staines' as they slept out in the open in their car. The three died a gruesome death.
Did Dara belong to the Bajrang Dal?
Though speculations have always swirled over his possible links to the saffron outfit from day one, no conclusive evidence has ever been found. In fact, Dara, who is now serving a life sentence in jail after being convicted of the killings, denied any links to Bajrang Dal in his only official interview that I had with him in jail months after he was nabbed following a massive manhunt.
In that interview published in India Today magazine, Dara flatly denied being a member of Bajrang Dal or any other outfit, insisting he was on his own to protect his religion. He, however, said one leader he looked up to was Bal Thackeray since he "always called a spade a spade".
So going by what Dara told me, he was what I would describe as a freelance religious fanatic.
So where does it leave Sarangi and his alleged involvement? Am not too sure. Though at that time we did talk in hushed voices about RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal expanding their footprint in Odisha's interiors, successive probes failed to establish their direct involvement.
Though in all probability the religious polarisation triggered by the killings helped the outfits to further grow in a state where they had little presence, the role of Bajrang Dal in the murders was at best ambivalent. No court ever found it guilty, but then the speculations over its involvement were also never conclusively quelled. The doubts have now come back to singe Sarangi exactly twenty years later.
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